THE next best thing to playing for Rangers for Lee McCulloch is cheering them on alongside his fellow supporters at Ibrox.

McCulloch savoured some of the most memorable moments of his life wearing a light blue jersey – he won the Premiership three years running and played in the UEFA Cup final during the eight seasons that he spent with his boyhood heroes.

The Hall of Fame inductee also helped the fallen Glasgow giants to achieve back-to-back promotions after they had dropped into the bottom tier of Scottish football following their financial implosion in 2012.

But these days the former Scotland internationalist is quite content to watch his boyhood heroes in action from the comfort of his seat in the stands.  

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“I don’t really miss playing,” he said. “I feel too stiff to even think about running about, never mind playing. But I love being at the games and I’ve been at them quite often this season. I love the atmosphere.”

McCulloch has noticed a tangible improvement in the mood of Rangers supporters since Philippe Clement succeeded Michael Beale as manager back in October.

They let James Tavernier and his team mates know in no uncertain terms what they thought about them in the league defeats they suffered at the hands of Kilmarnock, Celtic and Aberdeen in the opening months of the 2023/24 campaign. 

The Herald: But they stayed long after the final whistle and applauded Clement’s men following their narrow 1-0 defeat to Benfica in the second leg of a Europa League last 16 double header in Govan earlier this month.

McCulloch believes the close bond that now exists between the supporters and the players may well prove to be a deciding factor in what promises to be a tense run-in.

And the man who lifted the Premiership trophy twice after final day triumphs – at Tannadice in 2009 and Rugby Park in 2011 – expects the Scottish title run in to go right down to the wire once again.

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“When you’re playing at Ibrox you’re using the fans,” he said. “Going back to the start of the season, there was a little bit of disconnect from the pitch and the stands.

“Now, though, the players are using the stands and that can be to their advantage. I think that’s a positive. We’ll just see where they end up.”

McCulloch, who could play in defence, midfield and attack, was a hugely popular player when he was at Rangers.

He was, though, still on the receiving end of criticism and abuse from the Ibrox crowd when he failed to perform at his best. He was even booed during a draw with Falkirk in the Championship in 2015.

But he took it all in his considerable stride. He fully expects Cyriel Dessers, who has had something of a love-hate relationship with supporters since moving to Glasgow in a £4.5m transfer from Cremonese in Italy last summer, to do exactly the same thing.

The 29-year-old has been on target on no fewer than 16 occasions for Rangers in all competitions this season and is their second highest scorer behind skipper Tavernier.

But his miss in the second half of the loss to Benfica led many Bears to question, as they did during the first half of this term, if he has what it takes to lead the line for them. 

McCulloch is sure Dessers, who netted for Nigeria in a 2-1 friendly win over Ghana during the international break, has and would not be surprised if he pitches in with a few important goals in the nine remaining Premiership matches.

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“There’s always a lot of pressure playing for Rangers, whatever your position,” he said. “A striker, a goalie, especially when making mistakes. But it’s the nature of the beast. There’s no getting away from it.

The Herald: “Celtic’s exactly the same. You could pick three or four players in each of the Old Firm teams and say they’ve been under pressure this season. It’s part and parcel of playing at the big Glasgow clubs.”

McCulloch added: “Dessers is scoring goals. He’s scored a lot of goals this season. I think he’s done well, especially so at times in Europe. He’s big enough and good enough to cope with it.

“Any player can write their own story. A centre half can go and score the winner in both the Old Firm games in the last minute and become a hero. Any player can do that, write their own story. There’s a lot of football to be played, so there’s a chance for everybody.”

McCulloch has long been of the opinion that his fellow Hall of Fame member is a Rangers hero and his performances this season have simply backed up his view.

“I think James’s services to the club have been unbelievable,” he said. “A lot of people go on about his goals, which they should. But they are also quick to point out that it’s the other side of his game which is . . . whatever.

“But I think he’s been an outstanding servant for the club. I think he thoroughly deserves to have a place in the Hall of Fame. That’s where it ends for me. There’s no debate for me at all, just no debate. No argument whatsoever. Look at at the games he’s played and the goals he’s scored.”

Lee McCulloch is pleased that James Tavernier will be wearing the captain’s armband which he once donned with pride and will not be surprised if the right back, who led Rangers to their 55th Scottish title back in 2021, lays his hands on more silverware come May.

The Herald: