The clocks going back marking the end of British Summer Time is not normally a item that is associated with green shoots of optimism. Yet off the back of a 3-0 home win against Kilmarnock, Rangers fans were finally treated to a display that may make the onset of the darker nights a little more bearable, as they take home some positivity at last.
With the exclusion of an out of form Barrie McKay from the starting line-up and the long called for introduction of Michael O’Halloran, Rangers fans were treated to a display of pace and direct running that has been sorely missed thus far this season. O’Halloran’s raison d'être is to get to the by-line and deliver crosses into the box and he accomplished this to great effect. O’Halloran’s running gave a poor Kilmarnock team all sorts of problems - particularly in the first half - and the score line after 45 minutes could have been far more than just the two goals that separated the teams. Joe Garner in particular looks to be a player who can benefit from the consistent, quality service that O’Halloran can provide, as so far this season he has spent too many games with his back to goal.
In the centre of the park Josh Windass is also starting to find form and fitness and together with Halliday and Holt is forging a midfield trio that is full of energy, running and no little guile. Windass showed a real willingness and enthusiasm for getting on the ball and displayed a range of passing against Kilmarnock that was hitherto unsuspected, while laying on the perfect ball for Lee Wallace for the opening goal. Rangers have to keep taking their chances in this manner as the difference to matches when Rangers get the first goal in games cannot be over stated.
Defensively, Rangers are starting to look more solid than they have done recently and the introduction of Hill seems to have had a growing, positive effect on Rob Kiernan. It is worth remembering that Rob Kiernan is only 25 and has played for Rangers for the most part partnering Danny Wilson - who is a year younger. Having an experienced campaigner like Hill next to him can only be good for Kiernan's development and hopefully he can grow further into this demanding role. A clean sheet at home is exactly what the doctor ordered in that respect.
Even more good news was forthcoming from the fact that Mark Warburton could make substitutions and give some players who should be pushing for first team starts some much needed game time, without the game hanging in the balance. Martyn Waghorn, Joe Dodoo and Matt Crooks will no doubt all have big parts to play in the season ahead and the benefit of them getting time on the pitch when the game is already won can be nothing but good for these players and the squad as a whole.
At the managerial level, Mark Warburton finally seems to have a clearer idea of his best eleven and is getting nearer to a stable starting team that is match fit and can be trusted to deliver. "The first half, especially, was by far our best performance. It was a good 90 minutes' work," said Warburton. For once, nobody would disagree.
The onus is now on the team to build on this impressive display and consolidate the second place slot, with a view to start closing the gap on Celtic. While Rangers have now shown against Kilmarnock that they can provide an excellent level of entertaining football against an SPFL team that is on a par with that shown last season, only a consistent level of performance similar to this will help achieve these goals.
Rangers have shown they can do it. They now have to show they can do it regularly.
More questions than answers
Managers make mistakes, they are after all only human. It is the scale and number of mistakes Mark Warburton made in determining his team selection for the first Old Firm game of the season that had many shaking their heads in disbelief before a ball was even kicked.
With no compromising the established 4-3-3 attacking formation, five Rangers players were handed an old firm debut, including the entire midfield. Late signing Philippe Senderos was thrown in at the deep end to start his first competitive game in months. Nico Krancjar was handed a start when every available piece of evidence Rangers supporters have seen suggest that while he still has superb technique, his movement is limited and that he should not be starting games alongside Joey Barton. Up front, an out of form Barry McKay was favoured before Michael O’Halloran, a 36 year old Kenny Miller made the starting line-up and another debutant - Joe Garner - spearheaded the attack. The list of potential pitfalls with this team selection is embarrassingly long and did not need the benefit of hindsight as validation, because they were all too obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of football. Yet every single one of these decisions was made. This was a team set up to fail; and fail they inevitably did.
On the park, Josh Windass was a shining light of power and athleticism in an otherwise moribund midfield and Rangers are in sore need of more of this as the sharp passing, possession football and pressing game of last season appears to have all but disappeared. Why does Warburton suddenly prefer an older, slower player such as Joey Barton and Niko Krancjar over the energy that Andy Halliday and Harry Forrester bring to midfield? Judging by Saturdays team selection both Halliday and Forrester have now become 4th and 5th choices in midfield, yet even the most casual of observer must struggle to see what value Joey Barton brings to the team that Andy Halliday does not .
In defence, the same old frailties have once again raised their heads -a complete inability to defend corners and a lack of pace in the central areas - and these frailties were highlighted by the Celtic attack far to easily. Again, no hindsight is required here as these issues were apparent all throughout last season and the fact that this has not been addressed satisfactorily almost beggars’ belief. While Senderos may yet do a job for Rangers this season and it would be harsh to judge him on this single outing there remains the fact that Mark Warburton has not had one transfer window to address this issue, but two; yet Senderos has been the very definition of a last gasp, short term signing. Playing him against Celtic appeared to be more an hopeful act of desperation than an astute managerial move and that is simply not good enough at this level.
While many may vent their spleen at the boardroom for a perceived lack of funds, it should be pointed out that Warburton has bought a striker for £1.9 Million when Rangers have a number of strikers on the books, while completely overlooking the need to bring in higher quality in the centre of defence. At the very least this suggests a complete lack of the kind of good, old fashioned, footballing pragmatism that Walter Smith championed, at worst a blindness to the glaring deficiencies in his defence. As a result, it inevitably raises the question of whether or not Warburton has somewhat underestimated the scale of the task that confronts him in the top flight of Scottish football. His team selection on Saturday suggests that he fundamentally underestimated Celtic.
In his press conference midweek prior to the Celtic game Warburton had expressed the belief that he would not be given 3 years to get things right at Ibrox. He is probably correct in that belief. However, if it is time he is after then avoiding heavy, embarrassing defeats to your bitterest rivals is an absolute necessity. In contrast, a 5-1 defeat does not buy you time - it speeds up the clock. Another defeat of this scale and the question that will be asked of him is if he is up to the job of managing Rangers in the top flight. Success on the field is the only answer to that.