Written by – Russell Tierney
There can be no arguments: it’s blooming good to be a Rangers fan right now. There’s a massive feeling of positivity among the fans at the moment which has been built, for the most part, around the new positivity on the field.
Mark Warburton has built a squad capable of playing attractive and attacking. Indeed, the team have went out in the recent matches against Burnley, Hibernian, Peterhead and St Mirren and played some delightful football.
It could be argued that these sides represent some of the toughest challenges Rangers will face this season. Burnley is, by and large, a side that was playing in the Premier League last season while Hibernian and St Mirren are reckoned, by popular agreement, to be the Ibrox side’s main title rivals this term. I’m not going to argue that here, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. I believe that the new-look Rangers side are set to face their biggest challenge so far this weekend, as they journey east to face part-time Alloa Athletic.
Before I go any further, a caveat. I’m under no illusions that Alloa will be a stronger side on paper than Hibernian or St Mirren, or that they will ultimately finish anywhere near the playoff positions. Bear with me here…
What Alloa do have is a small little ground with a tight plastic pitch. A tight plastic pitch of the exact type that has been Rangers’ undoing on more than a few occasions over the last few seasons. And that is difference between the previous games and the fixture this week.
Up until now, the games Rangers have played have been at Ibrox and Easter Road; the two most spacious grounds in the Championship, both with big, well-maintained pitches that suit the expansive passing game that Rangers favour. The team have also benefited from the large crowds that these grounds allow. The players will need to adapt to a different feel both on and off the park this weekend. The Indodrill Stadium, better known as Recreation Park, only holds a modest 3,100 and, houses a plastic pitch, something bordering on hoodoo for Rangers in recent years.
Last year, Rangers met Alloa Athletic five times in all competitions, including the four league matches and the semi-final of the Challenge Cup, and managed only one win.
The first of the meetings between the sides came around this time last year, after a similar run of good results for Rangers. Having slumped to an opening day defeat at home to Hearts, Rangers bounced back to a run of rather more convincing results, scoring 14 goals in four league matches and besting Premiership outfit Inverness in the League Cup before heading to Alloa. Once there, however, they were abruptly brought back to earth and were lucky to scrape a 1-1 draw thanks to a late David Templeton strike. The game was fragmented and stop-start and that suited a compact and well-drilled Alloa side more than it did an unstructured and purposeless Rangers.
The Indrodrill Stadium was also the setting for the lowest point of my 2014/15 season, the 3-2 defeat to Alloa in the Challenge Cup Semi-Final. Having been up 2-0 with only 18 minutes left to play, Rangers allowed part-time Alloa to come back and, incredibly, record their first ever win over Rangers.
These two results were typical of Rangers under Ally McCoist. Artificial pitches flummoxed them all throughout the Third Division and League ONe, too. Even in victory, McCoist’s teams were generally more devoid of ideas and poorer to watch at the tighter away grounds than they were at Ibrox, when the bigger pitch worked in their favour. This is to be expected. Teams almost always do better at home. What was alarming, however, was the inability or unwillingness of the players or the management to adapt their games to the pitch and the smaller stadiums that ultimately made up 50% of their fixtures in those leagues. The sheer lack of professionalism of this still rankles.
Alloa will be hoping that they can take advantage of a similar failing this weekend, but how likely is it that they will they be allowed to? This isn’t the same Rangers side that played in these two games. Mark Warburton has assembled a far superior team to the one available for selection by Mssrs McCoist, McDowall and McCall. And, of course, it’s Mark Warburton and Davie Weir in charge now. The duo have had their team training in Alloa this week ahead of the game, to familiarise themselves with the pitch. This seems like a sensible decision which can only be of benefit to Rangers, but it is one that the previous regime did not appear to deem necessary. If further proof was needed, Hearts also thought it was necessary, and they ran away with the league.
The change of playing personnel at Rangers will undoubtedly also make a difference. Last season, the team featured players such as Ian Black in the middle, Ricky Foster at right back and Kris Boyd up front. With all three of these players leaving in the summer having fallen short of the standards expected at Rangers, scrutiny has been understandably high on this season’s new additions.
In central midfield, Andy Halliday has looked every inch a player so far this season. His assurance on the ball and his relish in the tackle have endeared him to the Ibrox faithful and his goal at Easter Road was absolutely stunning. Ian Black often found himself overrun in the middle of the park, even against part-time opposition, and he consistently failed to be the driving force required while in possession, slowing play down and allowing opponents to re-establish their defensive shape. Halliday, on the other hand, is far more combative when he doesn’t have the ball – his slide tackles in particular have had Rangers fans on their feet more than once this season already – and when he does have the ball, Halliday is composed and actively seeks to keep the momentum in attacks. He also shows a great range of passing.
At right back, Foster very often left a lot to be desired defensively; standing off his man and not having the legs to track back when beaten. His de facto replacement, James Tavernier, is a different type of player altogether. It’s the aggressiveness of Tavernier in defence that sets him apart from Foster. He plays very high up the field and forces the issue with robust tackling and timely interceptions. This leads to a high percentage of possession turnovers in the attacking half and more Rangers attacks. Tavernier can also call upon his impressive speed to track runners and cover himself and his teammates. Foster did pop up with some important assists during the play-off run last season, but he was never a goal threat himself. Tavernier has 2 goals in 3 games and looks to get forward at every opportunity.
Up front, Kris Boyd’s abject second spell with the club yielded a startlingly poor total of three league goals. And, although Boyd was at times willing to work hard for his team, it has never been his strong suit. An oft-threatened understanding with Nicky Clark never really materialised either, so Boyd was unable to turn provider during his own dry spell in front of goal. This season, the void left by the departing Boyd has as yet only been partially filled. Martyn Waghorn arrived from Wigan and has led the line from the start in all four games, but has then been switched to the right of the front three in the second half to get at tiring opponents.
Waghorn leads the line as the central forward fairly well. He possesses an almost magnetic first touch and the strength and eye for a pass needed to effectively link the play and keep attacking moves going. He also works tirelessly; running channels, chasing down defenders and harassing goalkeepers. This is never more evident than when Waghorn himself loses possession. He is unwilling to stop until the ball is back at the foot of a Rangers player. However, as good as Waghorn has been through the middle, he has been even better when moving to the right. He looks really dangerous when taking defenders on either cutting in on his favoured left foot or going down the outside. He may not be an out-and-out 20 goals a season man, but he looks to be a far better addition to the team than Boyd was at the same stage last year and will surely chip in with more than a few.
It’s not just these three players who have improved the Rangers team. Overall, it looks far better now than the side that first travelled to Clackmannanshire at a similar stage last year. From back to front, Rangers now look to be stronger man-for-man in every position. The football has been lovely to watch so far, but the biggest challenge for the team will be adapting their new, free-flowing and high-tempo game from the luxury of the Ibrox pitch to the close confines of the Indrodrill Stadium. If they can, not only should they win comfortably on Sunday, but it would also bode well for other Championship away days this season.
You can follow Russell Tierny on Twitter @andthefoxsays