Derided tournament is a reminder of where Mark Warburton’s team have come from
10 April ~ With Tuesday’s home win over Dumbarton securing the SPFL Championship, Rangers will attempt to properly announce their return to top-flight football by beating Celtic at Hampden in next Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final. Defeating the Premiership leaders would be a statement of intent. However, this Sunday’s trip to the national stadium is of deeper import. The Petrofac Training Challenge Cup final, against League One Peterhead, would be a healthily cathartic goodbye to four years in the lower leagues.
Everyone will naturally look to an Old Firm semi-final for a formal statement on Rangers’ ability to resume Scotland’s historic two-horse race. But Rangers will beat Celtic at some point. We’ll play them at least twice more this calendar year. And already this season Kilmarnock have held both clubs 0-0 away before losing to them with a last-minute goal at home.
More immediately symbolic is that Rangers’ first-ever post-liquidation match was a Challenge Cup tie. At Brechin City, on July 29, 2012, a melange of the hastily signed and the desperate-to-leave scrambled a 2-1 extra-time victory. Days later, Rangers first ever league match outside the top division was at Peterhead. Barrie McKay scored our opener as we eventually nicked a point.
Later that season, with the first of Rangers’ three promotions secured, Peterhead won at Ibrox, promising “the journey back” would remain long and turgid. While this struggle was dotted with knockout wins over top-flight sides, it’s most thoroughly epitomised by continued failure to win the Challenge Cup. Reaching major semi-finals creates talk of a return to UEFA competition. An inability to win a tournament exclusively for lower-league sides reminds us our foundations remain weak.
McKay is starring in the impressive debut season of English manager Mark Warburton, under the best so far of Rangers post-liquidation boardrooms. We’ve beaten Peterhead 3-0 in this season’s League Cup. Managed by Jim McInally – midfield star of Dundee United’s 1987 UEFA Cup final side – they sit second in League One.
To win in their second Challenge Cup final, having almost trebled the record crowd we set in our previous appearance (a risible extra-time loss to Raith Rovers at Easter Road in 2014), would finally rid Rangers of a mark of incompetence which has felt from the moment Walter Smith stepped down as manager with a League and League Cup double in 2010-11.
Rangers will only truly “be back” when champions of Scotland again. By that point, some may regard the Challenge Cup as an embarrassing reminder on our roll of honour. But we need a proper acknowledgement of where we’ve been and why if we’re to move on securely. Rangers brought unprecedented crowds and TV coverage to Scotland’s lower leagues. But it’s the least we could do. They welcomed our club and our fans at the lowest point in our history. As much as a farewell gift, I want the Challenge Cup won as a mark of respect. Alex Anderson