By Brian P. Dunleavy
If the pundits are to be believed—and we’re not saying they are—then Mark Warburton’s next match in charge at Rangers, a fifth-round Scottish Cup tie against Greenock Morton on Sunday, may be his last.
The Ibrox side are not in good form. Fresh off a 4-1 pasting at Tynecastle, in which a resurgent Hearts team took control of the match in the second half, Warburton’s men looked sluggish, at best, in a 1-1 draw, at home no less, to Ross County.
’Gers now sit in third in the Premiership, level with Aberdeen on points, but the Dons have a match in hand. Worse, they are 27—27!—points behind league leaders Celtic. And there are still 14 matches to go in the season.
True, after saying it would take a £100 million investment in players to catch the Hoops, Rangers CEO Dave King signed off on spending a fraction of that during the January window. And his manager, may be a lame duck irrespective of results the rest of the way. His contract remains
in flux, and there have been rumors of his interest in returning to England.
Last season, of course, Warburton was the darling of Govan. This term? Not so much. Rangers were booed off the pitch following the Ross County match.
But as noted in this space previously, Rangers was never going to win the Prem this season, their first back in the top flight after four years of fiscally induced relegation. If the gulf between Celtic and the rest of Scottish football is wide, then the gulf between the Premiership and the Championship is the Grand Canyon. ’Gers supporters should have been happy with a third-place finish in 2016-17—a second-place finish ahead of Aberdeen would be like taking the Scottish Cup.
They still should have been on a high from knocking Celtic out of the Cup last season.
But no. Somewhere along the line, expectations became inflated. Was the 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Hoops at Celtic Park in September not evidence enough of the task at hand? Apparently not. The 2-1 loss on Hogmanay, at Ibrox, was close enough to tease, and fuel supporters’ dreams, it seems.
Look, no one is saying Celtic are unbeatable, or that the “10 in a row” Hoops supporters sing about in the terraces are a forgone conclusion (sorry, Scott Brown). But the situation at Ibrox is a project, and finding another manager willing to take that on, particularly one with the pedigree of Warburton, will be a tough ask.
Let’s just say the job does not have the same allure as the Celtic one had for Brendan Rodgers.
Plus, sacking Warburton and appointing a new boss might mean starting at zero, or at least the Scottish football equivalent thereof: bedding in new players, incorporating new tactics… you get the idea.
And, as is often the case in the Old Firm rivalry, Celtic aren’t doing anything to make things easier. The Hoops loaned promising young striker Luke Donnelly to Greenock Morton on an emergency basis. Will he be a factor on Sunday? It would be just Warburton’s luck.