By Brian P. Dunleavy
Here in America, we might have referred to it as a “trap game.” In Britain, it would have been called a “banana skin.”
No, it wasn’t Celtic across the pitch, or Aberdeen. It wasn’t even Hibernian, for a rematch of the 2016 Scottish Cup final, which ended with a Hibs victory and a near-riot on the pitch.
It was, in fact, Dunfermline, a side Rangers hadn’t faced in more than three years, since their finance-induced slog through Scotland’s lower leagues. The Ibrox men drew in that last meeting with the Pars, in May 2014. But there was no such slip-up in Govan this time around, with the home side winning easily 6-0, and it wasn’t even that close.
Indeed, Pedro Caixinha and Rangers have to feel a bit of relief after coming out of Wednesday’s League Cup tie with their place in the competition still intact. Another disappointment, similar to the one they experienced in Europa League qualifying, and the heat would be on—despite the fact we are just two competitive matches into the domestic campaign and that the summer transfer window has yet to close.
Such is the climate when you work within the Old Firm “fishbowl,” as it has been called, and it is an entirely new experience for Caixinha. After all, the pressure at the likes of Santos Laguna, his previous employer, is very different.
And the Glasgow neophyte may be feeling it already. In the aftermath of his side’s Premiership-opening 2-1 win at Motherwell over the weekend, Caixinha opted to focus on the defensive lapses of Josh Windass, rather than positives of his team’s performance. And, he told the press, “Now we have just 37 more finals.”
Look, conventional wisdom—if we accept a loose definition of the word “wisdom”—within the Old Firm is both sides, Rangers and Celtic, are expected to win every match, at least in Scotland. And while that’s been the stated remit for every manager on both sides of the Glasgow divide since Willie Maley first roamed the sidelines in the East End, there’s a difference between drawing inspiration from it, and internalizing it.
We won’t pretend that we can read Caixinha’s mind—the gaffer at First Touch doesn’t pay us for psychoanalysis (actually, he doesn’t… well, let’s just say he gets less than Tim Hall, and rightfully so)—but the Portuguese bench boss is carrying himself like a man already on death row. And he is just starting his first full season on the job.
Part of this is on the Ibrox board. It’s about managing expectations. Following their upset of Celtic in the 2016 Scottish Cup semi-final, and their subsequent return to the Premiership last season, Rangers has been talking about winning the league. However, that’s a lot to ask, even as Rangers have obviously improved a lot since their last meeting with the Pars.
Conceding the title in August has its own psychological implications, we’ll grant you that, but so does demanding the impossible. After four seasons in the lower leagues in Scotland—which are more similar to the lower leagues in the United States than they are to those in England—there was, in fact, no shame in third place last season.
As we were just telling Mark Warburton the other day.
In fact, third place would probably be just fine in 2017-18, as long as Rangers can narrow the points gap between themselves and Celtic. In other words, this is a long-term project. And it would be prudent of the Rangers board to find the right manager for that task—whether it’s Caixinha or not—and stick with him, win, lose or draw, at least for a couple of seasons, irrespective of the various hues and cries from supporters.
Then, it’s title or bust in, say, 2019-20. Until then, let the guy in charge get comfortable in the role.
Unfortunately, even following Wednesday’s seemingly easy win, Caixinha already looks anything but.