Cup win provides encouragement to Rangers' self-esteem
Ally McCoist was cautious in his appraisal. "[Defeating Inverness Caledonian Thistle] shows us is that in a one-off cup game we are capable of playing against anyone," the Rangers manager said. The 1-0 victory came in a tightly contested encounter, through a deflected shot with only 12 minutes left, and so there was no attempt at grandstanding.
That kind of posturing would been easily dismissed. The cup competitions have, after all, tended to expose Rangers' shortcomings since they dropped out of the top-flight. The home side were accomplished enough at Ibrox, though, for McCoist to take heart from the display.
Inverness came to Glasgow having lost only once in six games this season, a run that had taken them to the top of the Premiership and included a victory over Celtic. John Hughes's side ought to have been bullish and intrepid, which would have tested the development of this current Rangers team.
Yet there was caution in the way Inverness took to the game, partly through their own outlook, but also because Rangers began the cup tie at a high intensity, pressing their opponents in the Inverness half and moving around the field at a brisk tempo.
This is the third season of a narrative that Rangers once branded as The Journey. There have been plenty of stumbles along the way, and off the field the club remains on the brink of financial calamity while power and influence are contested, but there were signs against Inverness that some of the players McCoist brought to the club are delivering the kind of performances that were expected of them.
Ian Black, for instance, has mostly been an ineffective figure since joining the club in the summer of 2012. His signing epitomised the frantic and short-term nature of the recruitment period that preceded the 12-month registration embargo, since his wages were unsustainable while Rangers were in the lower tiers.
Black also tended to slow Rangers' play down, taking extra touches on the ball and moving it around too methodically. Last season, his central midfield partnership with Nicky Law held promise, but the latter's form and confidence disintegrated after a bright start.
Against Inverness, the balance between the two was much more effective. Law was making the kind of runs that once characterised his game, carrying him beyond the play and often beyond the strikers, providing passing options but also the kind of movement that hauled Inverness defenders out of position.
Black retained his playmaker role, and some passes were overly ambitious or over-hit, but he was busy and prominent throughout the game. There is less irascibility to his game, although also fewer overtly aggressive tackles or confrontations from opponents. Black has, briefly, begun to perform like the player who impressed during his final season at Hearts - although fans of the Tynecastle club would point out that he was less effective in the early years of his contract.
If Rangers are to achieve their aims, McCoist needs the players he brought to the club from the top-flight to play to their ability. That hasn't always been the case, although some like David Templeton have always struggled with inconsistency. It is telling, though, that the most impressive players so far this season have been Lewis Macleod and Fraser Aird, two products of the youth academy, and Nicky Clark, whose enthusiasm, deftness and willingness to cover ground up front has the makings of an effective partnership with Kris Boyd.
There are flaws in the team, though, particularly in defence. Darren McGregor looks awkward at right back, which is understandable given that he normally plays in the centre of defence. Bilel Mohsni is never more than a harebrained decision away from his next calamity, while the dependability of Lee McCulloch will be less pronounced against quicker, more mobile and better served forwards than Inverness's Billy McKay.
If there is a judgement on Rangers, it is that the team remains a work in progress. John Hughes said before the cup tie at Ibrox that McCoist's side would challenge Celtic for the title if it was in the top-flight, but it stills seems short of the necessary refinement.
Rangers have progressed with each campaign, although the quality of the play has often left supporters frustrated. The recruitment process has been adhoc, since long-term planning was never capable in the turmoil of the various individuals that have inhabited the board room, but there is less angst among the fans about the team's performances.
Defeating Inverness was an insight into how Rangers might fare against top-flight opponents in the cup competitions, as well as Hearts and Hibernian in the Championship. Any verdicts need to acknowledge that Inverness lacked boldness. Nonetheless, Rangers had lost recently to Dundee United, twice, and Inverness in cup competitions, so the victory at Ibrox would have felt encouraging.
Rangers were not wholly dominant, some of the attacking play lacked cohesion, and the result should not be treated as a novelty when the Ibrox club still has the second largest wage bill in the country. But the victory provided Rangers with a source of encouragement, and a boost to the team's self-esteem.