Fleck gives Rangers flicker of hope for future

Aberdeen 0 Rangers 0
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The Independent Football

Rangers are trundling along, beset by mediocrity and by the financial restraints that led to it, so the emergence of John Fleck, just 17 but staring down the barrel at his breakthrough season, is a beacon of hope.

This dull draw on Saturday was uninspiring enough in itself, Fleck (right) and the odd Aberdeen near-miss aside. Rangers' manager, Walter Smith, said he thought they had done enough to merit three points, a view essentially shared by his generous counterpart, Jimmy Calderwood. But the score does not lie. Rangers' lack of bite and desperate dearth of star quality anywhere on the pitch is a now chronic.

Celtic have made a few recent slip-ups to give Rangers chances to make serious inroads. But Rangers have passed on punishing them, and Celtic's 3-1 win over Hibernian on Saturday allowed them to open up a four-point gap at the top.

There will be more twists and turns, of course. But there is an increasing sense that this will be the way of things this season: Celtic ahead, taking pot shots at their own feet to create an illusion of a race, Rangers failing to capitalise, Celtic lolloping on to a fourth SPL title.

It would be heartening for Rangers' fans if they could make a case that actually they have a half-decent team of a calibre who could compete with the best, say in England. But when your star men are Pedro Mendes and Steve Davis, latterly of Portsmouth and Fulham respectively, and your next best are ageing long former Premier League players like David Weir and Barry Ferguson, the only place they would be contenders in England is the Championship. And they would find it tough at the top even there.

So Smith makes the best of what he has, as he did to great effect in chasing a potential quadruple for much of last season. And in games like Saturday's, he returns to (yawn) safety-first tactical pragmatism. Lee McCulloch was drafted back in, to play a holding role, Boyd was benched because he lacks the adaptability to support in midfield and also have striking duties in the same game, and Fleck, who can do that, was brought in.

The teenage midfielder played on the left wing but gave support to the lone front man, Kenny Miller, and showed enough with his runs, with and without the ball, to indicate that he can develop into a rare talent. Though saddled with the tag "Scotland's Rooney", he is not in the class of a 17-year-old Wayne, but he is something special.

In his first SPL start for Rangers nine days ago, he was man of the match. He made his competitive debut a year ago, at 16, in the Scottish Cup, and in May 2008 was the youngest player ever to appear in any British cup final as a sub when Rangers beat Queen of the South.

"He is a great outlet and has great ability. We saw that in the first half with some of his runs and enthusiasm to get on the ball." said McCulloch, 30, a relative veteran who saw Rooney's emergence at first hand as an opponent in England when with Wigan.

"[Fleck] doesn't look out of place at all at this level and I think he is a greatplayer with a big future. He is always asking you for ways in which he can improve. He works really hard in training and you can't really ask for more than that."

Not yet, maybe. But some flair is handy, and goals are always welcome.

Aberdeen (4-4-2): Langfield (Bossu, 52); Foster, Severin, Diamond, Mulgrew; Duff (Vidal, 64), McDonald, Kerr, Aluko (Maguire, 81); Miller, Mackie. Substitutes not used: Wright, De Visscher, Mair, Considine.

Rangers (4-1-4-1): McGregor; Broadfoot, Bougherra, Weir, Papac; McCulloch; Davis, Ferguson, Mendes, Fleck (Novo, 77); Miller (Boyd, 63). Substitutes not used: Alexander (gk), Dailly, Whittaker, Niguez, Ness.

Referee: C Murray.

Booked: Aberdeen: McDonald. Rangers: McCulloch.

Man of the match: Severin.

Attendance: 20,441.