Kilmarnock a test of Murray's mettle

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The Independent Football

Alex McLeish's red hair is not quite as lustrous as it once was but there is no disguising that this is football's Scarlet Pimpernel. Even though there was a baying mob outside the doors of Ibrox last Saturday calling for his head, he has cheated the managerial guillotine.

Rangers pulled off a remarkable character change as they qualified for the last 16 of the Champions' League with a performance against Internazionale that was in stark contrast to their domestic misery.

Reports claimed that the chairman, David Murray, had lined up former Lyon coach Paul Le Guen as McLeish's successor, but when Murray and his manager met last Thursday, it was not to put the finishing touches to the latter's departure. McLeish was being kept on, said Murray, as a reward for his European exploit, but the move was not met with universal enthusiasm.

A previous inhabitant of the oak-panelled office at Ibrox, Walter Smith, used to say that any Old Firm manager was just three games away from a crisis. McLeish has failed to win in the last 10 games, a sequence that is the worst in the club's 132-year history. There have been only two wins in the last 16 games as the team have slid to fifth in the Scottish Premier League. Rangers have dropped 14 points in their last six league games, so while the reprieve is welcome, McLeish will be anxious today at Rugby Park as he celebrates his fourth anniversary by facing a Kilmarnock side who can stretch the gap over the stricken champions to five points.

For all the public show of unity between chairman and manager, it was Murray's decision to reveal last month that McLeish was to face a period of review that threatened his job security. Since results did not improve - losing to Celtic, Hibernian and drawing with Falkirk - the assumption has to be made that a replacement (Murray told McLeish who would be the next manager) suddenly got cold feet.

"Let's just see where we are in the summer and let's all take stock then," said McLeish. "I don't think the chairman would have been doing his job right for Rangers if he hadn't been looking at 'what ifs'. You've got to do that in a major business."

While Murray made much of the limitation imposed on McLeish by a wage bill that has shrunk from £35m to £18m in the last three years, his adversary today, Jim Jefferies, has somehow conjured up a stylish young team on a budget of just £1m. "I really admire what Jim has done there. He has stood the test of time," said McLeish.

Ironically, it was Jefferies who brought down the curtain in Smith's reign as Rangers manager back in 1998 when his Hearts side won the Scottish Cup final.