McLeish staring into the abyss as Rangers strive to narrow gap

The impressive starts of arch rivals Celtic and resurgent Hearts have the Scottish champions' manager on the ropes. Nick Harris reports on the alarming decline and a deadly struggle between old friends
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Even in the pressure-heavy, trigger-happy English Premiership, that might seem ridiculous. But the fact that McLeish is on the threshold of the boot - within three games, at most, if results go against him - is now being taken as a given.

No more slip-ups domestically, and/or an improbably lengthy European run could save him, and there could not be a better time for him to inspire some stunning performances.

But there could not be a worse time to face a double-header against Rangers' in-form arch rivals, Celtic, at Celtic Park. This evening sees the first instalment, in the CIS Cup quarter-final. Part two comes a week on Saturday, in the first SPL game after the international break.

Rangers then face a tough assignment in Europe - a Champions' League visit to Porto - followed by a tricky domestic trip to Hibernian, purring with promise under Tony Mowbray. As upcoming fixtures go, they are less cakewalk, more plank.

McLeish's problem is not just that Rangers are trailing in Celtic's wake, because he has lost nothing, yet, this season. It is the margin by which they are trailing in the all-important league: 12 points behind Celtic and Hearts, and eight behind third-placed Hibs. And it is the manner in which they got into this situation, with limp, unimaginative performances that have shown few signs of fight and little or no clue that McLeish has any idea how to address it.

The cost to Rangers of failing to qualify for European competition, let alone the Champions' League, is already concentrating minds in the boardroom. This season has uncanny echoes of 1985-86, when Rangers' first 14 league games yielded the equivalent of 24 points, against 23 now. Back then, they finished fifth as Celtic won the title on goal difference from Hearts. Rangers' Jock Wallace paid with his job that season, but not before attendances and income were both hit. A repeat is unpalatable.

On the evidence, McLeish is struggling for ideas, or for a way to transform sporadic graft into goals. He has tinkered to distraction, especially in defence, where he has started 10 different players in league matches alone, and permed them in 12 different combinations.

Only four of his players - Dado Prso, Barry Ferguson, Fernando Ricksen and Ronald Waterreus - have started 13 or 14 of the 14 SPL games, and Waterreus has just been dropped. Celtic have seven "spine" players with 13 or 14 league starts, as have Hearts.

Being generous, McLeish's wholesale rotation suggests uncertainty or lack of faith in more than three of his squad. At worst, it suggests panic. The upshot has been a patchy, fragmented run.

The Old Firm sides expect to win most of their home games and a majority away. Rangers lost twice at home and once away all last season. They have already lost once at home and twice away this season.

A handful of blips in any campaign is not exceptional, ditto the odd "freak" loss. But even ignoring some stuttering displays that have ended in Rangers' wins since August, McLeish has already suffered 10 other blips this term, by early November.

The first came at Aberdeen in August, when a red card changed the game and Rangers let a 2-2 scoreline slip to a 3-2 defeat. They then lost 3-0 at Ibrox to Hibs through a hat-trick by a substitute, Ivan Sproule, in a match that McLeish laughably called "a smash-and-grab job".

Rangers then let slip a 1-0 lead against struggling Falkirk, drawing 1-1, and a fortnight later, at Hearts, McLeish altered his strategy so much in deference to the home side that he started with three centre-backs for the first time. The experiment failed and Rangers lost. In mid-October, they squandered chance after chance at Dundee United to leave with a 0-0 draw, which was the same score in Europe at home against Artmedia Bratislava, albeit against a goalkeeper having a terrific night.

Two poor draws followed, first a 2-2 at bottom-placed Livingston after being 2-0 up, then a 1-1 damp squib at home against Inverness. Away at Artmedia, Rangers conceded two soft goals for 2-2, and last weekend in the SPL, Aberdeen were allowed home with a point from another 0-0.

That is some catalogue of mediocrity, offset only by an aggregate qualifying win over Famagusta of Cyprus, an Old Firm win over Celtic, who had a man sent off, and a last-gasp home win over Porto that had even the bluest of die-hard old-timers chuckling "jammy gits!" long into the night.

Perhaps the rot really started with Celtic gifting Rangers the title in the final moments of last season. When you believe in a divine right to success, then maybe, like McLeish has said time and again recently, you actually believe everything will come good. It is a dangerous policy.

Ever since it was announced that Gordon Strachan was taking over from Martin O'Neill, it was always likely to come to this: either McLeish or Strachan, old friends from their playing days with Aberdeen and Scotland, having a significant say in the other's downfall. Not that anyone really expected it to be McLeish falling, or so soon, especially after Strachan's terrible early wobble.

But history shows that as one Old Firm manager excels, the other becomes susceptible. It has been that way for at least the past 20 years that Rangers and Celtic have shared the league. Celtic have won "only" six titles in that period, and gone through 11 managers. Rangers have been more successful, with 14 league titles, hence only five managers. So far.