BY MARK GODFREY
Rangers’ reward for knocking Premiership St. Johnstone out of the Scottish League Cup last week is a semi-final glamour tie with Celtic – the first Old Firm renewal since April 2012 and the subsequent financial collapse of the Ibrox club just months later.
Ally McCoist’s side have made the smooth progress expected of them in winning consecutive promotions after the penalty handed to them saw them placed in the lowest tier of the Scottish League. They currently sit in second place in the Championship, hanging onto the coat tails of Hearts in their quest for a return to the top flight in the minimum possible timespan.
While matters on the playing side of things have remained stable, if not quite serene, the constant infighting between the various warring factions vying for outright control of the club has continued to monopolise the headlines coming out of Ibrox.
Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley may have been on the scene at Rangers for some time but his more recent prominence has seen him position himself as the man in control in all but name; a shrewd businessman, the Sports Direct founder has already wrapped up the possible stadium naming rights and takes a 49% cut of all Rangers merchandise sales with a view to securing the remainder. He also owns around 9% of the club’s shares and has supplied a short-term £2million loan to help with running costs – Rangers are still operating at a significant loss even after repeated cost-cutting measures. To cement his position further, former Newcastle managing director Derek Llambias and Sports Direct executive Barry Leach have been appointed as ‘consultants’.
Although Ashley’s involvement with the club is not universally welcomed, it’s likely that he will be sticking around for the foreseeable future, and if he ever needed more convincing of the potential dividends from his comparatively small investment at Ibrox, the first meeting with Celtic for two-and-a-half years should provide all the evidence he could wish for.
The present Rangers squad will undoubtedly struggle to match that of their bitter rivals, but the hype and interest that will precede the semi-final and the accompanying full house and TV coverage of the event itself should have Ashley’s mind whirring in anticipation with the numbers that could potentially be on offer in the future once the club finally ascend to the Premiership and, eventually, also make it back to European competition.
The game – which is likely to be held at Hampden Park now the national stadium is almost ready for football again after its renovation for the Commonwealth Games – won’t just be a tantalising reminder of past occasions for Ashley and the light blue side of the divide. Celtic have breezed to two consecutive, bloodless title victories in Rangers’ absence but with the lack of any serious challengers and the loss of at least four yearly Old Firm skirmishes, average attendances at the Parkhead club have dropped by 7,000 since 2012.
The reigning champions have encountered a relatively sticky beginning to the season under new management. Ronny Deila – who took up the position vacated by Neil Lennon during the summer – is still getting to grips with life in Glasgow’s footballing goldfish bowl having moved from Strømsgodset where he won the Norwegian league in 2013.
Despite suffering the setback of failing to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, and some patchy early-season league form, the Bhoys still lie ominously close to the top of the table behind early pacesetters Dundee United and Hamilton Academical.
Whoever comes out on top in the 400th (or 1st depending on your outlook on the legitimacy of the claims on Rangers’ previous records) league and cup Old Firm encounter will face either current league leaders Dundee United or League Cup holders Aberdeen in March’s final.
Whatever happens during the rest of this campaign, Scotland finally has its most appealing fixture to look forward to once more. Whether it will become a permanent fixture on the calendar again next year will probably come down to Mike Ashley’s munificence in the coming months.