By Alistair Aird
It perhaps wasn’t as stifling as it had been in Seville, but it was still unseasonably hot for Scotland in July as the Rangers fans returned to watch their heroes at Ibrox for the first time since 11 May. And as the majestic red brick façade came into view, the opening lines of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Trying to Keep the Customer Satisfied’ came into mind. It was indeed great to be back home, for home is indeed where we want to be.
The Rangers supporters had ridden an emotional rollercoaster in the closing matches at the end of season 2021/22. The heart-wrenching end to the Europa League Final and the remarkable powers of recovery shown to snare the Scottish Cup were still at the forefront, and the starting XI for this match still contained the common core, a hallmark of van Bronckhorst’s tenure thus far, that had played an integral part during that epic journey.
But there had been changes too, changes that look to have made Gio van Bronckhorst’s squad even more formidable. With the signing of Ben Davies from Liverpool confirmed before kick-off, new recruits now numbered six. Two of them – John Souttar and Antonio Colak – were handed their Ibrox debuts against David Moyes’s West Ham United, while two others – Tom Lawrence and Rabbi Matondo – were on the bench. And Davies was introduced to the crowd alongside Malik Tillman before the game got underway.
The only significant outgoings have been Calvin Bassey and Joe Aribo. Given their respective contributions last season, they both leave large voids to be filled. Until the African Cup of Nations, Aribo was the best player in the country, and his goal had the supporters in dreamland for a short spell in Seville. Bassey was immense too, particularly after van Bronckhorst came in. His performance against Eintracht Frankfurt was magnificent and his imminent move to Ajax is merited and reward for his consistently high-quality performances at home and abroad. Time will tell if the new personnel will fit in seamlessly and push on from where the two Nigerians left off. But the initial signs are promising.
West Ham, who made the last four in the Europa League and finished seventh in the Premiership, named a strong XI too, with the highly-rated Declan Rice handed the captain’s armband and the battering ram that is Michail Antonio up front. Although badged as a pre-season friendly, this had all the ingredients to be a cracking match.
After a poignant and impeccably observed minute’s silence to pay tribute to Davie Wilson and Andy Goram, Pablo Fornals got the match underway. Rangers immediately set up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with Glen Kamara filling the number 10 role and John Souttar taking up the position of left centre-back.
Inside the opening minute, Ryan Kent gave a sign of things to come when he nutmegged Jarrod Bowen. That drew hurrahs from the home support and there was a superb atmosphere from the off. It was enhanced by the sizeable travelling support from London.
The opening few minutes were quiet, but after a series of passes, the home side almost carved out an opening, but Wright couldn’t squeeze the ball through to Colak. That passage of play pleased a casually attired van Bronckhorst. The collar and tie usually donned for competitive fixtures was replaced with a polo shirt, flannels and white trainers, and Gio spent most of the encounter clapping his hands and cajoling his players from his position on the edge of his technical area.
The tempo of the match was soon raised, something that is often missing from these challenge matches. Play moved from end to end, and after 15 minutes came the first real opening. Antonio found himself through on goal, but Jon McLaughlin spread himself to block his shot. The ball spun into the air and the Rangers keeper got back to his feet to push it wide for a corner kick. And West Ham threatened again four minutes later, Barisic having to intervene to halt the progress of Ben Johnson.
At the other end, Colak was industrious but struggling to make inroads against the West Ham defence. However, he almost profited from some loose play, and it took a last-ditch challenge from Nayef Aguerd to deny him a first Rangers goal. That intervention turned out to be Aguerd’s last involvement, though, as he was helped off and replaced by Issa Diop.
Rangers were now pressing high up the park, and this approach proved successful in turning over possession. On one such occasion, Ryan Jack showed great tenacity to win the ball, and when it was worked across to Wright, he tried again to thread a ball through for Colak. He was thwarted, but this was a good spell for the home side.
Although the tempo in the play remained, there wasn’t much in the way of clear-cut chances, and the half drew to a close shortly after Rice was booked for halting Kent’s forward burst with a sliding challenge from behind.
In matches such as this changes are expected at the interval. But I don’t think many present could have predicted the explosive impact two of Rangers’ three half-time substitutes would have.
Matondo and Lawrence came on for Wright and Jack, while James Sands, who would have a solid 45 minutes, replaced Souttar. Lawrence slotted in at number 10, with Kamara dropping back alongside Lundstram. And within a matter of minutes the former Derby County man had made telling contribution.
After 48 minutes, Tavernier fed the ball out to Matondo and the Welshman’s low cross was thumped into the net by the right foot of Lawrence. And two minutes later, Lawrence was involved again, spraying a lovely pass out wide to Tavernier then picking up a return pass in an advanced position. He laid the ball into the path of Kent who lashed a belter of a strike beyond Lukasz Fabianski with his left foot.
It should have been 3-0 after 54 minutes. Kent found Barisic, and his cut back found Kamara in space, but the Finn carelessly fired his effort high over the bar. But the third goal eventually arrived two minutes short of the hour mark. Tom Lawrence was at the heart of the move again. He picked the ball up and found Matondo, who moved it wide for Tavernier. The skipper picked out Lawrence on the edge of the box and his touch took the ball into Matondo’s path. The former Schalke man didn’t break stride as he unleashed a ferocious shot into the net.
West Ham were shell-shocked. They had been blown away by a whirlwind 15-minute spell, and that period of the match excited the supporters. If that can be sustained in the season ahead then Rangers will be very difficult to stop.
West Ham did muster a response. After 70 minutes, McLaughlin did well to get down and parry a shot from Fornals. But from the resulting corner, one of the West Ham substitutes, Tomas Soucek, scrambled the ball into the net. McLaughlin, however, was enraged as he felt he was fouled. Referee Nick Walsh was unmoved, the goal stood.
The goal breathed new life into the visitors. Fornals had a sight of goal, but his effort was deflected wide for a corner. McLaughlin was then fortunate not to be punished when he was robbed on the bye-line.
Admittedly, Rangers had dropped the pace and intensity since the third goal, but the job was done by then. Van Bronckhorst took the chance to get minutes in the legs of youngsters Adam Devine and Charlie McCann, and the veteran Scott Arfield came on for the final 15 minutes too. The depth of the squad is impressive, and the manager has several options in a number of key areas. He’ll still stick with his common core, but when one considers that Davies, Tillman, Morelos and Roofe weren’t in the pool for this match then you can see the embarrassment of riches that Rangers have.
Although there is still scope for some tinkering and tailoring – cover/competition for Barisic at left back, for example – it was hard not to be impressed with the revamped Rangers. That burst of attacking action at the start of the second half should be a portent of things to come, and if it is sustained then success at home and abroad will be forthcoming.
The quest to add to Rangers’ impressive Roll of Honour has begun.