By Sheryl Ritchie
There was very little room for discussion in whether or not Rangers had started with their strongest XI, continuing with those who have built up a solid run of form this year in the Lowland league as well as including the trio we’ve all been talking about, who stepped back down from the first team for today’s fixture. While three points behind Celtic with a game in hand, most regular attendees of the youth side would have been confident that Rangers would get the better of the game in front of 9,000 fans at Ibrox, over 90 minutes. Rangers had other ideas, however, and wrapped the game up in the first half.
Celtic kicked the game off and naturally played the ball backwards to the centre backs and this is where we saw Rangers intentions. Ross McCausland charged on with the aggressive high press, with Tony Weston and Cole McKinnon only yards behind him, and sharply stole the ball from the Celtic centre back before comfortably slotting the ball past the goalkeeper.
Less than 20 seconds had passed and young McCausland celebrated with his heart on his sleeve in front of the Sandy Jardine stand, the fans facing him equally ecstatic – this may be labelled a reserve game, but for most it doesn’t matter what game, tournament or context it comes in, there’s nothing sweeter than a goal against Celtic. This quickfire goal set the tone for the rest of the first, where Rangers dominated possession and piled on the pressure in the few occasions they had to win it back.
As we went past the first minute we quickly saw the Rangers identity in and out of possession, with the comparisons to the first team’s style very obvious. In possession, the home side were very calm, collected and patient, playing out from the back with the simple balls that will keep them out of trouble as the wait for an opening into midfield or the focal point that was Tony Weston coming deep. As we watched the patient build up, we saw the wide men Ross McCausland and the excellent Alex Lowry hug the touch line, stretching the Celtic defenders and creating space for the midfield to retrieve the ball.
This build up had Celtic running and stretching for every pass and this highlighted a maturity in the young Rangers side as they picked their moments to carry on the attack. But, like any fearsome beast, the danger comes with how quickly calmness can turn to aggression. Rangers were quick to change their shape off the ball and hunt Celtic down in packs.
The aforementioned wide men would join Tony Weston in a more central press, leaving midfielders Charlie McCann and Cole McKinnon to put pressure on the oncoming full backs (should they receive the ball), all the while Murray Miller would sweep up any danger that broke through the centre and recycle the ball into an attacking play – a ploy he used time and time again to earn himself the man of the match.
It was only a matter of time before the second goal arrived and what a goal it was, Charlie McCann picking up the loose ball as Celtic tried to force an attack and releasing Alex Lowry, who had drifted into the centre from wide left and carried the ball into space. With no pressure to release the ball, young Lowry fired a shot from just over 20 yards to beat Oluwayemi. A fine goal from a fine, fine player.
A goal was the least Lowry deserved after terrorising the Celtic defence for the previous quarter of an hour, with his quick passing and the ability to trap any wayward pass into control, creating chance after chance for Rangers. A lot of expectation was put on Alex Lowry today, and rightly so given his recent performances for the first team, and he certainly lived up to the standards he set himself in the first half.
We didn’t wait long for the third goal which ultimately killed the match. Rangers captain Robbie Fraser had already looked a threat with his forward runs, very impressively swapping with Lowry and joining the attack, causing confusion amongst the Celtic man marking, but rather than his movement, it was a beautiful ball from deep that led to the goal.
He spoke in the post match press conference of his understanding with Tony Weston, Tony will give him the nod and he ‘just knows’ where to play it. The kind of understanding that can’t quite be put into words, but thankfully watching it in action tells you everything you need to know. Fraser, taking the ball comfortably from infield, plays a curling ball forward which manages to beat both the right back and centre back from Celtic, with Tony Weston instinctively running on to meet the pass. With a beautiful turn of his body and timing of his movement, Weston doesn’t need to take a touch to position himself into the right shape to slide the ball past the Celtic keeper. Half the team run to congratulate the scorer while the other half running towards the full back, a telling sign of the level of ball played through to create the goal.
After Rangers strolling the first 35 minutes, Celtic tried their best to compete, retaining the ball better and moving it more wisely, even causing Rangers to shut down wide men in twos or threes and unfortunately lunge into challenges. A very short spell of pressure for Rangers, albeit no real chances were created, with the only downside coming in the form of a booking for Ross McCausland for a stretching tackle on to a loose ball.
There was never any real expectation for the second half, combined with Celtic’s performance providing no cause for concern, it’s only natural at any level that a team 3 goals to the good take their foot off the pedal, consciously or not. Celtic did have slightly more possession in the second half than they did the first, albeit not enough to present danger, and Rangers seen out the second half in a professional manner. While the second half didn’t have the highlights of the first, it did give us a chance to discuss the maturity of the midfield performance.
For context, the midfield trio of McCann, McKinnon and Miller set the tempo for the first half performance. The drove the press, set the standard of aggression when retrieving the ball back and, as you’d expect, moved the ball exceptionally well. They might have lit the heather alight in the first half in terms of flare and ball progression, but they also take credit for ensuring the second half was a formality. Before the changes from the Rangers bench, the midfield three ensured no Celtic attack was overloaded and when rangers had possession there was always an out ball or an option to recycle back into the patient build up.
Murray Miller took the man of the match award for his role anchoring in the midfield three, but there would be very little complaint if the two men either side of him were awarded the title. Many fans will be pleased that not only can they display the right range of passing, awareness off the ball and be tactically aware, but the three of them won their battles first and foremost. Any Rangers fan will tell you their favourite midfielder had this habit, and what a habit it can be if you want to progress into the Rangers first team midfield.
David McCallum, who shared his delight at today’s performance, will now look at how his team can continue this standard away from the glamour of a crowded Ibrox. Sitting in third place three points behind East Kilbride, with a game in hand, this young Rangers team have shown throughout the year they’re more than capable of competing at this level, and after today, they’ve set the bar for themselves for the rest of the season!