By Alistair Aird
Twenty-eight years ago today, Rangers beat Morton 3-0 in the League Cup at a sun-drenched Ibrox. Having only scored once in nine appearances in season 1994/95, normal service was resumed when Ally McCoist opened his account for the season, while Mark Hateley netted the last goal of his first spell at the club. And the other goal was scored by a blonde-haired midfielder called Paul John Gascoigne. It was the first of 20 the Englishman would score in a stellar season.
Up against Gascoigne in midfield that afternoon was Derek McInnes. A few weeks later, McInnes was sharing a dressing room with the Geordie genius, and there have been a number of individuals who have been affiliated to both clubs over the years.
In the 1960s, the Morton impresario Haldane ‘Hal’ Stewartbrought a number of Scandinavian players to Greenock, and three of them, Erik Sorensen, Kai Johansen, and Jorn Sorensen, later played for Rangers. Of the three, Johansen, a Danish right-back, was the only one to carve his name into Rangers folklore courtesy of his thunderbolt goal in the replay of the 1966 Scottish Cup Final against Celtic.
In later years, a striker called Dougie Robertson played for both clubs – hailing from Torphicen, he had more success at Cappielow than he did at Ibrox – and Graeme Souness’s last signing for Rangers came from Morton. Brian Reid was a promising centre half, but his time at Rangers was blighted by a serious knee injury.
There have been several others, among them David Mackinnon who has connections with both clubs too. A resolute and redoubtable defender who could also play in midfield, Mackinnon made 177 appearances for Rangers between 1982 and 1986. And after his playing career ended, he would later take up the role of CEO at Morton. David’s absorbing and refreshingly honest autobiography, Slide Tackes & Boardroom Battles, is due to be released later this year.
The Rangers-Morton links extended to the personnel that were involved in today’s game too. In the Rangers dugout was Jim McAllister. In his playing days, McAllister had played over 250 games for Morton, and he came to Rangers in 2021 as a kitman. Following the sad passing of Jimmy Bell in 2022, he took over the legend’s mantle and became chief kitman.
In the Morton starting XI was Kirk Broadfoot. Broadfootsurprised many when he played regularly under Walter Smith between 2007 and 2011, and he was also around at the start of the journey back to the top flight in 2012.
When the teams were announced all eyes were on the Rangers XI. Given the number of new additions over the summer, many felt that Michael Beale could use this tie to try and gel his new-look team together. But with a vital Champions League qualifier against PSV Eindhoven looming large on the horizon, he chose to rotate instead. There was a long overdue rest for captain James Tavernier – Connor Goldson took the armband – and Todd Cantwell, a player who had excelled in the early fixtures, was also given some respite. Borna Barisic, John Souttar, and Nico Raskin didn’t make the squad either.
That meant a first start for Dujon Sterling at right back, while Johnly Yfeko, who had impressed in pre-season, came in on the left side of defence. In midfield, Jose Ciefuentes was joined by John Lundstram and Kieran Dowell, while up top was the triumvirate of Matondo, Dessers and Lammers. Beale also stuck with Jack Butland in goal. Butland had been superb midweek against Servette, but there were some who expected to see Robby McCrorie, another who has played for Rangers and Morton, given some game time.
The weather ahead of the match was in stark contrast to that that had been experienced almost 30 years ago. Typical of the Scottish summer we have endured, the skies above were leaden, and a stiff breeze made the rain swirl around the Ibrox stands that were perhaps fuller than expected given the glut of games at the moment.
Rangers started brightly, and after two minutes, Rabbi Matondo, playing on the left, sped into the box, but saw his right foot shot blocked by the legs of Jamie MacDonald. Matondo hasn’t had the best of times since joining Rangers, but his enterprising and energetic performance last weekend against Livingston earned him the right to stake a claim for a regular place in this one.
Four minutes later, Matondo was on the ball in the box again and when he couldn’t find space to get a shot away, he teed up Lundstram who fired wildly over the bar with his left foot.
The opening 10 minutes panned out much as expected. Morton formed the anticipated ‘low block’ and Rangers had plenty of possession. It was going to be one of those days for passing and probing to try and pick a way through the solid yellow lines. Patience on the pitch and in the stands would therefore be a virtue.
After 15 minutes the opening goal almost arrived. Sterling’s cross was expertly plucked out of the air by Dessers, and the Nigerian spun and fizzed in a shot that was fisted over the bar by MacDonald. Matondo then burst to the bye-line and his low cross was nearly found its way into the net after it broke off a Morton defender.
Play moved to the other end and Jack Butland had to look sprightly to spring across his goal to parry away a free-kick from Robbie Muirhead. Although it was a save that you would expect a goalkeeper of Butland’s calibre to make, it was another crucial intervention from the Englishman who continues to show he has all the attributes we have seen from some of the finest goalkeepers that have served the club since 1872.
We hadn’t seen much from Sam Lammers in the opening 20 minutes. But when the ball broke to him in midfield, he played a delicious slide rule pass through to Dessers. Darragh O’Connor got to the ball first, but Dessers looked to have outmuscled him and he rounded MacDonald and rolled the ball into the net. A shrill blast of referee David Dickinson’s whistle nipped any celebrations in the bud, though. He felt Dessers had fouled O’Connor much to the frustration of the Rangers number nine and the home supporters.
Matondo was making the most of his chance to impress the manager. After 25 minutes he used his pace to great effect again to speed away from the Morton defence, but although he rounded MacDonald, the Morton defence recovered and stopped the Welshman’s shot before it found the net.
The first yellow card was brandished after 31 minutes. Not for the first time, Matondo spurted clear of his marker, Cameron Blues, and when the Morton man tugged him back. A free-kick was awarded and Ciefuentes stepped up and curled a shot wastefully over the bar.
Incidentally, set pieces offered a rather intriguing sub plot to the game. More often than not, Tavernier and Barisic address the ball when a free-kick or corner kick is awarded, but with both absent, opportunity knocked for others to showcase their skills. However, up until this point, the quality og the delivery into the box had been rather lamentable.
Standing with arms folded in the technical area, the Morton manager, Dougie Imrie, must have been more than satisfied with what he was seeing. Rangers were huffing and puffing but lacked any sort of guile or creativity. Frustration was starting to surface in the stands, and Imrie must have been looking for his defensively diligent team to keep that going as half time rapidly approached.
A minute shy of the interval, Rangers were awarded a free-kick some 30 yards from goal. Dowell took it and bent a beautiful shot with his left foot towards the corner of the net. But MacDonald was equal to it, and from the resulting corner, Goldson headed wide.
In midweek in Geneva, Rangers had been listless and laboured prompting the manager to suggest post-match that there was a frank exchange in the dressing room at half time. One suspected that harsh words would have been used again as the players retired to the inner sanctum at the end of a first half that was as dull and dreich as the weather. It couldn’t get any worse, surely?
Beale resisted the temptation to make any changes and the same XI that started the game emerged for the second half. Unless there was a seismic shift in performance levels, then changes would be afoot, although one wondered whether Beale was regretting not at least including messers Tavernier, Raskin, and Cantwell on the bench. The vim and vigour offered by the latter, in particular, was being sorely missed.
The second half started with a VAR check. After a Morton corner was cleared, Dessers dallied on the ball and when he went to recover and clear, he seemed to catch Kirk Broadfoot. And when Dickinson went to the monitor, he decided that the contact between the two merited the award of a penalty to Morton. Grant Gillespie stepped up confidently and sent Butland the wrong way.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. As the Morton fans broke into full voice, Abdullah Sima, Ianis Hagi, and Danilo were summoned from the sidelines. The ineffectual Lammers made way, but eyebrows were raised when Sterling and Balogun were the others were withdrawn too. However, just as the changes were made, there was another VAR check. And this time it was PENALTY TO RANGERS!
With regular spot kick taker Tavernier absent, Dessers stepped up. He replicated what Gillespie had done; with great assurance, he sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and Rangers were level.
As the teams lined up afterwards, it looked like Rangers were now deploying a back three of Lundstram, Yfeko and Goldson. Danilo looked to be alongside Dessers in a 3-5-2 formation.
But as the Rangers players tried to get used to their new shape, Gillespie almost scored a second goal for Morton. The Morton captain broke into the box, but Butland was off his line quickly to thwart him. It was a worrying moment all the same.
Angst and anxiety were prevalent, but stress levels were reduced considerably after 68 minutes. A pass from Dessers picked out Danilo, and he stepped inside before firing a right foot shot under MacDonald. The sigh of relief was audible!
On 70 minutes, Hagi rapped in a shot that stung the palm of MacDonald, and all of a sudden, Rangers were playing with much more freedom. For the first time in the match, there was fluidity about the attacking play from the home side, and at the end of another flowing move, Danilo nodded Lundstram’s excellent cross against the bar.
The intricate interplay around the penalty area was much more pleasing on the eye that the stodgy and static play that had prevailed in the first hour, and Hagi was desperately unlucky to see his curling shot rise about an inch too high. The Romanian remains on the fringes of the team, but he offered some glimpses of class that suggested he could have a positive impact on the team this season.
The rain had relented by now, and the sun was out, the only shadows on the pitch being cast by the players and the Bill Struth Main Stand. Ten minutes remained, and Beale made a further two changes. Adam Devine came on for Rabbi Matondo, while Dessers was replaced by Kemar Roofe. The big Nigerian looked cumbersome at times and his first touch was often heavy, but forwards feed off the confidence scoring goals creates. Getting on the scoresheet, albeit from the penalty spot, should do Dessers the world of good as he tries to find his feet in Scottish football.
Sima almost added a third after 85 minutes. Danilo, who looked much sharper, rolled a pass to the Brighton loanee on the left, and when he cut inside, his deflected shot drew a miraculous one-handed save from the evergreen MacDonald.
But a single-goal lead is a precarious one. One slip, one lapse in concentration could have been costly. Morton forced a couple of corners, but calm was restored as hearts fluttered when Butland confidently clutched the second one. His intervention was timely once again, and Beale looks to have seamlessly and successfully plugged the gap left by the retirement of Allan McGregor.
The fourth official, Grant Irvine, flashed the additional time up, and given the VAR interventions, eight minutes was the least we could have expected. And as Irvine lowered his board, Danilo looked to crown an impressive display with a goal, but his curled effort dipped wide of the far post.
Morton were now going ‘gung-ho’, flooding their forward areas as they searched for the equaliser that would force extra time. That should have offered Rangers some space to exploit and kill the game, but rather than do this, there was a reversion to the slow play that had pock-marked much of the early part of the match. And Beale’s side were almost made to pay a heavy price for that, as it took a last-gasp challenge from Yfeko to thwart George Oakley.
Morton then forced a late corner. It was time to watch the game through the cracks in your fingers once again. Mercifully, Broadfoot, who did well to pull the ball down in the box, poked his shot over the bar.
It certainly wasn’t pretty, and the only real positive is that Rangers are in the draw for the quarter finals. There is plenty for Michael Beale to ponder, not just ahead of Tuesday and the visit of PSV but for the season ahead too. This should have been much more comfortable than it was even with the number of changes Beale made. The fact it wasn’t may well loom large in the manager’s thoughts and give him a few sleepless nights as he tries to build a team that can deliver success on all fronts this season.
The quest for silverware hasn’t been derailed, it remains on track. But let’s not kid ourselves, unless things changequickly, there is likely to be a bumpy road ahead as Rangers look to add to their impressive Roll of Honour.