By Alistair Aird
On 12 March 1949 goals from Torry Gillick and Willie Paton earned Bill Struth’s Rangers a 2-0 win over Raith Rovers in the Scottish League Cup Final. That would be the first leg of the first-ever domestic Treble.
In the 74 years since the two sides have gone head to head on numerous occasions, and more often than not it is Rangers who come out on top. There have been many memorable moments like a 10-2 win at Ibrox on 16 December 1967 – Sir Alex Ferguson scored a hat-trick for Rangers – and a beautiful bending shot from the edge of the penalty area from Ally McCoist that arced over the goalkeeper and earned McCoist another milestone moment in January 1996. Our greatest ever sharpshooter had now supplanted Bob McPhail as Rangers’ top goalscorer in league football.
McCoist was also among the goals when Rangers beat Raith in a Scottish Cup replay in 1988, but when the sides last jousted with each other in this competition at Ibrox in 2015, Rangers were still reeling from the departure of their hero. A totemic figure in troubled times, McCoist had left his role as manager a few weeks before the last-16 tie, and Raith took full advantage of the turmoil the Light Blues were in. Battles in the boardroom were escalating and that seemed to be starting to have a detrimental impact on the field. The 2-1 defeat against Raith was Rangers’ fifth in their last nine matches.
Although on nowhere near the same scale, there was a backdrop of disenchantment with the board ahead of this tie too. Although the swashbuckling performance in midweek against Hibernian had given the Rangers fans a tantalising glimpse of what can happen when the players follow Michael Beale’s blueprint and wreak havoc, the hangover from defeat against Celtic in the League Cup Final was still lingering. The board had borne the brunt of the criticism in the wake of that demoralising defeat, so with the Scottish Cup now the only realistic chance of adding a silver lining to a disappointing season on the whole, the players simply had to deliver a victory and seal a place in the last four to try and stymie further unrest.
Beale made only one change to the side that humbled Hibernian, with John Lundstram preferred to Ryan Jack in midfield. Jack, colossal in Edinburgh, had been nursing a calf complaint of late. Given his injury record, you could therefore understand his omission on this occasion. Jack will be hugely important in the closing weeks of the season, so it was a good call from Beale to give him a rest given this would have been his third game in eight days. He merits an extended contract too.
Raith, sporting a change kit that looked like one of those highlighter pens you get, came into the game without a win in the three matches they had played since knocking Motherwell out of the Scottish Cup. Draws with Queen’s Park and Ayr United had been followed by a 3-0 thrashing against the side Rangers had overcome in the previous round, Partick Thistle.
Rovers arrived ravaged by injury too, but they almost took a shock lead in the opening minute. A lazy pass from Goldson was intercepted by Esmael Goncalves, and from just inside his own half, he tried to lob Allan McGregor. Fortunately for the home side, his effort drifted wide.
After that Ian Murray’s side retreated and formed two shocking pink banks of five in front of their goalkeeper, Jamie MacDonald. Rangers would have to be patient as they tried to break them down, and it took them almost 10 minutes to force a save from MacDonald, the veteran turning Tavernier’s shot round the post after some enterprising play down the right.
That seemed to be the catalyst for Rangers to open up and pull Raith from side to side. Passing was slicker, movement was fluid, with the forward players interchanging regularly, and Tavernier almost added to his impressive tally of assists when he drilled a low cross towards Colak at the front post. The Croatian, buoyed by a brace in the last game which took his goal tally for the season to 17, was thwarted on this occasion. Many have debated as to whether he fits into Beale’s style of play, but Colak is a penalty box predator who will score regularly. Unfortunately, this would be a game that would pass him by, but with the likes of Kent and Cantwell supplying ammunition, Colak will be among the goals again before the campaign concludes.
Colak was once again deployed on the right of the front three, with Kent in a more central role and Sakala zipping up and down the left. The trio had combined to devastating effect at Easter Road, but by the midway point of the first half, none of them were getting much change out of a stoic and stuffy Raith rear-guard.
As the clock ticked on to the half hour mark you could sense an anxiousness and a nervousness in the stands. Former Rangers man Murray’s game plan was working. His side were showing great discipline and concentration, marshalled superbly by Tom Lang, although you felt that they would be hard pushed to keep that up for the hour that remained.
For Rangers there was a lot of huffing, puffing, and passing, but not much in the way of clear-cut chances. Lundstram hooked a left foot shot over the bar before Sakala’s strike from distance was charged down. Kent then bobbed and weaved and set his sights. Unfortunately, they weren’t set on the target, his right foot shot rising high over the bar.
Five minutes shy of the interval we saw the first yellow card brandished; Aidan Connolly crudely tugging back Kent as Rangers looked to spring forward. And in the action that followed, Raith’s resistance was finally broken. Barisic’s corner was met flush on the forehead by Goldson, the Englishman’s header ruffling the rigging and giving Rangers the lead and some welcome relief.
All of a sudden, the game opened up. Barisic played in Kent who stood up a lovely cross that was flicked away from Sakala. Colak then stooped to head towards goal, but the ball glanced off him and spun wide.
The stats at half-time didn’t lie. Rangers had registered 11 shots on goal – albeit only three were on target – and had won nine corners. The audacious effort from Goncalves in the opening minute was all the visitors had mustered in reply.
The question now was how would Raith approach the second half? They needed to score, so you would have thought they would have had to emerge from their defensive cocoon at some point. That should then have given Rangers more gaps to exploit.
But if the visitors were going to come out and go for a goal, it wasn’t going to be any time soon. The early exchanges mirrored what we had seen for much of the first half, Rangers patiently probing, Raith resilient and resistant. Rangers were guilty of over-elaborating in and around the box at this point. Often there were too many touches or one pass too many.
Tavernier’s deflected shot struck the outside of the post after 55 minutes, the subsequent corner being delayed by a VAR check for handball. No penalty was forthcoming, but three minutes later, the home side were two up. After Dylan Easton curled a tame effort into the midriff of Allan McGregor, Rangers sprung to the other end, and Tavernier’s cross was diverted beyond MacDonald by the unfortunate Ryan Nolan, a defender who has Inter Milan and Getafe on his CV.
Nicolas Raskin was impressing once again. Like a little buzzbomb, the Belgian was so often the fulcrum for Rangers. So much of the play involved him at some point, and he almost claimed an assist when he popped a pass square to Tavernier. The Rangers captain’s goalbound effort was headed away for a corner.
With 66 minutes played, Beale rung the changes. With Goldson and Barisic a booking away from missing the semi-finals, it made sense to withdraw them and bring on John Souttar and Ridvan Yilmaz. The other alteration saw Arfield replace Sakala, the Canadian initially joining Colak in the forward area before dropping deeper as the half wore on.
After 70 minutes, Cantwell curled in a right foot shot from distance that fell wide of target, and a minute later, Yilmaz sped to the bye-line and picked out Arfield who saw his shot beaten away by MacDonald. It was good to see the young Turkish international get some minutes, and he will provide some stiff competition for dad-to-be Barisic if he continues in the same industrious manner as he did in his time on the pitch.
Two further changes were made by the home side after 78 minutes. Colak and Kent were then men to come off, with Morelos and Hagi introduced. Morelos is rumoured to have penned a pre-contract agreement with Sevilla, so we might not have many more sightings of him in a Rangers jersey. Since picking up an injury almost a year ago, the Colombian hasn’t offered anything close to what he had done prior to that. Allowing him to run his contract down will be another criticism levelled at the board, although his stock has steadily diminished as this season has worn on. His body language and work ethic at the moment say it all, our top goalscorer in European competition will be plying his trade on pastures new next season.
Arfield added some icing to the cake with a well-taken goal after 88 minutes. Hagi fed the ball to Cantwell who played a beautiful pass to Arfield who finished with aplomb. Morelos was then denied by MacDonald. Raskin also warmed the gloves of MacDonald with a fizzing shot from distance, and a game that had been in a prolonged lull suddenly burst to life momentarily.
In the end it was run-of-the-mill and routine for Rangers. They now await the draw for the last four. Whether it’s at that stage or in the Final, it is likely that Celtic will have to be faced and overcome at some point if the Cup is to be retained. For that to happen there needs to be a performance akin to midweek in Edinburgh with an associated belief that has been lacking in recent meetings against them. The gulf or chasm isn’t as vast as what ‘learned’ individuals make it out to be. Mentality and mindset will bridge any gap. If the Rangers players can find that then there is every possibility that season 2022/23 will have a silver lining after all.