Graham Ruthven analyses what's going wrong in the blue half of Glasgow
For every demise of a manager there is a watershed moment. A moment after which it’s almost impossible to envisage a route to recovery.
From that point on the vortex only spins quicker and quicker, engulfing everything and everyone around it. Mark Warburton might just have suffered such a moment on Wednesday night.
Rangers were thumped 4-1 by a Hearts side that under Ian Cathro had won just two of their previous eight games, leaving Warburton looking and sounding like a broken man in his post-match interview. A broken man with no explanation for what he has just witnessed.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he shrugged, exasperated, embarrassed. “We are Rangers Football Club, we don’t lose 4-1. But we did tonight.” He should have seen it coming, though. Rangers Football Club, they may be, but Warburton’s side have this season been far from the dominant force their fans demand they should be.
No mistake should be made, Rangers fans are indeed demanding - that comes with supporting historically the most successful club in the country - but even taking such a high benchmark into account Warburton has struggled badly this season. He might not be able to bear the brunt of much more for much longer.
Rangers Clint Hill and Lee Wallace are dejected after the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership match at Tynecastle Stadium, Edinburgh. Picture by Jeff Holmes PA Wire/PA Images
25 points adrift of rivals Celtic at the top of the table, it now looks increasingly unlikely that Rangers will even finish second, with Aberdeen just two points behind with a game in-hand. As the club with the second biggest budget in the country, this constitutes a systematic failure, with many pointing the finger at the Ibrox side’s scattergun transfer policy in the last two windows. For that, owner Dave King, whose promise of a £30 million transfer market war chest has never materialised, has shouldered much of the blame, but that doesn’t mean Warburton should be exempt from criticism. Far from it.
The 54-year-old should be doing much better with what he has. While Rangers played an attractive, dynamic brand of football in the second tier last season, they have been stodgy, disjointed and desperately lacking in identity in the Scottish Premiership this season.
What’s more, their away record is nothing short of abysmal. Rangers have won just five of their 12 matches on the road this season, suffering damaging defeats at Celtic, Aberdeen and of course, Hearts, to severely dent their chances of finishing second. When it matters most, the Gers more often than not crumbled under the pressure.
“I don't think there is a problem with big games. I don't see it as a big problem,” insisted the Warburton when asked on Thursday whether his team lacked bottle. “We went to Aberdeen and I felt dominated and (we) should have won the game. We have gone to all these various other venues, Inverness, Partick, Dundee, Motherwell, we have won games of football very convincingly. The Parkhead game was well documented. Hearts, we had two bad performances, it's as simple as that.”
Hearts' Don Cowie celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game during the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership match at Tynecastle Stadium, Edinburgh. Picture by Jeff Holmes PA Wire/PA Images
The evidence speaks for itself, though. The regression in both Rangers’ play and their character as a team under Warburton in such a short space of time has been remarkable. Remember, this is a man who was hailed as a hero by the Ibrox faithful upon leading Rangers back to the top flight last year. Now, large sections of the club’s support are calling for his head.
Some will direct their ire towards chairman King, and rightly so. The South African-based businessman has fallen well short of his promise to “over-invest,” as he put it at the time, in the club. In addition, it’s Scottish football’s worst kept secret that Warburton and King don’t exactly see eye to eye. Warburton has more than once this season dodged questions over his relationship with the Rangers chairman, who only sometimes jets into Glasgow to run the club in person.
But Warburton is the manager, paid to manage the team. At present, he is not doing that as well as he could or should be, with critical flaws in his coaching means and methods the primary cause behind Rangers’ struggles. He might have been short of an explanation after Wednesday’s humbling at Tynecastle because he himself is the only explanation. There’s nobody else to blame.
Of course, as long as Rangers remain in the hunt for second spot Warburton’s job is likely safe. But beyond that there are questions to be asked of the Englishman’s place at the club. Is he really the man to one day take the Ibrox side back to the top of Scottish football? It’s getting harder to argue that he is.