Rangers’ victory over Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final at the end of Mark Warburton’s first season in charge must go down as one of the strangest games in Old Firm folklore. A stunning victory against the odds, a superb game with superb goals, and a climactic finish on penalties - it had all the hallmarks of a legendary victory, and should hold a special place in everybody’s heart. To some extent it still does - but of course, it’s soured by what came after.
Not just the unforgivable defeat in the final, but also how the players reacted to the step up. The hubris, the transfer window which was gradually revealed to be a cataclysmic disaster, the same mistakes every week, and the repeated failure before finally giving up on the team completely. It’s the reason why some Bears have since mused that that particular victory was “the worst thing that could’ve possibly happened to us.”
It’s nonsense, of course. If seeing Tims greet and Bears celebrate is a bad thing, then we might as well liquidate. We beat them, and that will never be anything other than fantastic whenever it happens. But it does nonetheless warn of the dangers of hubris and complacency in the Old Firm environment. Sometimes you can’t see the dangers ahead. The bookies had us at a ridiculously bad price to win the league if Celtic appointed a competent manager, and they did. Maybe stick to matched betting in future - you can try Profit Accumulator for that.
Expectations were duly dampened for the season ahead after the 2016/17 season drew to a close, with the bar being set at at least comfortably finishing ahead of Aberdeen and seeing whether Celtic remained indomitable before deciding how well we were doing on that front. But since then, the club have embarked on a pleasantly surprising spending spree, and look to have delivered players well above the calibre we’d previously even missed out on, let alone actually acquired. And things have changed again. A challenge is now expected.
Much like the win in the cup semi, even if this newfound hubris does come back to haunt us, it won’t make it a bad thing that we’ve signed lots of seemingly good players. But it does make it hard to figure out what Pedro Caixinha is required to do this season, exactly. If Celtic prove as ludicrously consistent again, it will be hard to be too angry at the failure of a serious title challenge to materialise, as long as nobody is troubling us for second place.
But we all know that can’t be the case forever. And yes, as Gore Vidal didn’t say, it’s not just enough to win games, you have to hope Celtic make an arse of it, but we surely can’t have the consistency of our rivals dictating our hiring and firing policies.
While we’ve signed some very good players, there are also some question marks remaining. We essentially needed to replace the entire team, and that’s almost impossible to do in one window without leaving some pretty big holes to be filled. Some of the players signed will be duds - they always are. Hopefully a lot less than last year, but it’ll happen. The wings look weak. There still won’t be too much depth in midfield. There are still questions over Lee Wallace and James Tavernier. Potential problems are there, and always will be.
Perhaps, in that case, it’s time for the fans to give Caixinha the sort of faith in time that the board have chosen to instead express in fun coupons. Obviously, we should be cruising well ahead of the likes of Aberdeen, Hearts, and Hibs - that’s non-negotiable - but as far as anything else goes, we probably have to recognise that our only hope of matching or besting Celtic at the moment is to wait for an opportunity and seize it. They have far more money than us, and all other things being equal they should be well out of sight by the time the season gets to its vinegar strokes.
The problem is that we occupy a position that no other club does. We’re not getting the revenue Celtic have, but we’re still miles ahead of Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen. But you can’t have it both ways, in that case - if we ought to comfortably finish ahead of that trio, then by rights Celtic should finish comfortably ahead of us. There’s no other team at our level.
The answer, then - do that, and see what happens with Celtic. Maybe they’ll have a bad window, maybe they’ll have injuries and lose form, maybe Rodgers will go. It happens all the time. Cycles, as someone once called them. It’s probably not Celtic’s turn just yet, but you never know what’s coming. We can’t legislate for challenging or winning the league right now - just to be ready to take advantage of an opportunity if one comes along.