Rangers boss says no motivation is required for Celtic clash
It is debatable whether Rangers actually relish this afternoon's instant shot at redemption. The dust had barely settled on Celtic's 5-1 demolition of their Old Firm rivals in September when the pair were drawn together in the semi-finals of the League Cup. Stung by what he regarded as wildly excessive coverage of Rangers' woes at Celtic Park, Mark Warburton pointed to the personnel overhaul he implemented during the close season as a mitigating circumstance. Now pressure returns to the Rangers' manager as he seeks to demonstrate even small measures of progress during the intervening weeks.
As is typical, Warburton's pre-match analysis is not opposition-specific. "Our focus has been, every week in the league, to try to get a better level of performance and a more consistent level of performance," he explains. "This is another chance, against another very good team, to win a semi-final. There is no motivation required for the players. Whoever we are playing, this is a cup semi-final."
Warburton, not unreasonably, points towards a domestic record that is not as bad as many would portray. The key point, as ever in Glasgow, relates to comparison; the arrival of Brendan Rodgers at Celtic, relatively lavish spending and the immediate return of Champions League football automatically makes Rangers seem like poor relations.
"We have played 14 competitive games this season - we've lost two," he says. "I'm not happy drawing games but we can bed in players. There's a number of players that have been introduced to the squad and it's a natural process. We knew what we had to do in the summer. We took a gamble at the start of last season. We had a really lean squad. You could reel the team off every week. We had players who played a lot of minutes and by the time the Scottish Cup final arrived, we were running on empty.
"There was this talk that I was making a statement at the time by naming only five subs. We had nobody else, simple as that. The squad size was a gamble. What did we learn? We needed greater depth and quality within the squad and that's why we increased it by two this year.
"We are in a stronger position now. When you lose a game or draw, you have to keep your head down. But the fact is that we are gelling a number of players together, players are getting used to how you play - and the demands."
Surely the last stand of one of those pre-season signings came in the last derby. Joey Barton's switch north has proven a disaster for Rangers, to the point where the only talk now is of when and how a parting of the ways will transpire. In a high-profile incident the week before last, Warburton was removed from a press conference while refusing to answer questions about the suspended midfield player.
"Whatever business you're in, sometimes you can't talk about things," Warburton says. "You can sit there and they think you're avoiding the question or you can say, 'They're going through a process here', which any other business would do. But that doesn't sell papers or get listeners on a radio show. The point is sometimes clubs will [speak] or, if they can't, there's a reason why. They're not avoiding the question or chickening out. They're just doing what they have to do."
Barton was not named in a subsequent answer, but it was clear Warburton wanted to dismiss any sense that he resents players who might be prone to speaking their mind. "The first message to the players on the first day at the club was, 'If my sessions are rubbish, knock on the door and say 'I didn't get that session'. No problem'," says the former Brentford manager.
"If you say, 'Oi, gaffer, that was rubbish', I'll give you what for. It's how you relay the message. If they tell me, I quite like that, because I then have to tweak. If the food's not right, I tell the chef. I don't go in and say, 'that lunch was crap'. I say, 'I'm not so sure about chicken today, chef'. Same message, but it's how you tell it.
"The players know most because they're involved in the game - 99 times out of 100, the first question I'll ask at half-time will be, 'What are your thoughts, gents?' They're involved in it. I'm watching from the sidelines."
Rangers will inevitably draw on their victory, also at Hampden Park, over Celtic in last season's Scottish Cup semi-final. Win or lose, though, it is hard not to get the impression Warburton is uncomfortable with one fixture defining his reputation.
"We knew the significance of that game and that win, because of where the club had been for four years," the Rangers manager admits. "But the record books don't show that we had a great semi-final and then lost the final. They show that we lost the final.
"What we have to do is focus on ourselves. What does that mean? It's about us laying strong foundations here. We have to get it right. We have to get the academy right. We have to be producing players to come into the team to impact on the balance sheet in two or three years' time. We have to get the staffing right, get the infrastructure right. We have to."
Sunday Indo Sport