Rangers FC 2016/17 Season Preview: Will Warburton work his wand in the Premiership?

After four years in the lower tiers, are Rangers well equipped for battle in the Scottish Premiership?

Rangers FC 2016/17 Season Preview: Will Warburton work his wand in the Premiership?
Lee Wallace holds the championship trophy aloft | Photo: dailyrecord.co.uk

When James Tavernier's strike hit the net in the 50th minute at home to Dumbarton in April, Rangers had secured themselves a place in the Scottish Premiership, ending a long four year journey to the top flight. 

The year that was

The season that The Gers' players, fans and staff alike would have wanted the summer before had came to fruition as promotion was achieved and they, at last, won the Challenge Cup at the fourth time of asking. Not only that, a spectacular win against Celtic was perhaps the icing on the cake for some fans after the wind-ups, banter and turmoil over the last four years. 

Rangers celebrate the penalty victory over Celtic | Photo: irishmirror.ie
Rangers celebrate the penalty victory over Celtic | Photo: irishmirror.ie

New manager Mark Warburton and club assistant and hero David Weir now have a new challenge to face as they enter the upper reaches of Scottish football as they try and chase down top two Aberdeen and Celtic for the coveted Premiership title.

However, it must be said that it wasn't always plain sailing last year for the duo as their Rangers team seemed to down tools after promotion was achieved with only two wins out of the following seven games. Not even a long awaited Scottish Cup final after a short break at the end of the Championship season could galvanize Rangers as Hibernian ran out 3-2 winners at Hampden Park thanks to a late David Gray header in stoppage time. 

The current state of play

The light blues got back to competitive action in the League Cup at the weekend when a spirited second half performance was the difference as they ran out as eventual 0-2 winners at Fir Park against Motherwell with goals from Tavernier and Martyn Waghorn. However, it could have been much worse for the away side as they had to overcome a difficult first half in which the momentum was well with the Steelmen

After only a single pre-season match, a win against second tier American outfit Charleston Battery on tour of South Carolina, Rangers came up against Motherwell who had five friendlies under their belt.

Many of the defensive frailties from last season were still prevalent in the familiar squad set out by Warburton for the revamped cup contest. Yet again Rangers were poor at defending from set-pieces, their right side was exploited and Danny Wilson's weakness in positioning still haven't gone away. On the contrary, goal scoring full-back Taviernier and top scorer Waghorn haven't seemed to lose their way to the net as they got their firsts of the season with similar speculative strikes. 

Transfers

Coming in thus far have been a whole host of players, most of which are familiar to football fans. The three famous names of Joey Barton, Niko Kranjčar and Clint Hill topped the bill of signings and were brought in to give experience to a mostly inexperienced Rangers team whose players haven't played top tier football. Critics have wondered the signing policy of bringing in more older heads into a team that last season was young, fast and vibrant. Furthermore, names such as Barton and Kranjčar don't come cheap and could upset players from last season by breaking the wage structure.

Barton was all smiles upon signing | Photo: rangersfc.co.uk
Barton was all smiles upon signing | Photo: rangersfc.co.uk

Going out of the club have been bit-parters from last season such as Dean Shiels, Nicky Law and Nicky Clark - midfielders and a striker who, if they remained, would be fighting a losing battle in a squad crammed with midfielders an on-form scorers. With Barton and Kranjčar now some of the names in that midfield list, it would have been unlikely that Shiels, Clark and Law would have featured next season.

Domestic battles aplenty next season

With entry into the Scottish Premiership comes an increased level of quality than what Rangers have been used to over the past few years. No longer will the Ibrox club play part-time players and to lower crowds and be expected to win comfortably every match. Next season Rangers will have to lock horns with champions Celtic, runners-up Aberdeen, and Hearts who are always in the top four. Every second or third game will be tough challenge for Rangers, and if they have set their sights on the Premiership title, consistency is key. 

After coming close in last season's Scottish Cup, Rangers will also plan to do one better by going and winning it. Suspected competitors Celtic, Aberdeen and Hearts will perhaps be playing additional matches in European campaigns, meaning more rest and concentration on the task at hand for Rangers. It remains to be seen whether The Gers will take advantage of the extra rest going on the cup final result against Hibernian. 

The players in squads are of course key to how the team does and with the new names expected to be first team players it will be interesting to see who is a mainstay from last season's Championship winning side. The top players last season included veteran striker Kenny Miller, Lee Wallace and James Tavernier. These three names not only chipped in with goals but they also inspired their team mates through matches. Miller still had the pace and the legs to cause defenders at all levels danger, Wallace continued to overlap and cause his opposing full-back problems and likewise Tavernier liked to bomb forward and score the odd screamer.

That being said, there were players who perhaps did not have the greatest of seasons last year. One example is Danny Wilson, who was brought in from Hearts after captaining them in a title winning campaign. His partnership with Rob Kiernan at centre-back wasn't the strongest and especially against the smaller teams Wilson was not defensively sound with his lack of marking prowess and enough pace to track back in time. Although he didn't have as bad a season as Wilson, goalkeeper Wes Foderingham wouldn't have put down last season as his best performance wise. Like his defence, his inability during set-pieces and lack of leadership often lead to incoordination at the back.

The one to watch 

McKay in action against Celtic | Photo: Squawka.com
McKay in action against Celtic | Photo: Squawka.com

The player to watch this season however is winger Barrie McKay. The 21-year-old was almost finished at Rangers, however, under Warburton, McKay has found a new lease of life and is fast becoming a fan favourite. His drive and determination on the ball is something that Rangers didn't have for quite a long time and it will be a welcome sight for the fans to see that type of player return to the starting 11. Known for his odd long ranger, McKay's goal against Celtic in last season's Scottish Cup semi-final will have put him in good stead with any doubters, if there was any.

With the increase in player calibre it is perhaps expected that next season Rangers will go on to replicate Hearts of last season and have a strong showing in their season following promotion. To push Hearts for their European spot or set their sights on a dream higher finish will require consistency and strong performances at the right time and against teams they hope to challenge against. An ambitious league win would put Warburton's stock in very good stead and would be the next challenge for Rangers to manage to hold on to him.