I would imagine the overriding feeling amongst the Rangers players and staff at the final whistle in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final will have been one of relief.
Relief on one hand because they had managed to recover from Wednesday night’s disappointment in Seville and win a domestic cup for the first time since 2011. On the other hand, it brought an end to their season after a gruelling 65 games.
In the lead up to Saturday’s climax, it had been a tough few days emotionally for the players on and off the pitch. As if the defeat against Frankfurt wasn’t draining enough for everyone associated with the club, on Friday they attended the funeral of their much loved kitman Jimmy Bell which will have been hard on those who knew him best.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst knew arriving at Saturday’s showpiece it was going to be tough physically and mentally for his players but the resilience and character of his side in recent times has been unquestionable.
Unexpectedly, Rangers lacked their usual spark in the opening exchanges but the key was not going behind and making their task even harder, which they achieved.
It wasn’t plain sailing and I’m sure they didn’t think it would be. To add to the drama, they had to go deep into their reserves and through the agony of 120 minutes for the second time in just four days. As a squad, though, once again they showed incredible mental toughness and levels of fitness to eventually overcome a dogged Hearts side.
Deep down, I’m not sure this Rangers side would have been capable of such a feat three months ago as they dropped league points and looked as if they’d lost their way. They were at a crossroads and need some leadership and direction. Van Bronckhorst stood up it has to be said and the turnaround in mentality since he started to stamp his authority on the team has been evident.
His style of management, mixed with his tactical knowledge, came to the fore when needed most. Not just that but the progression of players such as Scott Wright, John Lundstrum and Calvin Bassey has heartened the Rangers fans and the manager deserves huge credit for that.
Winning a Scottish Cup doesn’t make up for the disappointment in being second best to Celtic in the Premiership and losing the Europa League final — of course it doesn’t — but it’s the monkey off the manager’s back to get a trophy in the cabinet six months after taking over. He will feel deep down it could and possibly should have been more but no doubt he will have learned lessons along the way. He’s laid a marker down for what the Rangers fans can see next season and beyond — a team that is set up to win, a team that is fully committed and prepared to go the extra mile for one another. Those characteristics are a good starting point.
Rangers’ season will be viewed with mixed emotions, I’d imagine.
The Scottish Premiership title and automatic Champions League football was the aim at the start but they came up short against a consistent and relentless Celtic side.
Champions League is still a possibility via the non-champions qualifying route although will be tough but the Europa League has given fans memories forever that will last forever. The Rangers fans will speak about some of the great nights at Ibrox for many years to come.
Van Bronckhorst will now take a well-earned break but I’m sure in the background work will already have started, particularly on what’s next for some of the senior players in particular — most notably Allan McGregor and Steven Davis.
Football doesn’t stand still, there’s always another challenge around the corner and a summer recruitment drive will be high on the agenda.
Rangers will have Celtic in their sights and this time they will be the hunters as opposed to being hunted.