The Scottish domestic season makes an early start this weekend with the opening ties in the revamped League Cup competition.
Rangers travel to Fir Park, Motherwell for the first time in 14 months – for the first time indeed since the hopes of securing promotion from the Championship at the first time of asking ended in controversy and drama with a 0-3 defeat on the day and a 1-6 aggregate loss.
An on-pitch battle between Lee Erwin and Bilel Mohsni was followed by a pitch invasion from the home fans that could easily have led to a pitched battle had the visiting support not showed a remarkable amount of restraint.
That game marked the last day of Stuart McCall’s temporary reign as manager – but on Saturday Mark Warburton will lead an almost–entirely new Rangers to the Lanarkshire steel town determined to get the new campaign off to a flying start.
Eight new signings have arrived to date at Ibrox – but not all will feature in this opener with Jordan Rossiter on England Under-19 International duty at the European Championships.
Niko Kranchar and Matt Crooks not yet recovered from injury and Joey Barton and Lee Hodson probably omitted due to having arrived in Glasgow later than the bulk of the squad.
The Rangers manager’s views on the mid-July start and a schedule that sees four games in the next ten days are well known.
“We’ve got to use these matches as a pre-season programme - we have no other choice. It’s not ideal because it’s one of the three major trophies - but this game has certainly come way too early in terms of the quality of opponent that we face on Saturday.
“Four games in nine days with the highest ranked opponent first is far from ideal.
“Over these four games we will select different teams with different combinations and giving players a different amount of pitch time. We will rotate very significantly with a number of changes.
“For example, we’ll rotate the goalkeepers and we’ll use everyone from the young players right the way through the team.”
Warburton is fully conscious of the fact that the Scottish League Cup is a traditional and important competition, an integral part of the domestic season and the first leg of a potential treble for aspiring clubs.
“We are very aware of the significance of the competition - but the most important thing for us has to be our preparation. Of course we know that it’s a formidable test that Motherwell will offer us and that is a really difficult challenge at a tough venue – but this tie is very early in our preparations for the season and everything must be geared towards August 6th.” (the opening of the League campaign),
And Warburton was full of enthusiasm as he reflected on his eight new signings.
“The new players have been fitting in well. Clint Hill, Joey Barton, Niko, Matt Wilks- the more senior players have been great - and we’re delighted with Matt Crooks and Josh Windass, with the way that they’ve adapted to the squad.
“Lee Hodson came in a little bit later, but he’s been fitting in well tooso it’s so far so good for us.”
One year ago Warburton announced his arrival with a stunning 6-2 Challenge Cup victory over Hibs at Easter Road. It would be unrealistic to expect anything like a similar scoreline – but the travelling Light Blue will be looking for a winning start, even if it will not be the most important fixture of the season.