Rangers may have rubber-stamped their rise from the ashes on Tuesday night but Mark Warburton knows only too well the phoenix is yet to take full flight. The champagne, which remained on ice after Raith Rovers’ late equaliser on Saturday, was no doubt swigged once Dumbarton were beaten 1-0 at a packed Ibrox but not savoured for too long and it is unlikely the Scottish Championship trophy will be paraded at the front of a cabinet that contains 54 top-flight titles
The scars of the past four years, the financial meltdown in 2012 which led to a tumble down the divisions, the trips to Alloa, Elgin and Berwick and the indignity of a Ramsden Cup final defeat by Raith Rovers in 2014 are permanent and while a sense of relief among supporters greets Rangers’ return to the Premiership, inevitably thoughts immediately turn to bridging the gap to Celtic, who drew 0-0 at Dundee, and are closing in on a fifth successive title.
That may seem ambitious but after a four-year journey that has included 104 wins, 26 draws and 16 defeats, that accounted for Ally McCoist after nearly three years of laying the foundations for last night’s achievement, Warburton has no interest in smelling the roses.
He knows the importance of thinking ahead and doing so while showing the frugality in the transfer market that has reaped reward this season. And he appreciates there is more at stake than a place in the final when Rangers face Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final on Sunday week, not least after Neil Lennon recently questioned whether the former Brentford manager is ready for his first taste of the Old Firm derby which provoked a defiant response: “If you can’t deal with that, don’t be in the business.”
Indeed, even before Rangers’ promotion was confirmed Warburton was asked whether his side would provide a credible challenge to Celtic next season and, his response to Lennon aside, he chose his words carefully. “My expectation is that we have to go into that league and be highly competitive. I view highly competitive as that we’ve got to be a very, very tough team to beat and to break down and that we go into games expecting to win them. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re not going to challenge for the league. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to win the league.”
What is clear is that Warburton’s recruitment over the summer will be fundamental to meeting expectations. Relying on his Football League knowledge his signings of Martyn Waghorn, James Tavernier and Wes Foderingham have proved successful, as has Harry Forrester, prolific under Warburton during their time together at Brentford and set to commit his long-term future at Ibrox after arriving in January.
Financially, Rangers may be in far calmer waters compared with 2012 but the cost of returning to the Premiership was apparent, as was the supporters’ boycott of the previous board, when reporting operating losses increased by 11% to £9.04m for the financial year to June 2015 last month.
Warburton is confident, however, that he will received funds to strengthen a squad, adding that “the board haven’t said no. Far from it. They have been really supportive”, but it was perhaps telling that he chose to use his programme notes for Tuesday’s match highlighting the widening gap in spending power between Scottish clubs and those in England, stating before the match: “If we keep ignoring it, we are going to keep on paying the price.”
Rangers may be back among Scotland’s elite but, as a former city trader in London, Warburton knows the real value of a bargain.