Many a Scottish football team exited the M8 at junction 23 and felt trepidation multiply as their coach sped up the slip road and on to Broomloan Road.
By the time they disembarked on Edmiston Drive, players often resembled quivering wrecks. This is no longer the case. Visiting Ibrox Stadium is not the daunting experience it once was.
Rangers’ financial collapse in 2012 changed the game’s landscape and forced one of Scotland’s most recognisable names to start again in football’s bottom tier. The fallout from liquidation is still evident at a club who, despite their vast fanbase, have yet to return to the imperious and intimidating superpower they once were. Whether they ever will is a pertinent question.
Hearts are the guests tomorrow night at a venue which will hold no fear for head coach Robbie Neilson or any of his squad. They won 2-1 at Ibrox on the opening weekend of the Scottish Championship season last August. An encore came at Tynecastle in November when they beat Rangers 2-0. Results since then leave them 13 points ahead of the Glasgow club in the race for automatic promotion to the Scottish Premiership.
Hibs have also won at Ibrox this season to underline the fact Rangers’ straightforward ascent through the bottom two divisions of Scottish football will not be repeated in the second tier. And that’s only on-field matters. Manager Ally McCoist was recently placed on gardening leave after resigning and activating a 12-month notice period. Meanwhile, the Ibrox boardroom presently carries as much stability as a Syrian border town.
All of the above plays into Hearts’ hands ahead of tomorrow night. Rangers need to win to close the aforementioned points gap but in the league their visitors are unbeaten, unnerved and feeling confident about their trip to Glasgow. Hearts know they are the team everyone wants to beat having gone 20 matches without defeat. They are relishing the challenge. Unlike many teams in the past, it seems their players can’t wait to get to Ibrox.
“No matter what team you are, I don’t think you should fear anyone,” said winger Sam Nicholson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “If you go into a game being afraid of it, chances are you’re going to lose. There isn’t any fear. We just need to deal with it in the right way.
“It’s good, the boys are enjoying it. It’s a bit of a compliment to us that everyone is wanting to beat us. Obviously, being top of the league, we’re loving it. We love being at the top, we love winning games and we just need to try and make sure we keep doing it.
“We just need to approach Friday like any other game. There is still a lot of the season still to be played. It’s a big game, of course it is, but every game is big for us. We need to go out and play our game, not get caught up saying this and that. We’re not really focused on what other teams are saying in the papers, things like we’ll do this and we’ll do that. Robbie is telling us just to focus on ourselves. It’s about this club, it’s not about these other clubs.
“I don’t know how Rangers are going to approach it. It really depends how they are but we’re looking forward to it. Ibrox is always going to be a hard place to go but so are a lot of stadiums this season. Even Dumbarton is a hard place to go and play. We won there on Saturday but you saw us draw 0-0 there earlier in the season. All the places are difficult, it doesn’t matter where you go. You need to approach it in the right way.”
Nicholson returned to top form recently after a thigh injury interrupted his momentum in the autumn. He scored twice in last Saturday’s 5-1 win over Dumbarton and is again looking a menacing presence in the final third for Hearts. Still only 19 – he turns 20 next week – he doesn’t overburden himself with goalscoring responsibilities.
“I got good service from the boys so I’m delighted with the two goals, although it’s weird for me because I don’t usually score goals. I’d rather set them up. I’m saying that only because I don’t score a lot of goals,” he laughed. “I enjoy scoring. I was happy just getting on the scoresheet with one goal and then I got two. I was more happy that we won, to be honest.”
Two factors in the convincing nature of the win were the arrival of Genero Zeefuik on loan and Neilson’s decision to deploy two forwards. The Dutchman partnered James Keatings at Dumbarton and scored two goals himself, with Jamie Walker getting the other.
“I think it would easy to be a new boy in our team because everybody is welcoming,” continued Nicholson. “You can tell already that he feels at home with us. He’s coming and having chats with everybody, he isn’t nervous or anything. That’s good for us. You saw him last week, he’s a big guy and he can hold the ball up so he will be a good player for us.
“We have different formations for different teams. We thought Dumbarton are physical at the back so if we put two men up against them then it would be good for us. This week, the manager might think a different formation will work. It’s up to him at the end of the day. The players support him no matter what he chooses. Obviously everyone wants to play, though.”