The Modern Day Murder Hill: Rangers v Aberdeen

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The late Jock Wallace is often characterised as the archetypal old school manager; gruff, authoritarian, intimidating, bellowing orders and ruling through fear. Some of that might be true, but it’s also true of many football managers of that era. What’s so often overlooked about Wallace was his subtle use of psychology.

Wallace was faced with a daunting task when he assumed the mantel of Rangers manager. Not only was he in direct competition with Jock Stein, a manager of incredible ability, but also a Celtic side containing hugely talented and experienced players who knew how to win the league. Wallace’s first season in charge saw Rangers finish 5 points behind the champions and one point behind second place Hibs. Wallace knew that Rangers had good players, we’d won the Cup Winners Cup only a couple of years before, and any squad that contained Greig, Jardine, McLean, MacDonald and Johnstone was as good as any in the league. Wallace understood that what was missing was belief and a mental toughness. Wallace needed something that made his players believe they were unbeatable, something that gave them a psychological edge over their opposition. Wallace found the answer on a beach overlooking the Firth of Forth close to where he was raised.

Murder Hill, as it came to be known, is simply a long, steep sand dune. Wallace knew about it from his childhood, local sports clubs, including Hearts, had trained on the Gullane sands for years before Wallace took his Rangers side there. But most of the Rangers players didn’t know about it. The squad were made to run up and down it, sometimes carrying medicine balls, sometimes teammates. The mix of the coastal wind and the sand made the players thirsty, the sand would get everywhere making them uncomfortable and the gruelling nature of the training exhausted this band of fit young men, as all pre-season training does. Wallace was able to convince his players that this pre-season work had made them fitter than they had ever been before. He convinced them they were now the fittest team in the league, that no other side could live with their strength. His final masterstroke was telling the press about it. Not only did the Rangers players believe it but so did the support and, importantly, the opposition too.

We welcome, if that’s the right word, Aberdeen to Ibrox this Saturday. Unusually for a match between the clubs it takes place at 3pm on a Saturday. Aberdeen arrive in poor form with only one win in their last four, a scrappy 1-0 over Dumbarton in the cup. Their support are restless, the turgid, pragmatic football Derek McInnes sets his side up to play can be tolerated when it brings victories but finds you friendless when it doesn’t. It’s almost surreal to think 24 months ago we were still smarting from being unable to prise him from Aberdeen’s grasp. As Ross Bennett on a recent Gersnet Podcast quipped it’s the greatest bullet dodge since The Matrix. I expect Aberdeen to bring a defensive mindset, giving us the ball until the final third, then filling it with bodies and closing the space. They’ll aim to frustrate our players and perhaps our support. Prepare for a physical match, lots of niggles, off the ball stuff and gamesmanship.

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We enter the match still missing our captain and first choice right back and our most influential midfielder in Jack along with Helander and Defoe. At the time of writing we look to be signing Hagi and possibly one or two others. I wouldn’t expect any of them to start though our bench might contain some new faces. Polster should retain his place, personally I think anyone looks good when compared to Flanagan, but in the case of Polster he does seem to bring something to the team. Aberdeen will be a test of his attacking ability, he’ll spend most of the match in their half, so his passing and crossing will be vital. I expect Arfield will also retain his place in midfield, along with Davis and Kamara. Whether Ojo has done enough to keep a starting spot is harder to guess, I suspect not and think Aribo with start along with Kent. Defoe’s absence is lessened by the return of Morelos. Morelos will be targeted by the Aberdeen players and probably their support. A support who think nothing of singing about the 66 football supporters who tragically died whilst at the site of that disaster are almost beyond redemption. I suspect Ian Durrant will get a mention too. Morelos has more reason than most to be fearful of opposition supporters. Already this week police are investigating an incident with his car and intruder close to his home and a man called Sean Baillie appeared in court charged in relation with throwing a cup of scalding liquid at Morelos during a recent Motherwell match. Morelos has to face this whilst living thousands of miles from home and with his wife expecting their first child. Gerrard has played down the incidents and their affect on Morelos, as is Gerrard’s style, but I’m not sure if I believe him. The hatred Morelos faces has long ago crossed the line from supporter rivalry and into something altogether more sinister. The man in court this week is 30 years old, he’s not some daft teenager.

For me this is the culmination of years of public demonisation of Rangers. The neanderthal narrative some love to peddle stops being banter and turns into something much darker when it fuels the kind of incidents we’re seeing now. That we face Aberdeen this weekend, one of the more enthusiastic participants in the denigration of our club and our support, is fitting. That they went to the bother of creating a banner, in Spanish, aimed squarely at Morelos tells you all you need to know about the mindset of some of their support. This act by their support was ignored by the SPFL and the police, but hey, it’s only the funny wee foreign lad after all. It’s been open season on the league’s top scorer for a while now, players, managers, referees, supporters and the media have all been complicit in this.

As for the match itself we should win comfortably. But then we should have won our last encounter with Aberdeen comfortably too. Throwing away a 2 goal league was very disappointing, particularly after having dominated the match. We were mentally weak that night, unable to match Aberdeen’s rise in tempo and direct style. That weakness was evident again last weekend at Tynecastle. This will be our third league match in 7 days, surely we’re now over any rustiness that set in after the winter break.

The clever thing about Murder Hill of course is that you don’t actually get any fitter running up and down sand dunes than you would running on a treadmill or round a track; you just think you do. Wallace understood this, he knew the dunes helped the side’s mental strength far more than its collective stamina. Gerrard needs to find his Murder Hill, the thing that galvanises the squad and makes them fully believe they are unbeatable. Saturday would be the perfect day discover it.

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