Not many clubs could have sold more than 50,000 tickets for a Europa League qualifier played in the middle of summer. But few clubs have waited as long for a return to continental competition as Rangers.
Ibrox hasn’t always been a happy place in recent years, but on Thursday night it shone in the bright lights of Europe again.
The result, however, wasn’t quite as sparkling. Kenny Miller’s first-half goal proved the difference between Pedro Caixinha’s Rangers and Progrès Niederkorn of Luxembourg, with the Govan side struggling to find their rhythm. There was very little fluidity and scant sign of the plan put in place by the Portuguese ahead of the 2017/18 campaign.
Should that really matter at this stage, though? Consider how many players have arrived at Rangers over the past few weeks. It’s little wonder their first performance together was somewhat disjointed. The emphatic performance the sell-out crowd longed for never materialised but this was by no means a disastrous result.
Teams can get caught out at this stage of the season. Look at how Brendan Rodgers‘ Celtic were beaten by Lincoln Red Imps in his first match in charge. That had no impact on the season he would enjoy at the club, going on to win the treble on the back of an unprecedented unbeaten campaign.
It’s unlikely Caixinha will follow a similar trajectory, with the gap between Celtic and Rangers so wide, but the example of Rodgers highlights how results and performances at this time of year are in no way indicative of the season that will follow. For Rangers, at this stage, all that matters is results.
“We need to do more and keep together,” Caixinha said after the narrow win on Thursday evening. “We want to keep going up front. It's not a question of fitness, it's a question of time to get fitness. I'm not a guy who can make miracles in three weeks and just like this [clicks his fingers] the team is ready to get the rhythm of playing. You only get it by playing and by time.
“We know the reality we are facing. I would say 80 per cent of the players had a very good performance. It's not a question of fitness, it's more a question of good decisions and being more aggressive in the exploring and finishing.
“I'm not patient but we need to understand where we are. This is the first stage, the first challenge. We were expecting to win by more but the team we were facing played with their weapons and their tools. We could have been better exploring the space and could have been better getting presence inside the box, definitely.”
It’s Caixinha’s job to get the best from his players, and so he can be forgiven for being hard on them after just one game of the new season. But even he must recognise that there are more important things. Sure, Rangers must avoid an embarrassing Europa League qualification exit to lowly opposition, but play like they did on Thursday in next week's return leg and they’ll progress.
For all that there is a symbolism to Rangers’ return to European competition, energising the club’s support, the Europa League shouldn’t be a priority for Caixinha and his players this season.
Rangers fans dubbed their rise through the lower divisions ‘The Journey’ and some might consider this season’s journey concerns to be their efforts to qualify for the Europa League group stage.
But the real journey at hand is the one that concerns the closing of the gap on Celtic. The gulf at the top of the Scottish game has never been wider, with Rodgers still to lose a domestic game as Hoops manager.
Only Rangers have the resources to come close to challenging them and that’s where the real pressure on Caixinha comes from. That’s where the pressure on any Rangers manager comes from.
As long as Rangers keep winning games, progress will be made. Caixinha is a pragmatist who thrives on flexibility. The team he has assembled over the summer demonstrates this, with the Portuguese consciously retooling his midfield into an adaptable, interchangeable unit. It’s not a case of square pegs in round holes but pegs that can fit any kind of hole.
This Rangers team has only been training together for a matter of days, with the Ibrox side (alongside St Johnstone) starting their season before any other Scottish club. These are exceptional circumstance and so it’s unfair to judge Caixinha’s team on their first performance. Results, right now, are the only measure that matters.