For the longest time, Sunday’s Viaplay Cup semi-final between Rangers and Aberdeen in all its grisly fascination resembled something that David Cronenberg or David Lynch or somebody else from Hollywood’s directorial odditorium would have produced – a madcap, psychedelic trip to the dark side.
It was 1-1 and it was scrappy in the way mudwrestling is scrappy. On a field cut up by biblical amounts of rain the day before and more suitable for a national ploughing championships than a major football semi-final, it was a battle.
There was massive commitment and suffocating congestion, there were nerves on the edge and bodies on the floor, there was thud and blunder, kick and rush, chaos of every kind. Minute by endless minute it was played at breakneck speed. Oxygen masks might have been at the ready. And that was just for the supporters.
With seven minutes of normal time left, Anthony Stewart drove a clearance flush into the side of the head of his team-mate Ylber Ramadani and practically knocked him out. Borna Barisic hauled down Matty Kennedy and got booked. Kennedy, furious, took Barisic out a minute later and got booked. Retribution and aggravation and deadlock. The slugger’s slugathon. Mayhem.
But really that was only the prelude to the piece-de-resistance of bonkerdom, the moment when Stewart, the captain and respected leader behind the scenes at Pittodrie, hammered into a tackle on Fashion Sakala that launched the Rangers forward so high into the sky it was as if he’d been bounced off a trampoline.
Stewart had a look of innocence but there was no debate – red card. Manager Jim Goodwin may need to re-think the leadership of his team.
That was the turning point right there. The captain’s needless action opened up the door for Rangers and Michael Beale’s team managed to walk on through. Just. Beale is a smart cookie and spoke afterwards of wanting to sign two or three starters, rather than bench-fillers – in the January window. He needs them. His team lacks cleverness, but not heart. They ground this one out. Making the final against Celtic is all that mattered. How they managed it wasn’t all that relevant.
Rangers have had to drag themselves out of dicey situations in Beale’s brief time as manager – a come-from-behind win against Hibs at Ibrox, another against Aberdeen at Pittodrie and yet another one over the Dons at Hampden. They’re now in a final with Celtic, an enticing prospect that does, however, carry the usual cringe-making dread of the things some of these fans sing in their dreary expression of identity and support. We heard it on Saturday and we heard it again on Sunday. Mortifying.
Before and after Stewart walked, Aberdeen were gutsy as anything. They roused themselves and created some dangerous moments late on, even though the 10 men looked out on their feet. Such was the bizarre sweep of the game, there was a brief malfunction of VAR – an uncomfortable moment for the football authorities seized on with glee by both ends of the stadium. They laughed when it went down and laughed again when it returned.
The last laugh belonged to Kemar Roofe. To Scott Wright too, but mostly Roofe. Wright, one of Beale’s substitutes, went skipping down the left and slid a ball into Roofe, another of Beale’s substitutes, and Roofe did what Alfredo Morelos failed to do when chances fell to him earlier on.
It was a swift and natural finish from a player dogged horrendously by injuries. This was only his fourth appearance of the season. His total number of minutes on the field coming into it was 38. The last time he scored a goal was April, an extra-time winner – to sit with this extra-time winner – in a raucous Europa League tie against Braga at Ibrox.
Roofe has been through the horrors. A while back he used social media to post a picture of himself in a hyperbaric chamber. It was evident what his winner on Sunday meant to him, but no-one saw the other stuff – the weeks and months in pain, the uncertainty that may have filled his lonely journeys to and from rehab, a daily grind that only he and those closest to him will know about.
He was gone so long that he was all but a forgotten man, the reliability of his goalscoring in Rangers’ Premiership-winning season two years ago lost amid the endless chat about who should be up front for the club – Morelos or Antonio Colak. There’s a third way and Roofe reminded his manager of that.
Given the drama, there had to be a wounded hero. In keeping with what went on, that wounded hero had to be Roofe, who collapsed in the 112th minute and lay motionless on the deck for a worryingly long time. His left arm was the problem. Beale said it wasn’t a dislocation and he shouldn’t be out for long, but he awaits the results of the scan. Beale said the striker “can’t catch a break”.
What Beale decides to do about Morelos will be an intriguing one in the months ahead. A new contract for a player who is less prolific then he once was? Could Beale find a better home for the vast wage, in Scottish terms, that Morelos will be on? Morelos had a couple of chances in the semi-final and didn’t take either. Roofe had one and scored. Back in the team, a relative wet week and he came up with the biggest goal of Beale’s spell so far.
What will Rangers look like when the final swings around in late February? Different, but how different? Beale wants his team to have a new look, that’s for sure. He’ll have some more of his walking wounded back by then plus, if he gets his way, some new front-liners to take the fight to Celtic. He says his team is still a work-in-progress and he’s right. The progress is unquestionable, though.