We must make most of Ibrox pressure pot, insists Smith
Former Rangers player has experienced supporters’ ire and hopes Kilmarnock can use it to their advantage
STEVEN SMITH knows all too well what this group of Rangers players are going through. The sick feeling in the pit of your stomach as 50,000 supporters expect the world but things aren’t quite clicking. The pressure which builds and builds throughout the 90 minutes, the knowledge that another couple of dropped points just won’t do.
As much of a benefit as a vociferous home crowd in Govan can be when things are going well, home draws against Hamilton, Ross County and St Johnstone emphasise the pitfalls. The Kilmarnock midfielder, part of the squad under Ally McCoist and Stuart McCall as Rangers missed out on promotion to the Premiership in 201415, has been on the receiving end often enough. So he knows the formula required to ratchet the pressure up a further few notches as he returns there as an opposition player this Saturday. Regardless of the in-fighting which continues in the boardroom, Kilmarnock have quietly racked up seven points from the last nine, culminating in a comprehensive victory on Wednesday against Hearts.
“I know what it’s like to be a Rangers player when you’re under pressure – you need to be brave to be prepared to go and take the ball in that environment,” said Smith. “Our game plan will be to go and keep things tight for 10-15 minutes and then, hopefully, the crowd turns on them – I’ve seen them do it when I was there. That’s when the pressure ramps up on them and it becomes harder for them to take possession and do something.
“That’s when you learn a lot about yourself and about the size of the club you’re playing for,” he added. “The expectation levels are really high so, when the crowd are on your back and things aren’t going well, it says a lot about any player if they’re prepared to demand the ball and try to make something happen. Of course, they have some great players and I’m sure they’ll try and do that but we’re going there to try and win the game.
“Of course we can do that – and it’ll be about work-rate again. With the way Rangers play it’ll be all about what we do without the ball. Then, when we get possession, we’ve got to punish them. It’s a great occasion and a fabulous stadium to go and play in and we’re looking forward to it, especially after our result against Hearts.”
While Smith scored a fine clinching goal on Wednesday night himself, the club’s main goal threat these days appears to be Souleymane Coulibaly, the eccentric 21-year-old Ivorian who has scored nine goals in 15 appearances this season, without a tap-in amongst them. The former Siena and Tottenham Hotspur attacker – who memorably beat Celtic’s Dorus de Vries from all of 45 yards – has been one of the players of this campaign, and tying him up on a contract until the summer of 2019 already appears a shrewd piece of business by the Ayrshire side. As unorthodox as the player’s skill set is, Smith feels he could be destined for great things.
“He can go as far as he wants,” said the former Rangers player about his free-scoring team-mate, who marks his goals with an elaborate back somersault. “I can imagine he’ll be quite frustrating for the manager at times because not everything he tries comes off but when you score with overhead kicks the way he does or ping one in from 30 or 40 yards then all bets are off.
“The biggest thing for any player is sheer hard graft but when you have that something special in your locker even when you’re not playing well you can provide a bit of magic,” he added. “That’s massive and we’re just delighted to have him. He was a great find and he’s been a terrific signing for us. He’s a good lad as well and we enjoy having him around the place.
“He’s a bit unusual, mind. I read in the match programme that he speaks three languages but I’m not sure English is one of them! But he’s already scored two or three contenders for Goal of the Season – not to mention Celebration of the Season as well!”
Ironically Kilmarnock’s purple patch comes at a time when the boardroom contains riven with infighting, but Smith is refusing to let off-field matters blow the players off course.
“I can only speak from my personal point of view but I’m the captain and I don’t know what’s going on,” said Smith. “That’s the truth – it’s not that I don’t take any interest but I just try and block it out because it can only be negative and, as players, we can’t affect it. Some others might be different but I don’t take any notice of it and just try to concentrate on the games because they’re the most important thing for us.”
SALT IN THE WOUND: Stevie Smith is keen to put the boot into a struggling Rangers side on his return.