Lee McCulloch-A Captain Cast in the Mould of Struth

The news recently that Lee McCulloch was signing an extension to his contract was, quite rightly, music to the ears of the Rangers support. In a year that has provided few highs, this was a boost that kept all in the blue corner satisfied. I’m sure the irony of the euphoria his new contract was met with was not lost on McCulloch himself as, like so many other Rangers legends of the past, McCulloch has not always enjoyed popularity amongst his ‘ane kind’.

It could be argued that if McCulloch Rangers career had ended before the events of 14th February 2012, his Rangers obituary would have read something along the lines of ‘good servant’. This is a default label given to those who have earned a wee bit more respect than the average player, but who haven’t got anywhere near the ‘legend’ status. If McCulloch had left Rangers at any point between 2008 and 2010, it is arguable he would have been granted any kind of status amongst a support who have not always appreciated ‘Jig’ and his attributes.

McCulloch arrived at Rangers in 2007 as part of Walter Smith’s rebuilding campaign which would see the club win three titles, two Scottish Cups, three League Cups and earn a European final spot.

McCulloch, however, initially struggled to fit in; a fact borne out by his failure to secure a starting berth in the Uefa Cup Final in 2008, a match played on his 30th birthday. One of the issues that seemed to hinder McCulloch, in the eyes of supporters at least, was that nobody seemed to know exactly what kind of player he was. For much of his early Rangers career he started on the left-side of midfield, with little or negligible impact, and seemed to float to various midfield positions with a similar outcome.

I was unconvinced by McCulloch until 15th November 2008 and a home game against St Mirren. An injury crisis at the back had forced Smith to deploy former striker McCulloch at centre-half. I was perplexed at 3pm when I witnessed the formation, by 5pm I had started to question whether I had been harsh in forming my initial opinion of the big Lanarkshire man.

Regardless of this confirmation of his ability to literally to play anywhere, whenever you mentioned his name to fellow Bears there was still an air of doubt. This mistrust from the faithful didn’t stop McCulloch securing a more regular starting place under Smith in the holding midfield role, and he did his reputation amongst the Rangers support no harm with a crucial Old Firm goal at Celtic Park. McCulloch, it appeared, was slowly becoming an integral part of the side and his popularity amongst the support was growing.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but is now apparent that, even in the days he failed to convince, McCulloch was showing a vital ingredient – and that was the ability to be a great Ranger. No matter what position McCulloch was asked to occupy by Smith, he did it – and without so much as a whimper of complaint. When you bear in mind that playing in these varied positions affected his performances and popularity amongst the support, then you appreciate that this was a selfless act. With McCulloch, it really does appear to be all about the team and not the individual, a rarity in the modern day footballer and the kind of attitude that the great Bill Struth would look for in a Ranger. In fact, it could be argued that McCulloch is a walking example of Struth’s vision of a Ranger.

There is a great scene in the play Follow Follow: The Rangers Story, which ran at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre in 1994/95, which depicts Bill Struth on his knees washing the dressing room floor. When two of his charges wander in from training to find their gaffer in this unusual position they are perplexed:

“What are you doing, Mr Struth”, they ask.

“I’m washing the dressing room floor”, he responds, unapologetic.

“But...why?” they ask, bemused.

“Because it needed doing!”, Struth thunders back, his players now regretting their curiosity.

It’s this kind of attitude that has always embodied what it is to be a Ranger. Hard work, sweat and a will to do the job that needs to be done are irremovable virtues of the club. These are the virtues that McCulloch has shown in recent seasons, and more so since the club entered the most traumatic period of its history.

But should we be surprised? On closer inspection McCulloch’s career is peppered with this kind of attitude. While at Motherwell he was put out on loan to Cumbernauld Utd where he enjoyed a prolific goalscoring period before breaking his leg. Despite this setback he returned to Motherwell, fought his way into the first team squad and earned a move to Wigan Athletic, then in the lower leagues of English football, in 2001. With the young McCulloch in their ranks they managed to climb the divisions all the way to the riches of The Premiership and McCulloch found himself playing on stages like Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge-a far cry from playing in front of a few hundred in Cumbernauld!

His form for Wigan earned a call from Walter Smith and return to Rangers (he had been at Rangers boys club alongside Barry Ferguson). Although the road to the legend status he enjoys today has not always been smooth, he has stuck it out. Like some others, he could have taken the easy road out when the roof caved in at Ibrox, and there will be cynics out there who will claim that he would have had it been earlier in his career. They may be correct, but I suspect McCulloch would have stuck it out regardless.

And so here we are, late 2012 and the man who was failing to convince a fair few of us that he was Rangers class is now the embodiment of what it is to be a Ranger, leading a new generation into the ways and traditions of the club.

He has been a credit to the club since being handed the captaincy (an honour I felt he should have earned ahead of Steven Davis) and the most endearing image of McCulloch this season was of him hugging Allan Johnstone to congratulate him after Queen of the South had just delivered one the real low points of the clubs history, not to mention McCulloch’s career. Even through his own hurt and undoubted humiliation, he was able to show respect for the opposition’s achievement. That, for me, is what a Rangers captain is all about.  

When this period is over and the club is back in the top flight, it is McCulloch who the fans will remember as the iconic figure from playing squad: the man who refused to leave the sinking ship, deciding instead to grab a bucket, work like he’d never worked before and get it afloat again.

It’s romantic, but not totally outlandish, to suggest that McCulloch will still be displaying the virtues of the club well into his retirement. I can imagine him in front of the fireplace, auld and grey, with the grandkids pestering him about why he stayed with Rangers to help them in their fight back to the top, when it would have been easier to walk away. His answer, I imagine, will be short and to the point.

‘Because it needed doing.’

Colin Armstrong has written previously for The Rangers Standard.He is a former columnist for the Rangers News and match-day programme and he contributed a chpater to the book 'Ten Days tat Shook Rangers'. He has also written for When Saturday Comes.

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