Bringing in Dan Shittu and Fitz Hall was a bold decision – and the right one – by Neil Warnock, but maybe not as much of a risk as it seemed.
After the draw at Preston, Warnock initially decided to take one of his centre-backs out of the side. He later opted to go the whole hog and take both of them out.
The fact Shittu and Hall had played together in recent reserve matches meant Warnock possibly took less of a chance by replacing both centre-backs rather than dropping one of them.
I know from speaking to Shittu that he was slightly nervous about his return, and felt Hall’s inclusion was a definite bonus for him as it did not mean a new partnership being formed at the back in such an important game.
It was still a big call by Warnock though. I certainly wouldn’t have made it.
But if you are going to put Shittu in, Tuesday’s match was exactly the right time to do it. Warnock’s timing may have seemed strange, yet was spot on.
A home game under the floodlights, the crowd instantly lifted by Shittu’s appearance and then his every header and tackle; it was the right way to reintroduce him and give Rangers a lift at a time when there were signs of anxiety – and maybe some fatigue – creeping in.
Shittu was, as always, a colossus in both penalty areas, and his boundless enthusiasm was just what the team and fans needed at this vital stage of the season.
If he’d scored, it would have brought the house down and probably have sent Shittu into orbit. We’re talking here about a man who even got carried away while scoring in a reserve match last week, shouting “have it!” as he slammed the ball into the net and then “that’s how you score a goal!” to other, bemused, players on the pitch.
If Shittu keeps his place, there will be bigger tests to come for him. Especially away from home, when games are likely to be much more stretched and very different to Tuesday’s battle in both boxes.
That will reveal more than last night’s adrenaline-filled performance, which was the perfect reintroduction for him at the perfect time.
I’ve always seen Gorkss and Connolly as decent individual defenders at Championship level, but not a good partnership, and this Rangers side as much more defensively vulnerable than the stats this season suggest.
Even so, with the team on course for promotion I’d have been reluctant to turn to two defenders whose fitness and form have been a concern. I’d have solidered on.
It would have been the wrong decision. Not because of their performances last night – neither player did anything they haven’t done before, and some questions remain unanswered – but because, with hindsight, at least one of them was always likely to be called upon at some stage during the run-in.
That means the alternative to Warnock’s decision could have involved having to put them in for some godforsaken away match, on a bigger pitch and possibly with even more riding on the result.
That type of game would be very different to the kind of compact, congested one against Ipswich, which was ideal for a centre-back with Shittu’s attributes to go out and play like his life depended on it.
There will be games, especially away, where there’ll be more ground to cover, more snap decisions required, and much more potential for Shittu to be isolated and left one-versus-one. That’s a very different assignment, and not one for a new addition to a back four, who’s had hamstring trouble and lacks match practice.
Shittu can now go into that kind of situation having had his sharpness and morale boosted after storming it in front of his adoring fans and gone off to a standing ovation. That’s why Warnock was right to pick him sooner rather than later.