Former Rangers midfielder Alex Rae believes that Lee McCulloch is the key cog in the Ibrox machine this campaign.

Rae left Ibrox the season before McCulloch arrived, but he has been impressed at not just the skipper's versatility this term, but also the attitude that he has shown during the most difficult time in the club's history.

The 34-year-old has so far pitched in with 17 goals, although injury problems to defensive personnel may mean that he has to stay at the back and help out for the next month or so.

Nevertheless, Rae expects McCulloch to still weigh in with more than his fair share of goals this term.

"So many of his goals come from set-pieces," said Rae. "He is aggressive in the air and he is also a very instinctive player. Even if it transpires that he is forced to deputise in defence for a while, you can still expect that he will be in amongst the goals.

"In his younger days when he was at Wigan he played as a left-winger, but I do think he is at his best now in a forward position.

"If you look at the Old Firm game in March, he was absolutely outstanding; he gave the Celtic defence a torrid time of it.

"But the fact that he is able and willing to fall into defence shows how much experience and quality he has; the guys who tend to be able to do that are the ones who have something about them.

"He has obviously learned a lot from all his years coming up against centre-halves and I think you know he will give it his all."

McCulloch was one of the few senior Rangers players who opted to remain at the club this summer once the full scale of the financial problems came to light.

An exodus of stars meant that Ally McCoist returned to pre-season training with just eight players and building a squad for the next campaign ahead proved to be something of a challenge.

With a raft of youngsters forced into the senior side due to a lack of depth in numbers, it is McCulloch's influence both on and off the park that Rae believes has been vital.

"You always need to have guys who have been over the course before in your dressing room, but one of the most important aspects is not just that they talk a good game, but that they lead by example on the park," explained Rae.

"I can imagine that while Lee might be pretty verbal in the dressing room and on the training ground, he is also able to go out and show what is required every week."

"He has put himself about this season, wherever he has been asked to play. He has played a real captain's part in that he has been the out-and-out leader on the park and I think he deserves an enormous amount of credit.

"Not just because of that but also because he opted to stick by the club in their time of need."

Signed by Alex McLeish for Rangers, Rae was at the club when they won the title on the last day of the 2004/5 season and he has admitted that he would have struggled to cope with being part of an Ibrox team who were competing in the fourth tier of Scottish football.

Having dropped down the divisions in the latter years of his playing career, he has insisted that he hasn't been surprised at how Rangers struggled initially in the lower reaches of the game.

Rae said: "It is not for the faint-hearted, let's put it that way.

"I felt that there were always players out to make a name for themselves and have a wee go at you because you had played at a higher level.

"I'm sure there will be a few of the Rangers lads who have felt that this season.

"For the likes of Lee, who is getting that little bit older and possibly a wee bit slower, that can be hard to take because you have guys crashing into you constantly.

"That is when it all comes down to a question of desire and how much you want to get your boots on and play every week."

Like many, Rae has been astonished this season as the crowds have stuck by Rangers.

There were just under 48,500 fans inside Ibrox for the win over Peterhead last weekend.

"I am working down south with Ian Wright and he came in on Monday taking the mickey out of Scotland and how mental the fans are," laughed the former Dundee manager.

"He saw it himself during the wee bit of time that he spent at Celtic and he knows how fanatical the supporters are.

"But down here it has been remarked upon time and time again this season. I think it says so much for the Rangers support and how much the club means to them.

"They're turning up every week and putting their money where their mouth is. It bodes well for the future and more than anyone these are the people that you would love to see the club be successful for.

"They have really kept it going through the toughest of times."