It is the great Rangers unmentionable. Acrimony associated with curtailment of season 2019-20 in Scotland was fixed, as is depressingly customary, on the Old Firm. Rangers held a game in hand but were 13 points adrift of Celtic when time was called. If there was legitimacy to complaints over the Scottish Professional League’s handling of this situation, broader issues were in play. The Rangers support could demean Celtic’s collection of a ninth title in a row. If the club’s hierarchy could switch focus from a post-new-year collapse, even better. Whisper it, but such a bitter end to the last campaign did Rangers a favour.
A glance towards Rangers’ predicament in early March emphasises that point. A 1-0 win at Ross County had followed defeats by relegation-threatened Hearts – meaning a Scottish Cup exit – and Hamilton. Despite winning at Celtic on 29 December, Rangers were subsequently defeated at Tynecastle and Rugby Park. Only a point was taken at St Johnstone. Hamilton’s win at Ibrox, their second there since 1926, ensured palpable anger among Glasgow’s blue half. Celtic were cantering towards the championship.
James Tavernier, the Rangers captain, delivered an extraordinary – given the platform – set of programme notes that conceded: “Whenever anybody puts a bit of pressure on us in Scotland or gets in our face it seems to affect us too much. At the start of the season teams dropped off us and we were scoring four or five goals, but now they smell blood straight away and put us under pressure. We are not good enough domestically to react to that.”
You don’t need the services of Taggart to decipher supporter reaction towards Tavernier, who at that point had been at Ibrox for almost five years without collecting a major honour. The full-back’s sentiment appeared indicative of general softness.
As lockdown hit and Steven Gerrard slunk home to Merseyside, the manager was spared the caustic analysis had Rangers, as looked inevitable, finished a season well adrift of Celtic. Rangers’ failings were even more stark given parity with their city rivals had been achieved in late December and spiralling staff costs, revealed at £43m in recently published accounts. The star factor of Gerrard has mesmerised the Rangers support but managers don’t tend to emerge well from this environment having endured back-to-back barren campaigns. Instead, owing to exceptional circumstance, focus switched.
So did Rangers’ fortunes. High praise towards Gerrard is now valid. Rangers host Celtic on Saturday undefeated in the Scottish Premiership and apparently on course for the title. Celtic have lost only once but the removal of fragility from Rangers’ play – including in respect of Tavernier, the favourite to be Scotland’s player of the year – has meant an emphatic turnaround. In 21 league matches, Rangers have conceded five goals. Whatever version of the reset button Gerrard hit between March and August, it worked.
“We have had success in this fixture in the last two seasons but not built on that,” said the Rangers manager on Friday. “We haven’t been the best version of ourselves from the new year in the last two seasons.”
It seems bizarre to think of Gerrard as remotely out of sight. Nonetheless, December’s League Cup loss at St Mirren – which ensured another domestic cup would evade him – really didn’t register on a broader scale. If Rangers beat Celtic, stretching their lead to a surely unassailable 19 points even with Neil Lennon’s men holding three matches in hand, wider perceptions of Gerrard will be wholly positive.
Rangers’ formidable Europa League performances in successive seasons have played a part in that. And those impressions count; on the reasonable basis Gerrard’s grand plan is to manage Liverpool, he must demonstrate ability to steer a big club. Outsiders shrug off Scottish knockout competitions when Celtic win them, meaning Rangers’ shortcomings there aren’t seen as defining. Except, that is, to the club itself, which hasn’t tasted major success since financial implosion in 2012.
“We are not really focused on leads at the top,” said Gerrard. “This is an opportunity to take three points.”
Gerrard’s recruitment, initially scattergun, has improved, with the benefit of increasing resource. As Celtic struggled in the summer market, Kemar Roofe’s arrival at Ibrox was significant. More notable, though, in respect of assessing Gerrard’s coaching credentials has been the development of Tavernier, Glen Kamara, Ryan Jack, Connor Goldson and Ryan Kent, plus the rejuvenation of Steven Davis. “We couldn’t go into this game in a better place,” Gerrard said. It is hard to disagree.
Gerrard has mirrored the approach of Brendan Rodgers in avoiding one-to-one interviews with Scottish journalists. That belies a tradition of successful Rangers managers, just as it denies onlookers a chance to gain insight into Gerrard’s train of thought. If Celtic are seen off at Ibrox, Rangers will be in the home straight. Rejuvenation will be close to complete.