Only Steven Gerrard could have stopped Celtic’s 10-in-a-row, he will go down as a Rangers legend no matter what happens next
When I think of the Rangers managers who deserve the highest billing during my lifetime as a supporter, three names stand out: Graeme Souness, Walter Smith, and, now, Steven Gerrard.
You might argue that a solitary Scottish Premiership title should not be enough to elevate Gerrard above Alex McLeish or Dick Advocaat, or indeed be enough to even mention him in the same breath as Smith.
But no matter what course Gerrard’s Ibrox career takes next, the Liverpudian has led Rangers to the singularly most important Scottish Premiership title they have won since Souness arrived at Ibrox in the mid-eighties.
No-one should underestimate how Souness transformed Rangers but his was an era funded by extravagant spending. For the duration of his five years at Ibrox, Souness relied on a bulging transfer kitty, and when Smith took over the mantle in 1991, he was soon splashing out on two of the leading names in European football, Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup.
Contrast that with what faced Gerrard when he walked through the doors of Ibrox in 2018.
After rising from the ashes of liquidation, Rangers had re-emerged as a top-flight force in 2015, but they had hit a ceiling. Mark Warburton briefly hinted at better times before he got the sack, Pedro Caixinha was a disaster and under caretaker manager Graeme Murty Rangers lurched from bad to worse. By the time Murty was sacked in May 2018, Celtic had won a seventh successive league title and 10 in a row looked inevitable.
There was no pot of gold to lure Gerrard north of the border. Here was an aspiring young manager walking headlong into a challenge that many other experienced figures would have shirked.
Gerrard could have resolved to learn his trade in a comfort zone under Jurgen Klopp at Anfield as Liverpool’s under-18s manager. He was a huge enough figure at Anfield to conceivably succeed Klopp without ever having managed a senior team in the way that Pep Guardiola, Zinedine Zidane and Andrea Pirlo did at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus respectively.
Instead Gerrard jumped into the Glasgow goldfish bowl but not before he had done his homework, learnt the history of Rangers and the Old Firm. He became close to Walter Smith, employed Gary McAllister as his assistant and brought in the respected Michael Beale from Liverpool as coach.
The transformation was never going to come overnight, not least because of the vast difference in resources between the Old Firm. In 2018 Rangers’ turnover was £32 million compared to Celtic’s £101 million.
But from the earliest stages, you could tell that Gerrard had something special. Sure Rangers faded after a bright start in 2018/19, but perhaps the tell-tale signs came in Europe where they punched above their weight for two successive seasons, making into the Europa League group stages largely thanks to the manager’s impressive tactical set-ups.
They found it harder to break down stubborn Scottish defences, while Gerrard’s misguided celebration after a win at Parkhead in January last year followed by an ill-fated winter break in Dubai precipitated a dramatic loss of form and the only crisis of his reign.
It was during this period that fans’ faith in Gerrard was tested. By the time it came to lockdown in March, Rangers were out of the Scottish Cup and 13 points behind Celtic in the league. Gerrard was even questioning his own future.
Two seasons without a trophy would usually be enough to hasten a Rangers manager’s departure. But if the board had lost their nerve and dispensed with Gerrard then, what kind of managerial market would they have been shopping in? Name me one manager of real standing who would have fancied being propelled into Glasgow during lockdown with the brief of stopping 10-in-a-row, and with a budget lagging behind Celtic’s?
The Ibrox board backed Gerrard again last summer, making several key signings that ended Rangers’ dependency on Alfredo Morelos for goals. But it was hardly a spree of Souness proportions, Gerrard needed to prepare his squad better than Celtic and he did, with Beale understood to be pivotal on the training ground.
Crucially, the squad’s faith in him never flagged. His impeccable playing credentials helped, and he has an aura that will always carry enormous weight.
With the extra quality added to the squad during last summer, Rangers were much better equipped to last the course this season as Celtic pressed self-destruct.
Gerrard has stopped 10-in-a-row, and he stopped it in emphatic fashion. No matter what happens next he will surely go down as a Rangers legend.
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