Progress, pressure & the long road ahead - Steven Gerrard's first year at Rangers
History repeated on Sunday for Rangers. On the back of an emotional high of a win over Celtic they went to Kilmarnock and lost, an echo of what happened in December and January when they beat their Old Firm rivals at Ibrox before falling 2-1 to Killie in their next match at Rugby Park.
In a sense, the last week was like their league season in microcosm. A convincing performance that offered hope followed by a slump that reminded everyone of their essential vulnerability. Across all competitions they beat every team in the top flight, but equally they dropped points in 15 different league matches. Would the real Rangers please stand up.
When Steven Gerrard was made Rangers manager the reaction was understandably intense, a split between those who felt he was going to prove the great redeemer and those who felt sure he would be eaten alive by the club's problems and by the incendiary nature of football in Glasgow.
There was pressure and expectation. In the relative blink of an eye, Gerrard had to cull his squad and create a new one. He had money, but not lots of it. He had to duck and dive. The Rangers team that beat Celtic 1-0 in December had five Gerrard signings in the starting line-up. The one that beat Celtic 2-0 earlier this month had eight.
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As a journalist who thought Rangers were taking an unwarranted gamble on a manager who had only taken charge of a youth team at Liverpool, there has to be an admission that Gerrard has outperformed expectations. Way outperformed them.
Gerrard has done well. No trophy, that's true, but he's made discernible progress. Those who shouted loudest about Rangers challenging Celtic for the title might look a little silly, but there really weren't many of them. Most knew that the job he's trying to do at Rangers is not a thing you can put together in a single season.
Numbers game adding up for Gerrard
For Gerrard, most of the important numbers are heading in the right direction. From third in the league last season to second in the league this season. From 70 points a year ago to 78 points now. From 76 goals for and 50 goals against in 2017-18 to 82 goals for and 27 goals against in 2018-19.
A season ago they played Celtic five times, losing four and drawing one with an aggregate score of 14-2 against them. This time they won two and lost two against their greatest rivals with an aggregate score of 4-3 in their favour. They narrowed the gap between themselves and Celtic from 12 points to nine. Baby steps, for sure, but steps none the less.
Celtic people might mock them for only reducing the deficit by a mere three points despite all the hype and hoopla surrounding the former Liverpool captain's arrival and all the money spent on creating virtually a brand new team, but nobody in their right mind seriously believed Gerrard was going to do much more in the league this time around.
The problems he inherited and the rebuild that was required were never going to lead to Rangers picking off Celtic in Gerrard's first season. At the beginning of the campaign there would have been short odds on Gerrard imploding under the pressure of a suffocating experience in Glasgow. There's only been occasional glimpses of the stress getting to him.
Improvement but flakiness still exists in ranks
Next season will be the true test of him. He has set the bar at 78 points and he needs to raise that to the high 80s if he's going to take Celtic to the wire. For progress to be maintained he needs a pulsating title chase or a cup or both. That's the reality of it. Season one was all about bedding in, surveying the landscape and changing the team and the culture. Season two is about winning and nothing else.
There are myriad issues for him. Can he talk Liverpool into giving him Ryan Kent on loan for another season? Can he get a settled left-back, another creative midfielder, another striker? If he's keeping Alfredo Morelos can he sort out the self-destructiveness in his game that cost Rangers dearly throughout the season? If he's selling him, how much is he getting and where is that money going?
He's been busy already, of course. Jake Hastie and Jordan Jones are coming and it looks like Greg Stewart is coming, too. Jamie Murphy hasn't played since August and Graham Dorrans hasn't played since September and they'll be like new signings if they can get themselves right for the start of the season.
Gerrard has got better performances out of his Rangers team, but there still exists a flakiness in the ranks, a tendency to throw in a turkey when it looks like they might be gathering momentum. On the run-in, Celtic showed their capacity to grind out results even when they were nowhere near their best. Some of those wins late in the season were uninspiring to the point of ugliness, but they were critical and most champion teams have that knack of digging deep on difficult days.
Rangers have a long way to go before they can be trusted to bang out three-pointers under pressure week after week. Gerrard has taken the team forward, but the road ahead remains a fiendishly long one.