Let’s cut to the chase and sum up the broad reaction in England when Steven Gerrard lifts his first title, possibly as early as this weekend.
“It’s only Scotland.”
That’s the disrespectful tone Celtic and Rangers managers have had to deal with for over 30 years.
Many outside the Glasgow bubble fail to grasp the stature of those clubs, how demanding and suffocating the pressure can be, and how challenging it is going head-to-head with your neighbours every year. The media coverage and scrutiny is intense. Unlike England, where there are several clubs sharing the limelight and a general acceptance you can have a good season without winning the title – for the Old Firm it’s all-or-nothing.
Even those coaches who have been serial winners in Scotland have had to fight for credibility down south.
This is not just the tainted view of English supporters. Collecting league titles in Scotland is no guarantee of securing one of England’s biggest jobs. Brendan Rodgers was given a brilliant opportunity at Leicester City, but he was still headhunted by a team seeking to get into the Champions League rather than established in it.
Martin O’Neill took on a comparable position when his next role after leaving Celtic in 2005 was Aston Villa. But when Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon left Scotland they joined Middlesbrough and Bolton Wanderers, both in the Championship at the time.
If Gerrard continues to win big in Scotland, it is sure to land him many Premier job offers, with the implication that managing a mid-table team in England is more attractive than being Rangers or Celtic coach.
I am not convinced that applies in Gerrard’s case. There was a time when I might have gone along with the idea that Rangers is a good first stepping stone for my former Liverpool team-mate, and he should have his eye on a swift Premier League return in readiness for an inevitable Anfield reunion.
Having seen what he is building at Rangers, I do not believe he has to leave Ibrox and prove himself anywhere else. Certainly not yet.
He has fallen in love with the club and the city of Glasgow and looks to be settling in for the long haul.
Anyone who knows Stevie well need only look at his reaction against Livingston at half-time on Wednesday, when he was sent off for being livid at the decision not to award Alfredo Morelos a penalty.
That’s how he is when dedicated to a cause. Fully committed. Despite the title being done and dusted, every point matters. What’s so impressive about Gerrard’s success is the manner in which he has achieved it. When he made the move, it took guts. Whoever took on the Rangers job two-and-a-half years ago had to focus on an immediate objective of preventing Celtic winning 10 titles in a row. Gerrard was going to be judged on that, not as a novice coach making his way.
With Celtic settled under Rodgers at that time, and Rangers recovering from a prolonged era of instability, that was a massive ask for someone in their first major management job.
While Gerrard’s reputation was a help in securing the position it also increased the expectation and pressure upon him to instantly deliver. Sadly, in the cut-throat world of football, there are many waiting or even hoping you fall on your backside, resentful that such an esteemed position is given to a high-profile personality based on their playing career rather than coaching experience. There are many top-class players of Gerrard’s generation who have tried and struggled as a coach who will tell you that.
Gerrard had to overcome that cynicism, and although it is his domestic dominance which will bring the reward of his first silverware as a coach his work in Europe will have caught the attention of those who were wondering what kind of manager he will become.
Since 2018 he has won 23 European games – one more than Walter Smith who was one win away from the Champions League final in 1993 and led Rangers to the UEFA Cup final in 2008. He is five short of a club record, reaping financial rewards from two campaigns in which Rangers qualified through the Europa League group stages, and with a good chance of beating Slavia Prague for a place in the quarter-final.
The European campaigns have been the bedrock of his reign, enabling him to fine-tune a style which takes plenty from what he learned under Rodgers and his brief time as youth coach under Jurgen Klopp – pressing high, keeping possession, always on the front foot. Europe has also raised much-needed cash to keep building the squad.
Rangers have given him the ideal platform to develop the winning habit, and can give him Champions League experience which will be invaluable for his career. Who else can offer him that at the moment?
The passion of the Rangers fans is a factor which cannot be ignored in keeping Gerrard in Scotland for a long time. As with Klopp’s relationship with The Kop, emotion in a stadium and affection from the supporters is a drug for a coach. Like Liverpool last season, something is missing when you win a title in lockdown. The chance to do it again when stadiums are full will drive Gerrard on next season because he knows what the atmosphere will be like when spectators return to acclaim a title-winning team.
When you have that level of trust, loyalty and adulation, it is not easily sacrificed for a club in the bottom half of the Premier League, where the ambition of mid-table safety would not put the same fire in his belly. A character like Gerrard will always live for trophies, and to feel he is somewhere where his highest ambitions are matched and can be realistically satisfied.
That’s good news for Rangers if they keep backing their man, and worrying for Celtic. Gerrard is not the kind of character to rest on his laurels after this title. He will want to dominate Scottish football and build a side capable of making headlines in the Champions League, which is one of his biggest loves.
When Rangers were searching for the right man in 2018, they needed a personality with the clout,
self-confidence and skill to take on a formidable opponent in Rodgers’ Celtic. They needed someone who was prepared to work under the shadow of the 10-in-a-row obsession on the minds of both Glasgow clubs.
Gerrard has relished and overcome that challenge.
The biggest tribute you can pay him is it is now Celtic who need to find someone of the required ilk to take on Gerrard.
Best of luck with that. There’s a new king of Scottish football and he looks ready to reign for a while.
Telegraph Media Group Limited