Where did it all go right for Steven Gerrard at Rangers? It is easy to think that the sight of Gerrard triumphantly brandishing his fists out of the Ibrox dressing-room window, as hundreds of supporters gathered on the street outside following Saturday’s decisive 3-0 win over St Mirren, was an inevitability. That a player of his standing, and force of personality, was always going to bend Rangers to his will and break Celtic’s stranglehold on Scottish football, earning himself a first league title in the process.
The reality, however, is quite different. Indeed, it is only a year ago that the former Liverpool and England captain’s first foray into management looked destined to fall well short of the expectations swelled by his arrival at Ibrox in the summer of 2018. To understand how that narrative was reversed, and Rangers’ supremacy re-established after 10 years in the wilderness, it is necessary to recognise what those problems were 12 months ago, and how Gerrard set about putting them right.
The nadir for Gerrard in Glasgow came on February 29, 2020, and a Scottish Cup quarter-final defeat to a Hearts side that was hurtling towards relegation.
That loss confirmed that Gerrard would be the first Ibrox manager in 68 years to fail to win a trophy in successive seasons and was a moment which prompted a bout of introspection from the manager.
At that point, the problems were piling up. One of the biggest was what to do with Alfredo Morelos, the gifted but mercurial Colombian striker. He had become the first Rangers player to score in four successive European ties and also set a Uefa record for most goals – 14 – in a European campaign before Christmas.
Morelos, though, harboured a self-destructive streak which manifested itself in December 2019, with needless second bookings at Motherwell – for a profane gesture – and at Celtic Park, where he was sent off for diving. By the winter break, he had scored 28 goals in 35 games but he managed only one in the 12 remaining matches
To make matters worse, Morelos was dropped for the cup defeat at Hearts, having failed to return from a trip home to South America in time.
Gerrard was faced with a double dilemma. Morelos was Rangers’ most valuable asset and his worth would be diminished if he was relegated to the bench or left out altogether.
The lack of alternative options undermined one of Gerrard’s management doctrines, which was highlighted by Joe Worrall, who spent a year at Ibrox on loan from Nottingham Forest. “If you get a shirt to play you had better keep hold of it,” he revealed. “He [Gerrard] tells you, ‘I don’t want anyone knocking on my door saying, ‘Why am I not playing?’ If you are playing well you get a shirt. If you don’t, you don’t.”
However, in the first lockdown, Rangers scouted assiduously, and – just as importantly – worked quickly to secure their targets, signing Kemar Roofe for £4.5m from Anderlecht, and Cedric Itten for £2.5m from St Gallen. Their arrivals meant that Rangers were robust throughout the spine of the team, from Allan McGregor in goal, through Connor Goldson in central defence and Steven Davis in central midfield.
McGregor and Davis, winners of three titles under Walter Smith, understood the intense demands of the supporters and their desire to stop Celtic reaching an unprecedented 10 successive titles has been crucial to Rangers’ undefeated progress in the league, epitomised by McGregor’s outstanding save from Leigh Griffiths in the New Year derby at Ibrox, which ended in a 1-0 victory over Celtic.
Gerrard instilled commitment to a relentless pressing game, characterised by quick and intricate interplay around the opposition’s penalty area, with Ryan Kent, Ianis Hagi (son of the legendary Gheorghe) and Joe Aribo prominent in support of the strikers.
Morelos, meanwhile, has responded to Gerrard’s support by maturing into a notably less self-absorbed player, whose unselfish graft has not undermined his scoring prowess. And, despite the jibes from England that Rangers have only to beat Celtic and vice-versa, Gerrard has discovered that, even within the Glasgow bubble, pressure is intense and unremitting.
Nor is Gerrard’s achievement confined to a municipal rivalry. Rangers’ Europa League victory over Royal Antwerp at Ibrox last month saw him to 24 European victories, one more than Smith.
Gerrard’s success has sharpened talk of an Anfield return as successor to Jurgen Klopp, although there is no sense either that the German is close to leaving Merseyside, or that Gerrard is keen to depart Glasgow. The Rangers faithful must hope that the prospect of savouring a capacity home crowd booming out his name, and serenading his players as champions, will be more than enough to persuade him to keep it that way.
Telegraph Media Group Limited