Steven Gerrard wasting no time making his mark at Rangers
Former Liverpool stalwart has presided over an improved mood around Ibrox
Steven Gerrard: “We’re in a good place. I think it’s a chance to put a marker down.” Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
Body and soul, he said. Heroes and warriors, he said. Drained but happy, he said.
How he spoke, what he said and, above all, the fact his nine-man team had just punched Rangers through the door and into the group stage of the Europa League, revealed Gerrard to be a serious, young but mature football manager.
Many felt that at 38 and in his first job, Gerrard would be eaten up, not just by Glasgow, but by the frayed, toxic state of Rangers over these past seven years. Instead, in 12 short weeks, Gerrard has bitten into those assumptions.
Ufa, the club overcome on Thursday, may sound like some Ulster loyalist splinter group, but they were the sixth best team in Russia last season.
Nor was it simply what Rangers did – winning 2-1 on aggregate; it was what they didn’t do. They did not add to the list of unwanted memories of recent humiliations such as defeat by Luxembourg’s Progres Niederkorn last July.
“Tonight, we’ve relaunched Rangers,” Gerrard told the club’s TV station. It appeared to agree.
So did the hundreds of Rangers fans who waited for the team at Glasgow Airport and 12 hours later at Rangers’ Murray Park training ground, Gerrard repeated his feeling that Thursday was a landmark.
“When I came in the door,” he said, “the Rangers players that I wanted to keep, that I thought were good enough to help us moving forward, I realised that the last couple of years had been really tough.
“They’d been through a lot, a lot of criticism had come their way. But I always had one eye on the moment when we could say we’d first achieved something together. I thought last night was that moment.
“I could feel a shift in the dressing room, a belief in the dressing room, a togetherness. So that was the idea behind the [relaunch]. It was a special night for everyone.”
It was said with conviction.
This is the positive perspective. There are other views. And of course, opinions can change.
Clydeside knows that launches and relaunches can go wrong and it cannot be ignored that five days before Ufa, Gerrard was watching Rangers draw 3-3 at Motherwell, where some players earn £800 a week.
Gerrard made no bold declaration after that game and it could be that Ufa is sandwiched between a draw at Motherwell and a defeat at Celtic.
Because Sunday brings the first Old Firm encounter of the season and while Celtic have not enjoyed a smooth summer of results or recruitment, they are the reigning champions and have not lost to Rangers over 90 minutes for six years.
For just over three seasons, Rodgers and Gerrard were together at Anfield, a fact Gerrard acknowledged yesterday, with some caution.
“Yes, it makes it that little bit spicier, and juicier,” he said. “It’s great for the neutrals, and whoever else wants to enjoy that.”
Gerrard revealed the two men had exchanged text messages on Thursday night. Both clubs had got to the Europa League groups. But Rodgers and Gerrard have not been sharing Glaswegian evenings. They are rivals.
Gerrard had just walked down a corridor containing those quotes all training grounds now have on their walls such as: “Success is no accident”.
Each club has its particular history and beside “Success” Rangers have another quotation, from legendary manager Bill Struth: “To be a Ranger is to sense the sacred trust of upholding all that such a name means in this shrine of football.”
It’s quite a statement.
Ronnie Johnston has been going to Ibrox for over 50 years and was involved in the Rangers First supporters organisation during the club’s economic implosion. This summer he watched Rangers train at their base near Malaga three times.
“By Jove, he worked them hard,” Johnston said of Gerrard’s pre-season fitness regime. “You could see a Jock Wallace style to it, Gerrard was creating a unit, a bond.”
Maybe boldness is catching.
James Tavernier, who has been at the club three years, sat alongside Gerrard yesterday. When his new manager had left, Tavernier confirmed Johnston’s impression.
“Pre-season was one of the hardest I have done,” Tavernier said. “He made sure we were fitter and strong enough to cope with the demands. The fitness levels are up, as is the mentality and the tactical approach.”
Gerrard has changed personnel and was still recruiting up to the deadline. That is part of a change he has instigated. There is also the imposition of an attitude.
“And at the end of each session,” Johnston added, “he sent those players out – I heard him say it – to speak to fans and sign autographs. ‘Make sure you give them some time’.
“These little touches, the way he dresses, the way he presents himself, the way he speaks – he accepts criticism, isn’t ridiculously defensive about everything. And the way he shakes opponents’ hands after matches – staff and players. He’s showing Scottish football respect.
“All this gives the club something to be proud of. It’s an amazing change from where we were. And the players clearly respect and admire him.”
Where Rangers were at the end of last season was third, with three losses to Celtic, 12-2 on aggregate. They had lost direction. It is too early to say if Gerrard has changed it, but he is changing it.
Respect has been one of the words of the football week. Scottish football seems to be in a constant search for it and although Celtic’s failure to make the Champions League group stage is a hurtful blow to the club, its finances and the prestige of Scotland, Gerrard’s presence and signs elsewhere suggest it could be an intriguing season domestically.
The table shows Hearts at the head of it by three points from Celtic, whom they have beaten already. With St Mirren next up at home at redeveloped Tynecastle, it looks like being four wins from four. The talk is of a feelgood factor.
It is the same at Ibrox. “We’re in a good place,” said Gerrard.
Of Sunday, he added: “I think it’s a chance to put a marker down.”
Nothing if not bold.