Celtic’s unprecedented double treble tells all about the incredible disparity in Scottish football right now, and an aggregate scoreline of 14-2 in this season’s Old Firm derbies equally tells all about how one-sided the rivalry that props up Scottish football has become. We all know the reasons why, but it’s clear only a masterstroke can get Rangers back to a competitive level with their Glasgow nemesis in prompt enough fashion to prevent that chasm of quality becoming even wider.
It’s come, in theory at least, in the form of Steven Gerrard being named the new chief of the Rangers dugout. And yet, it’s an appointment that comes with as many pros as cons, as many solutions as potential problems.
On the one hand, the former England captain brings his incredible reputation, gravitas and connections to the role, and after his synonymy with Liverpool he will understand how to tap into the powers of an exceptionally fierce, exceptionally militant following. On the other, his managerial experience at senior level is precisely zero, as his experience of Scottish football as a player or a manager. One might even make comparison with another Liverpool legend in John Barnes, who survived just a matter of months at Celtic.
In the context of Scottish football’s current climate and the Old Firm rivalry though, it could indeed prove to be the right decision. Gerrard clearly has lots to learn about his new club, his new squad and the idiosyncrasies of the league they play in; but if there’s one thing he knows already, it’s the idiosyncrasies of Brendan Rodgers – the man who has overseen the unprecedented success at Celtic Park.
Gerrard clearly has a deep, personal respect for Rodgers. Back in 2015, when the Northern Irishman was beginning to feel the heat from disillusioned Liverpool fans, Gerrard told reporters that he wished he met Rodgers when he was 24, believing they would have won a wealth of trophies together. The significance of that age should not be overlooked either; when Gerrard was 24 he lifted the Champions League title, so to suggest he would have enjoyed even greater success under Rodgers’ guidance is quite the statement.
The Liverpool legend will need to put that admiration to one side to overcome the gap between Rangers and Celtic, but in some ways it can be a fantastic asset too. He probably has a greater knowledge of Rodgers’ philosophy and tactics than any Rangers scout ever could through first-hand experience. He knows when a Rodgers side is at its strongest and must be contained at all costs, just as he knows when a Rodgers side is at its most vulnerable and must be capitalised on. That’s not in terms of confidence and mentality, rather formations, movements and patterns of play.
The importance of such knowledge shouldn’t be downplayed. Aberdeen and Hibernian particularly have made the Scottish title race about so much more than simply coming out on top in the Old Firm derbies, but the table speaks for itself; there was a 12-point gap between Celtic and Rangers this season, a difference that can be made up in the Glasgow clashes alone. That might seem incredibly unlikely considering how one-sided they’ve been this season, but Gerrard’s understanding of Rodgers – both as a man and as a manager – has the potential to turn the tide.
That’s not to say the SPFL is just a two-club league, and that’s not to suggest this current Rangers squad will lift the title next season if they come out on top in the Old Firm derbies. Celtic still boast far greater consistency against the rest of the league through their superior quality and depth, and Gerrard will inevitably make some mistakes during his first season as a manager to cost Rangers points. 2018/19 is most likely a campaign too soon.
But if there’s one minimum requirement for Rangers next season, it’s to make those Old Firm games much closer and much more competitive than they have been. While Gerrard is no doubt a risky appointment, his association with Rodgers gives Rangers a new, unique edge for those games, and proving equal to their bitter rivals four games a season is a solid starting point that can change the psyche at the top of Scottish football. From there, anything is possible for the Ibrox outfit.