A changing of the guard?

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Before Sunday's final Old Firm game of the season there was the usual manufactured controversy by the usual trolls in the media.  Last week it was Chris Sutton's turn to take the lead by suggesting Rangers should give Celtic a guard of honour ahead of the match to show respect for their title win.  Of course, given the rivalry between the clubs, this was never going to happen but it didn't stop several other journalists and pundits latching onto the 'debate' inferring Rangers lacked the class or humility to applaud the Celtic players onto the pitch.  Even Alan Stubbs and Neil Lennon had their say with neither having the brains to remember they or their clubs didn't offer Rangers the same guard when they played Hibs and Celtic after winning leagues in previous seasons.  As always, when it comes to Scottish football, the hypocrisy and mischief-making stood out more than any genuine point being offered.

No matter, this Celtic team do deserve praise.  To be on the brink of an unprecedented 'treble treble' is worthy of such and, despite the context that goes with their eight titles in a row, to win nine trophies across three years is good going and it would be churlish not to recognise that.  In fact, I'd go so far that if you're not prepared to do so, then it would just make Celtic's job easier in terms of extending their dominance.  Indeed, whilst Steven Gerrard clearly wasn't in favour of any bizarre guard of honour, as a professional himself, he will be well aware of how difficult the job is to challenge our greatest rivals going forward and will respect their achievements.  The current financial gulf alone makes his job a difficult one: not impossible but we are hamstrung fiscally and I do note the irony from when the boot was on the other foot twenty odd years ago.  Yet, that fairly recent history also shows nothing is a certainty in this country's national sport (take note Hearts).

Despite an unsuccessful season per se, Rangers have shown they can meter out a challenge to Celtic in the coming years.  Yes, Celtic won the league fairly comfortably in the end but in the four matches against them, we at last not only competed with them but came out the four games looking the better side.  In the first match at Celtic Park, the hosts by and large dominated and ran out deserved winners but in the three games since, including the second game at Celtic Park at the end of March where we went down to ten men, we not only played the more composed football but we created the most chances whilst bettering them both tactically and physically.  Sure, they still won that March contest but, make no mistake, our efforts from that day were reflected in our own win at Ibrox on Sunday.  And, in turn, that result will have a bearing the next time we play them too.  Most importantly, it should give our own players the belief to approach next season with more confidence, addressing our problems with consistency and our ability to keep winning games when it truly matters.

Of course nothing is certain despite our splendid performance from the weekend but we are in a good place.  For much of this season we were too dependent on Alfredo Morelos and too one-dimensional in our play as a result. This made us predictable and occasionally easy to defend against: issues that have lingered from the managerial reigns of Warburton and Caixinha/Murty.  Fortunately, this season has been different with Steven Gerrard and his coaching team quickly able to find an alternative system to improve results.  The form of certain players has helped: not least the likes of Defoe, Davis and Katic but from being over-reliant on one or two individuals, we've played much better as a team since we lost Morelos to suspension.  In that sense, it's no coincidence, our overall play has been better for longer periods of games and we've both conceded less and scored more than in other periods of the campaign.

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With that in mind our current form is well worthy of examination.  Since that unlucky defeat to Celtic at the end of March, we've won six games in a row.  Not exactly noteworthy on its own but these matches have all been against the best the SPFL has to offer.  We've beaten Hearts twice, Celtic, Motherwell, Aberdeen and Hibs: the latter two, teams we've struggled against earlier in the season.  We've also scored 14 goals and conceded only once.  Of course the season is nearing an end and some sides might well be ready for their holidays but, for me, that means our form deserves more praise, not less.  After all, when we finish our season this Sunday at Rugby Park it will be our 60th game of the last 10 and half months.  Yet the drive and hunger from the manager and his squad seems to be just as fresh as it was when we beat Shkupi last 12th July.

We're also well on our way when it comes to improving the squad for next season.  Bosman signings like Jordan Jones, Jake Hastie and Greg Stewart might not take us to Champions League glory but Glen Kamara has already shown since he signed from relegated Dundee that cost need not dictate quality.  If you were watching Liverpool's incredible comeback against Barca last midweek and their impressive domestic form throughout the season then Andy Robertson's less than glamorous background shows Scottish-based players can play at the highest levels: a belief that both Gerrard and Gary McAllister can offer any new signing.  And there will be more - perhaps a few that will whet the appetite in the same way that Jermain Defoe and Steven Davis have shown their quality once up to speed.

Conversely we will lose several players as well with a long list set to leave.  The vast majority of Foderingham, Alnwick, Hodson, Wallace, Worrall, McAuley, Coulibaly, Holt, Grezda, Dodoo, Herrera and Lafferty won't be here next season which is a large exodus.  More importantly, key players such as Morelos, Tavernier and Kent are uncertain to be here - though at least the Colombian and our skipper will realise serious cash should they move on, which could help us afford to retain Kent.  The reliable contributions of players like Goldson, Jack and Arfield will also be of interest to other clubs so new deals may be offered to keep their services.  Meanwhile, even obvious talent such as Dorrans, Docherty and Rossiter have struggled to prove themselves at the club so their futures may well be undecided too.  As such, whilst the squad turnover may not be as severe as we seen in Gerrard's first summer at the club, change will be obvious and next year's squad very different.  Given we'll be starting the hard work again this time next month, we'll need improvement to avoid the downturn of form we seen last winter due to our European exertions.  Ensuring the squad has the correct level of depth and quality therein is a big responsibility for Andy Scoulding and Mark Allen.  After all, if we are to be successful next season then we'll need to play more than the 60 games we did this term.  

All things considered Rangers fans asked for evidence of progress from Steven Gerrard and, as much as there have been some great disappointments this season, I think he's definitely provided improvement by and large.  To qualify for the Europa League group stages was a laudable achievement and to arguably win the head-to-head versus Celtic over the course of those four games demonstrates improvement; mentally as much as tactically.  Unfortunately, no cup finals and no league trophy shows work still needs to be done and a couple of wins over Celtic isn't enough to satisfy the support as long as they're the ones still celebrating trebles come mid-May.  In that sense, Sunday's result may have been meaningless but there's no doubt in my mind any momentum Celtic had after our travails of the last 7-8 years has been halted.  Perhaps not reversed (and they have plenty of financial fuel to apply) but enough of a marker to suggest a changing of the guard could be upon us. 

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