Changing Fortunes (Part 1: Gerrard’s Key Games 2018/19 and 2019/20)

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It’s not even February 2021 but it’s definitely a good time to be a Rangers supporter. Nothing is wrapped up yet, there’s been disappointment, false dawns and long, long barren years but we’re finally in a good position. In fact, a great position with a good trajectory too - there’s progress and momentum and the present feels less of a gentle slope more like the first few moments of a nuclear explosion. And as the particles collide and accelerate so we wait for that magical moment, the shockwave which will traverse the planet and bring the world to the Ibrox gates.

For this historic time 'Everyone, Anyone' is an inspired choice of slogan and the more people that can share is these good times for Rangers the better. We all come from different places, have different views and yet here we are, all part of this great football club – no questions asked, just to love and respect the club. And we’re all bouncing off the ceiling at how well things have been going and looking forward to what lies ahead.

Hopefully this article brings back some good memories and sparks discussion on different aspects of our adventures with Steven Gerrard. In coming weeks, Adam (@adamski152) over on the Heart and Hand tactics site will be picking some pivotal games and examining our tactical evolution, whilst Kenny (@kenny47110) on the The4thOfficial site will be selecting his key games over this period and providing his much-respected perspective. Please feel free to contribute, to share experiences and opinions and help catalogue a truly glorious time to be a Rangers supporter.

“I took a bite out of a mountain range, thought my teeth would break, the mountain did”, Biffy Clyro

Early 2018 and no matter which way I tried to look at things I would struggle to see a way of our predicament. Even more so when considering our budget and the more obvious options available to us. How would it be possible to escape the mire of mediocrity that we seemed destined to languish in and ascend to any sort of half-respectable position fitting of Rangers FC? I certainly couldn’t see a path to where we are today. But fortunately, some people did.

Steven Gerrard and his team have completed a transformation that us mere mortals on the outside cannot even begin to comprehend. I’m sure plenty people in football would say they’d know how to achieve it but if they truly did then they would be doing it already. The truth is that most managers, even experienced and competent managers, could commit themselves fully, make every right move and still come nowhere close to where we currently are. We got something extra with Gerrard.

We have all seen the financial figures for ourselves and Celtic from when Gerrard took over – with our turnover teetering around £30m whilst Rodgers Celtic topped £100m in a Champions League (CL) year. Money is not everything in football but it’s an indicator of power and capacity and it can overcome many variables. However, since that time the trends and fates of both clubs have been strangely intertwined, home and abroad, football-wise and financially.

Gerrard’s starting point has been unique but this only intensifies subsequent achievements. Paradoxically, it has given Gerrard time and scope to grow whilst simultaneously making his task more difficult. Perhaps expectations had been lowered to the extent that he could afford to swing and miss, within reason, just so long as we saw progress. But then standards and ambitions changed overnight. Mediocrity and anything less than 100% commitment were not tolerated and passengers quickly jettisoned. This was the progress we needed to see. A blast of fresh air blew through Ibrox.

And ever since that magical debut, Gerrard’s reign has been a study of steps and jumps in the right direction – uncompromising, relentless progress - eerily matched by Celtic stumbling and falling in the opposite direction. I’ve chosen to highlight some key games that have changed our fortunes and the context around those games. Each of these games was high stakes and pivotal in its own right and the club would’ve be fully aware of their importance at the time.

“Tomorrow's just a darkened hall to an empty room, When I'm far away from you”, Blink 182
FC Ufa 1 - 1 (1 - 2) Rangers: 30th August 2018 (Europa League)

Gerrard’s first competitive Rangers game was a Europa League (EL) qualifier against Skhupi which was thankfully navigated without any drama. We then had ties against the very decent Osijek and Maribor (which are both significant achievements in their own right) before we faced Russian side FC Ufa. This campaign had already been a relative success and considering the Caixinha disaster the year before we had already exceeded expectations. Surely Ufa would be a step too far?

This was a hard-fought win and our new players showed true grit and determination. Going down to nine men is unusual enough without then being able to cling on to the glory. Gerrard had started by making us solid at the back and organising the rest of the team. Our prize was gaining entry to Europa League group stages and games against Villareal, Rapid Vienna and Spartak Moscow. We were finally back playing at a decent level on a proper stage. A very promising start for Gerrard and the team.

This single win also represented a guaranteed windfall of upwards of £8m to strengthen and build. On top of that Europe had given us valuable competitive game-time outside of our domestic cell to grow as a team, to bond and develop a playing style and character. The board had already committed to investing in the playing squad (and they really had to) but this windfall hastened the process. Players incoming over this season included Goldson (£3m), Barisic (£2.2m), Katic (£2), Grezda (£1.8), Kamara (£50k), with frees for McGregor, Arfield, Flanagan, and loans for Davis, Kent, Worrall, Defoe and Ajaria. This was a substantial rebuild.

For me the home win against Rapid Vienna was a particular highlight of Europe this EL campaign and marked the day Ibrox learned to roar again.

Just weeks before our locking horns with FC Ufa, AEK Athens had put Celtic out of the CL qualifiers. For them this translated to a relative loss of £20m. They then sold Dembele for £19m and although he would have moved on at some point, it left a gap in their team that was never properly filled.

“My strength is in number, and my soul lies in everyone, The releasing of anger can better any medicine under the sun”, Pantera
Rangers 1 - 0 Celtic: 29th December 2018 (Scottish Premiership)

Since the Scottish cup semi-final victory of April 2016, we had lost ten, drawn two and won none of the subsequent Old Firm games. To add further insult to the injury, the aggregate score was 31-6. After years of humiliating walkovers this match signalled that those dark days were over and we were now ready to compete for the first time in years.

Celtic had taken a bloody nose from Warburton in that semi-final and then set about making the most of their considerable advantage to extract retribution against our then struggling, artless and average newly-promoted squad. Gerrard put a stop to that nonsense and dragged the club up back on to its feet. He demanded his players give their all and show themselves some self-respect, whilst showing Celtic the absolute bare minimum.

Our season, Gerrard's first, would eventually peter out with all-too-frequently dropped points against the likes of Aberdeen, Hibs and Kilmarnock being our undoing. A reminder of our weaknesses, lack of options and the work still to be done.

“Where do we go? Oh, where do we go now?”, Guns n Roses

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Rangers 1 - 0 (1 - 0) Legia Warsaw - 29th August 2019 (Europa League)

A new season and another four EL qualifiers to tackle; which this time would include St Josephs, Progress Neidercorn, Midtjylland, and culminating with a showdown against Legia Warsaw. Another tough game against a strong, seasoned European side who were very much the favourites.

This victory guaranteed entry to the Europa group stage and again added upwards of £8m to ours accounts. In all likelihood this result enabled the permanent signing of Ryan Kent, for £6.5m; an unimaginable level of investment and ambition from just a year or so before. This season we also brought in Helander (£3.5m), Edmundson (£700k), we’d loan Hagi (in January) and brought in Aribo, Stewart, Davis, Jones all on free transfers. As a side-note, this marked the first time that the group stages had been reached through this route for two successive seasons.

The EL group this year contained Feyenoord, Young Boys and Porto. The 2-0 win against Porto at Ibrox a dazzling highlight, which provided a platform to launch us out of the group. Again, unimaginable from a year or so before.

Just weeks before this and Lennon’s Celtic had lost to Cluj in the final CL qualifier, shipping four goals at home (agg 4 - 5), and more importantly, shipping another £20m of financial advantage. Again, an important player in Tierney was sold, and never replaced.

“A ten-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Rangers 0 - 1 Celtic: 8th December 2019 (Scottish League Cup Final)

It may seem strange to have a defeat in this study but no team can win every game and with that you only reach your potential by knowing your weaknesses and learning from mistakes. This loss was a sore one to take at the time as we had played very well and created a glut of decent chances. This would be one of two trophies handed to Celtic by officialdom this season, with the linesman forgetting to flag for offside. Outwith that their keeper was their MOTM by some distance and it just wouldn’t to be our day, but an empty stomach only gets hungrier. A tough lesson, and one which highlighted our lack of options upfront, something we’d later address. And perhaps it also added to the complacency across the city, perhaps covered up more than a few cracks, which would catch up with them soon.

“They say jump and you say how high? You’re brain-dead, You’ve gotta f*ckin' bullet in your head”, RATM
Celtic 1 - 2 Rangers: 29th December 2019 (Scottish Premiership)

A first win at Parkhead for ten years! And a tonic to the recent league cup defeat? Another good team performance saw us to a relatively comfortable win against that lot in their own back yard. Another reminder that we could more than match them.

This was the game where they took great offence at Morelos signalling 'game-over' and Ryan Kent threatening to spray imaginary finger-bullets everywhere after scoring a worldie. The moral of the story? Never give any credence to the indignation of their media cheerleaders, ever.

As we now know, we wouldn’t kick on after that winter break but any fear of Celtic had effectively evaporated - whilst uncertainty was surely seeping through the minds of the Celtic team. In terms of lessons going forward then perhaps we had collectively put too much stock in this single game, had our players thought the hard work was done when it had just begun? After all, this wasn’t a cup final, it was just another league game.

“Every second of my life, I only live for you”, Morrissey
Braga 0 - 1 (2 - 4) Rangers: 26th February 2020 (Europa League)

This was a very welcome distraction from a rapidly-faltering title challenge. This game was about discovering new heights, confidence and pride. Every new step in Europe brought in a bit more cash (millions of pounds), increased exposure and hoisted the Rangers flag that little bit higher. It was all building back the brand and showing any hungry or ambitious footballer that we can really offer them something for their career. A big club with big games and a very capable coaching staff.

Another footnote, our neighbours would bow out of the competition to FC Copenhagen the following night. We were now out-performing them in Europe. Another milestone.

These have been just a few of the pivotal games of Gerrard's first two years but that’s not to say it was all brightness and light. We took some punches and at times we asked ourselves some searching questions, especially domestically. It took time for our squad to strengthen and at times mistakes were made, tactics or formations just didn’t click, opportunities and big games passed us by, lessons took a while to be learned. But it’s too facile to say Gerrard didn’t win anything during this time - we didn’t win trophies, true – but each game of football brings its own rewards, money to build and grow (too push us away from the pack and complete with Celtic - the games mentioned probably provided a seasons-worth of cash), confidence (with every win and performance), patience (from a demanding support) and respect (which had been lost for years). But I think most fans trusted that this was all leading to the future, a time when we’d smash through the barrier between nearly and definitely, and that a man like Gerrard would never accept nearly.

Come March 2020 and the Covid-19 lockdown would hit the UK. The fight for the title would die its unseemly death in the boardrooms and virtual meeting rooms. Back at base, Gerrard and his team would regroup, rethink and busy themselves planning for the 20/21 season.

“Even better, I'm a mother's son, I love the rattle of the melting gun, We must attack when they flee and hiss. I see my friends in a billion bits”, Black Francis

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