Changing Fortunes (Part 2: Gerrard’s Key Games 2020/21)

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Part 1 of this series selected key games in Gerrard’s first two seasons and in particular those which meant the most to the club, primarily in terms of revenue and prestige, in our pursuit of victory. Our 2019/2020 foray into the last 16 of the Europa League had generated over £20m for the football club and the Europe runs were a necessary virtuous cycle for reinforcing Gerrard’s war machine.

This series is complimented by accompanying articles on stand-out games and emotions from Kenny on the 4th Official site and brilliant tactical insight on Gerrard’s progress by Adam on Heart and Hand. Their latest instalments will be issued in due course, so keep an eye on their sites and please read, enjoy and share.

Turn over the cassette and press play. A new season - let’s go!

“Autumn's sweet, we call it fall, I'll make it to the moon if I have to crawl”, RHCP
Rangers 2 - 1 Galatasaray: 1st October 2020 (Europa League)

In the midst of Covid disruption and uncertainty Rangers had so far triumphed in one-legged games away to Lincoln Red Imps and Willem II. This home win against Galatasaray was a massive result against a team with a genuine European pedigree, house-hold names and a yearly turnover regularly exceeding £150m. As it was, sitting at the start of the season to be buried under a mountain of significant games, this result will never get the credit it deserves, but this single game opened the door to another potentially incredible European season for Gerrard’s team. A good start, a good performance and very positive start to the season. This one win guaranteed another six Europa League games and minimum of £8m – a nice night's work.

That money would help to subsidise the transfers of Roofe (£4m), Hagi (£3m), Itten (£2.5m) and would also probably be the difference in retaining Morelos. We saw loans moves for Zungu and free transfers for Defoe, Bassey, McLaughlin and Balogun. Our Group stage competitors this year would be Standard Liege, Lech Poznan and Benfica.

Just the week before and Celtic had lost their CL qualifier to Ferencvaros - the third season in a row that the promised land had eluded them in the qualifiers. Sure, they’d have Europa League football as well but not the extra £20m+ to help service their higher wage bill. However, they did have cash in the bank and would still spend significant money this summer to back Lennon - but make no mistake, this result put stress on their plans. With hindsight, they made mistakes by letting some key players go without enough fight and then spent their money very poorly.

“Lose control, in increasing pace, wantonly waste, intention erased”, Muse
Kilmarnock 0 – 1 Rangers: 1 November 2020 (Scottish Premiership)

Some context. Rangers had won again at Parkhead on the 17th of October 2020. Celtic then drew at Aberdeen. They had one match in hand due to a Covid-related postponement, but we had those three points on the board. They had last season’s cup semi-final game this weekend, so a win would see us go nine points ahead. We had repeatedly failed at these defining moments in the past two seasons, with any advantage almost immediately handed back. And Killie in particular had been a bogey team.

Our league form so far had been very good, sometimes scintillating, but this game was only about the three points and we got them.

The pressure was all on Celtic now and they duly drew 2-2 with Hibs. We then thrashed Aberdeen 4-0 at Ibrox. This pressure led to turmoil and panic at Celtic. Our win at their ground had derailed them. Their league form wasn’t possibly as good as it had been, but it wasn’t particularly bad either. The shouts had already started for Lennon to step aside.

Celtic then lost to Ross County in the League Cup, sparking an angry gathering outside Parkhead (during pandemic restrictions). They are now unravelling fast and it’s all down to Rangers' relentless consistency. Celtic’s chaos was perhaps best contrasted by a controlled and competent Rangers win at Lech Poznan to top our Europa Group, undefeated.

Surprisingly, we blow our best chance at the League Cup with an away loss to St Mirren. Our first defeat of the season. A reminder that we haven’t won anything yet and we mustn’t take anything for granted. Perhaps best we learned this lesson in this competition and not in the league?

“You think it's easy, but you're wrong”, Pavement
Rangers 3-2 Standard Liege: 03 December 2020 (Europa League)

One thing I remember about this period was the machine-gun rhythm of the games – the Sunday/Thursday club. In the league, we had found a way to keep winning since a draw against Hibs on the 20th of September. The Europa league had been equally as enjoyable. The draws against Benfica could be seen as disappointments and I think that tells its own story.

This game, against Standard, saw us officially qualify from the group for the second year running. We were now comfortably taking on and beating quality European opposition. The first half wasn’t vintage Rangers as we took time to find their measure and we twice fell behind. But we had the character to twice reply. The second half saw the performance and dominance rise and we took the three points and all that came with European football in the New Year. Another £500k for a win and £1m for winning the group. In a time of Covid restrictions this was a vital source of revenue – and one not available to all clubs.

Across the city and Celtic’s troubles were beginning to mount. Truth be told, they were humiliated in their group, shipping 19 goals in the process. But their league form hadn’t quite reached those depths. Yet.

“Saw things clearer, once you were in my rear-view mirror”, Pearl Jam
Rangers 3-1 Motherwell: 19 December 2020 (Scottish Premiership)

Motherwell at Ibrox and it felt edgy. Each league game now was taking on huge significance as we battle to shake free of our ghosts. We go behind and take 73 mins to level the score and those many slow-passing seconds feel like nine long years. We would go on to win 3-1. It was neither an easy nor particularly enjoyable watch but it was methodical and it was determined and that was enough. This is the type of game where we’ve come up short for the past two seasons, but not this time. The team collects a very important three points and we’re now 16 points clear with three more games played.

“Send in your skeletons, sing as their bones go marching in, again. They need you buried deep, the secrets that you keep are ever ready, are you ready?”, Foo Fighters

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Rangers 1 – 0 Celtic: 02 January 2021 (Scottish Premiership)

The New Year Old Firm game and it was far from a classic. Probably one of our worst performances in this exceptional season. Celtic started fast and were clearly hungry and motivated. McGregor made some exceptional saves. At the time it felt like we would surely buckle. But we didn’t and as the second half developed it was clear that the game was turning - a Celtic red card, then an own-goal, rubber-stamped our good fortune. In the wash-up all that really mattered were the three points. This pushed the lead at the top out to 19 points (with that lot having played three less games). Another statement of intent. Another layer of doubts over mentality and vulnerability shed. And a great start to a New Year. Slàinte.

“Some men like the fishing and some men like the fowling, And some men like to hear the cannon ball a-roaring”, Thin Lizzy
Hibernian 0 – 1 Rangers: 27 January 2021 (Scottish Premiership)

By this stage of the season every game is crucial. Despite an increasingly healthy lead, it still felt that any lost goal or misplaced pass could be title losing. We had seen December out with maximum points and some tough, gritty wins. Celtic had had a mini-resurgence but the defeat at Ibrox took any wind out of those sails. They were left to drown their sorrows on a seven hour flight to Dubai, whilst we regrouped and recuperated.

Leading into this game it had felt like top form had started to return from a relative dip. Since New Year we’d beaten Celtic, Aberdeen and Ross County, with a slight hiccup at Motherwell. Whilst our competitors had stumbled more.

Transfer wise we would loan out Barker, Edmundson and Jones and we’d bring in Scott Wright from Aberdeen. In summary, business done efficiently with minimal fuss.

The game at Easter Road had always looked like a staging post for the season, even as the fixtures were announced, and after this we’d surely better know our fate?

We need never have worried as our imperious run continued. This was a controlled and comfortable performance. Good quality and enjoyable football on a poor surface. The neat interplay and running looked to clicking again and the players started to express themselves. It’s worth remembering that many of these players had been playing and training together for over two years. There was a well-drilled understanding between them that is flourishing. There is something musical about watching a team in this state. Rhythms and patterns appear throughout the performance, the tempo ebbs and flows, melodies and riffs regularly appear between certain players. The song is different each time but it always sounds familiar.

Now, there’s no show without punch and Morelos proved to be the difference. Porteous and Morelos had continued their running battles from previous games and maybe Morelos got away with one on Porteous. But then maybe Porteous was due that from an earlier high challenge. Ultimately, Morelos won the battle by drifting away from his tormentor and slotting away the winning goal. The media hysterics and hypocrisy that followed only made it sweeter and after years of taking some real rough stuff Alfie was due this one.

It was worth noting that Clare Whyte had left the role of Compliance Officer by this point and like a headless chicken stumbling around the yard the maligned process was able to continue without her. A three-match ban was duly offered and accepted by Rangers.

We would see Roofe cited the following week - as again others avoided similar scrutiny. ‘Consistency’ was now something the club and manager had started publicly calling for and it was a polite way of publicly addressing a hopelessly corrupted system. Interestingly, the media spin was now that Rangers had benefitted from avoiding those reds during the match – something unique to Rangers apparently. An interesting change in tack, as parity (in refereeing fallibility) was now something for the media to object to, but not the litany of questionable citations over preceding years. This is all worth noting again and again as the compliance officer (and their willing pitchers in the press) had been a malevolent background noise throughout Gerrard’s first two seasons and any subsequent success should not allow it to be forgotten.

“If I don't pull myself from the jaws of defeat and rise to my feet, I don't see why y'all even started with me, I get in beefs, my enemies die, I don't ceasefire 'til at least all are deceased “, Eminem
Rangers 1 – 0 Everyone: 2021 (Scottish Premiership)

From Christmas until the title was secured Rangers would win 11 of their 13 games, with two draws. Seven of these would be decided by one goal, with six finishing 1-0 to Rangers.

Some of these games were tight and nervy, but then others weren’t. It was a story of ruthless efficiency and being good enough. It was also a story of the whole squad contributing. Jon McLaughlin had kept goal so well at the start of the season and McGregor ably took over - there are numerous three points that we owe solely to McGregor. Davis kept things moving, the model professional. Kamara stepped up another level. Barisic added consistency to his class. Arfield had a freshness and verve that Rangers hadn’t seen before. Morelos ticked away with a menacing precision and then added more goals after the New Year. Goldson was an absolute rock. Tavernier was our Rockstar. And when Tav’s attacking contribution dropped off then we could look to Kent, or Hagi, or Aribo. Jack’s world-class volley won us the three points against Kilmarnock. Gerrard had built an entire squad working towards the title.

Celtic would lose to Ross County on the 21st of February and Lennon resigned two days later. On the 3rd of March we have a tough game on dreadful pitch against a well drilled side. Livingston suffocate our play and we’re limited half chances. The fireworks outside the stadium at 55 minutes remind the players why we are here. Rangers push and push and Morelos finally prods home on 87 minutes to settle matters. 31 games played. 18 points clear. Not long now?

“Ain't found a way to kill me yet”, Alice in Chains
Rangers 5 -2 (9-5) Royal Antwerp: 25 February 2021 (Europa League)

The first leg was a crazy game. Some errant defending set against some irresistible forward play. The second leg? Exactly the same!

This win brought us another £1m in prize money with more available from broadcasting rights. Our prize money in Europe would again exceed £10m for the season. Across the city and Celtic had recently posted a significant reduction in revenue from £53m to £40m in their mid-term accounts. A considerable hit.

This game also marked Gerrard surpassing Walter Smith’s total of European wins - 24 wins, 15 draws and five losses from 43 games. An incredible record in under three seasons. This level of performance is almost unheard of in Scotland.

“Hold my head, we’ll trampoline, finally through the roof”, Pixies
Rangers 3 – 0 St Mirren: 06 March 2021 (Scottish Premiership)

The gathering crowds and celebrations before the game set the scene for the weekend. Video coverage of Gerrard and the players driving to Ibrox through a foaming human sea of euphoria and a mist of blue and red pyro got the goose-bumps going before a ball was kicked. The players provided their own fireworks too, the first 60 mins was assured and scintillating and showed why the title was heading back to Ibrox. The team were now on the brink of immortality.

The next day Celtic would stumble to a goalless draw at Tannadice the following day and that would be that.

Steven Gerrard, his staff and his players had delivered title 55. This was almost tenyears of hurt, ridicule, pain and despair and every emotion imaginable that had been concentrated on this moment. And in that instant all the negativity evaporated and rapture took over. The very worst of times was over. As Gersnet’s own Alex Anderson put it Rangers now have the most romantic story in football to add to our collection. We deserved this and it means so much.

It’s obvious and relevant to use Celtic as a reference as they were (and unfortunately probably eternally will be) our domestic yardstick; however, I don’t think Gerrard had set about specifically matching them. I think he had set his sights way beyond them. He aimed to make Rangers the best we could be - the best-ran, highest-performing version of Rangers possible. A club that could compete and beat others with considerably bigger resources than us - teams like Galatasaray and Benfica. And that’s what he has managed. The crown of SPFL Champions is just an inevitable by-product of that process.

Certainly, he would’ve used the behaviour and disrespect from Celtic in preceding years as fuel to fire his players engines. But then he’d use the brutality of Motherwell and Hibs and Aberdeen players as fuel too. Just as he’d use the needle from the Maribor manager. Elite sportsmen take motivation and edge where they can find it.

I think we can take a lesson from this, both football-wise and culturally. This rivalry is something we’ve entangled ourselves with too often, and upon reflection it has usually been to our detriment. Gerrard has shown that we need not define or limit ourselves by the stature or position of our rival, instead we should always be our best and let that define and lead us.

The financial trends which had been bleak viewing for years previous now show the lines converging as time rolls forward, possibly even favouring us by the time the 2021 accounts are published. Our board have invested to accelerate our growth in recent years and we will need to start realising profit from player trading at some point, but the SPFL title returning home to Ibrox takes the pressure away in so many respects.

As we stride triumphantly into our 150th year all areas of the club are very much on an upwards trajectory. It is the opposite for our rivals, they shoulder a bloated wage bill and suffer under-performance in many areas. The pressure is now on for an immediate response but sizeable rebuilding looks unavoidable, other historic troubles continue to haunt them, whilst unrest and disillusionment from their fanbase has to be a factor – let’s hope so.

Ultimately, our rise and Celtic’s fall are stories of management. With hindsight, it is easy to consider Gerrard the perfect candidate but, like everything in football, it was far from guaranteed. After all, there’s plenty of good and capable managers out there but very few special or great managers. I think we can call Gerrard a very special manager as we are talking about almost unheard-of levels of consistency (domestically and in Europe), of recruitment, of coaching, all gilded with some fantastic football. And that’s without considering the starting point - the financials, the dressing room, the infrastructure and, of course, our main rival's seemingly unassailable advantages.

There’s not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate our good fortune with Gerrard. The right man, at the right place, at the right time. Sometimes things just happen like that. God bless you Steven Gerrard, may you continue to achieve everything you wish for.

“Say goodbye to gravity and say goodbye to death, hello to eternity and live for every breath”, Iron Maiden

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