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The calm before the storm and the fifth pillar

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It doesn’t seem that long ago since James Tavernier finally lifted the Scottish Premiership trophy on behalf of Rangers – for the first time in ten years and for a world record 55th time. I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a tear that day and the moment will live with me forever.

Since then, time, as always seems to be the case for me as I get older, has passed quickly. The weather has been fantastic, Euro 2020 was most enjoyable and a run of major golf tournaments kept me occupied outside any major Rangers news of note.

With that in mind, the new season has kind of crept up on me a wee bit. To begin with our pre-season friendlies were rather non-descript. A disjointed win over Partick, a disappointing loss at Tranmere, a credible draw with Arsenal then a cancelled match down in Blackpool meant last weekend’s double-header at Ibrox suddenly took on more significance with the new season now just seven days away.

The first match of the weekend with Brighton went well. 0-0 doesn’t seem all that impressive on the face of it but, after a few fairly mediocre performances in the preceding weeks, there was a sharpness to our play that was becoming more evident and, despite being unable to grab a winner, we carried an attacking threat that was undoubtedly missing during the summer so far. The return of Niko Katic from a year out with injury was an extra bonus.

Sunday went even better. Yes, yes, yes, we know it wasn’t Real Madrid’s best XI (that’s OK, it wasn’t ours either) and it was pretty obvious they were a yard or two behind us in terms of match fitness but that need not take away from the way we approached the game. Pace, intensity, strength, quality and belief were all clearly evident and, in general, fans could not have hoped for a better confidence booster ahead of Livingston’s visit this coming Saturday. Add in the return of players like Helander, Kent and Barisic and our first look at a raw (but impressive) Fashion Sakala then I think most people enjoyed returning to work on Monday.

One further aspect of why I feel the start of the new season has crept up on me is the status of the Rangers squad. As it stands, changes have been minimal with Sakala and John Lundstram the only new faces (so far at least). Guys like Jack Simpson and Scott Wright did arrive in the previous window and the benefit of that seems clear with both looking ready for their first full season in a Rangers jersey. Departures have also been kept to a minimum. At the time of writing, only George Edmundson, Greg Stewart, Bongani Zungu and Jamie Murphy have left from the senior squad and, whilst the likes of Barker, Jones, Middleton and Hastie may also either leave permanently or on loan, none of these fringe players have ever been considered key options in any case.

All things considered then, that leaves us with a fairly balanced and acceptable squad of around 26 players with the likes of Ryan Jack and Alfredo Morelos still to join the group into August. Joe Aribo and Kemar Roofe should also be back available imminently with only Morelos’ future somewhat uncertain – as always seems to be the case at this time of year.

Of course, with such a key player as Morelos, fans are understandably concerned if not overly worried per se. For example, it’s worth noting that, up until the second period of Sunday’s friendly, we’d only scored three goals across four games and, although Cedric Itten will quite rightly point to his scoring contribution, given the attacking way we play, a consistent end product is required, even with the usual pre-season preparation provisos.

It follows then that Sakala is clearly a key signing and, being not completely sure about his role for the team, I was glad to see the Zambian lead the line well against Real Madrid. The lad is still clearly rather raw but his potential also extremely evident. Quick, strong and confident, he caused the Spanish backline a few first half problems with his movement before taking his best chance when put through by Glen Kamara after half-time. Before then his decision-making wasn’t quite up to scratch but that will come with more time with his new team-mates. Not to mention plenty training opportunities with new player/coach Jermain Defoe who knows a thing or two about being a forward player.

It also wouldn’t be pre-season without questions about the future of Alfredo Morelos. Because of his international obligations with Colombia, the wee man will be the last first team player to arrive back in Scotland for the new season after a well-earned fortnight’s break. As I write this article, Morelos should be isolating for an undetermined period (possibly up to ten days) before being able to start his pre-season. As such, he won’t be available until the Dundee Utd game at best and more likely the CL 3QR 2nd Leg, though I’m sure Steven Gerrard will be hoping he’ll have the luxury of keeping him back until mid-month’s Premier Cup fixture with Dunfermline. Obviously, that’s discussed without the added complication of alleged interest from Porto in his services. Will Alfie finally leave this window? It’s not unlikely but we’ve seen this movie before so I wouldn’t be making too many judgment calls right now. And, I’m also very confident, if or when he does go we’ll have a suitable replacement standing by to arrive in short order.

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In terms of our own transfer market interest, there have been various rumours over the summer with perhaps Dutch midfielder Joey Veerman the main name being discussed. It remains to be seen if Rangers can meet Heerenveen’s asking price and, perhaps more importantly, whether or not this would be done without an existing midfielder leaving. With Davis, Kamara, Lundstram, Aribo, Jack, Arfield, Kelly and Hagi all capable of playing in our usual deeper midfield three, the manager isn’t short of options, so spending upwards of £5m on another player would perhaps raise eyebrows and may only happen if we make the CL group stage and/or if someone like Glen Kamara realises a big-money bid from the variety of teams interested in his services.

It also goes without saying the manager won’t be wanting to lose any of his key players. Stalwarts such as Tavernier, Goldson, Barisic, Kamara, Kent and Morelos will undoubtedly have interest from elsewhere but the steady and undramatic nature of the summer could play a more important part in our season as making one or two more marquee signings. Yes, Joey Veerman looks a quality player and yes, constant Morelos speculation can be a headache but retaining Kamara and Alfie instead of having to integrate any replacements, might also help us retain a consistency of selection to deliver more trophies. We’ve seen window after window with rafts of changes and it’s not always helpful in the short term. This window has been much less frenetic and that has to be good news.

What are our aims this season then? Well, first and foremost retaining the league title has to be the main priority as, not only will this cement our position as Scotland’s premier side, it delivers a huge financial boost with automatic CL group stage qualification for season 2022/23. That cannot be underplayed. Ironically then, it could be argued that qualifying for this season’s group stage is somewhat less necessary. However, an initial tie against one of Malmo or HJK Helsinki looks more than winnable and we’ve showed more than enough in recent European exploits to make a game of any subsequent play-off game we reach. Hence, if (and it’s a big if!) we could qualify for the CL group stage this season and next that would make the financial situation of the club much more comfortable and certainly pay back the loyalty of fans and shareholders who’ve offered tremendous backing to the club in recent times. However, dropping into/reaching the Europa League group stages again, has to be the minimum European outlook so a CL 3QR win has to be our short term priority.

After that, further domestic progress has to be demanded. With disappointment across the Scottish cups in recent years, Rangers have rightly faced criticism for defeats in games they should have won – from Hibs in 2016 to St Mirren and St Johnstone last season, losses in these tournaments only offer doubt over our credentials. If we’re to be truly dominant again in Scotland, we must approach these cups with the same determination and effort we do in European matches. Wouldn’t it be nice to be contesting the Scottish Cup final next May?

In conclusion, we’re now about to start Steven Gerrard’s fourth season in charge of our great club. It’s been a roller-coaster era of ups and downs that, for me, seem more emotionally demanding than any previous time following Rangers. Indeed, it was only last season that we seemed to iron out those bumps with a year of consistency that may never be bettered. Setbacks versus St Mirren, St Johnstone and Slavia Prague still sting now but the broader picture showed a 2020/21 campaign of steadfastness, stability and success at last.

The outstanding question is can we match all the high points of last season? Our attacking play and goal threat, our defensive fortitude, our unbeaten league record and our European-level belief were the four pillars that our season was built on and they must stand again this term if we’re to yield similar results and, dare I say it, improve further. With increasing numbers of fans returning to our games to provide in-situ support that was missing last season, then we can be the fifth pillar to provide that extra strength for our team to take extra steps forward.

It’s the calm before the storm then. No-one knows what lies ahead but, for the first time in arguably ten years, we can look to the season with genuine belief and expectation. Last season showed Rangers are once again Scotland premier club but it’s now time to prove that once more.

Here we go…

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