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Tue, May
 
 

Season 21/22: The Enigma Machine

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I don’t think I can recall a season that has been so disappointing at times and yet has reached such highs. One packed with such contrasting emotion, often in the space of a few games. A season that can be considered an abject failure in one regard and yet can somehow still be classed as a historic success with some peaks of genuine footballing achievement, from bleak despair and capitulation to a point of real positivity looking forward.

Thinking back to last season and it was clear early-on that something special was going to happen. Articles and praise were written and posted at the turn of the New Year and title 55 swiftly followed. A decade of pent-up pressure was released across the club; new levels and standards were discovered and this season was supposed to take a different course. As a supporter nothing could match the consistent driven intensity of last season, the togetherness. Perhaps 21/22 was to be about sitting back and expecting the glow and dominance of last season to simply pour forward as we picked up the title again along with a few domestic cups? It didn’t turn out to be that simple, and August provided a cold wet fish across the face.

The Malmo Champions League qualifying tie was unrecognisable from what we had known as a Gerrard Euro performance. Sadly, for us this also saw season changing income and investment slip through our fingers. Europe has been the well from which much of our growth and development had been drawn in the three preceding years but this failure appeared to stop further development dead. Gerrard would later talk about requiring more backing but it’s also fair to say that we were unprepared and out of sorts for a tie of this magnitude. A league loss to Dundee Utd in early August added further confusion to an audience reading from a different script.

Europe continued to be a grind. The Alashkert qualifier was flat and we showed the bare minimum, but we progressed to the Europa League group stages again. This has been our happy place in recent years, a source of collective pride, freedom and expression. Our Europa League campaign then stuttered with two quick losses. However, the league campaign got back on track and quelled the now simmering doubts with eight successive wins and many of those wins were recoveries (positive) from early gifted goals (negative).

Marching forward into autumn and we started picking up points in the Europa league. But then we had also started to draw and drop points in the league, often from seemingly safe and secure winning positions. We were still in pole position but this was also partly due to a slow start from our rivals. It was satisfactory, just, but nowhere as good as it could be. We were certainly not taking full advantage of the situation or applying maximum pressure on to rivals; something was obviously not right around the club.

Mid-November and Gerrard leaving was a shock but maybe not wholly unexpected. Some took this as a betrayal but we need to remember that every manager leaves at some point and this wasn’t on bad terms or with the club in dire straits, this just the end of Gerrard's Rangers road. Simple as that.

From bad news to just plain bad, what followed against Hibs in the League Cup semi-final was the breath-taking return of the collective weakness that has dogged us domestically for years (breath-taking like a punch to the solar-plexus). Three down to Hibs at Hampden in the first half. This was truly embarrassing stuff and we’d have got better from eleven random amateurs than from our heroes who’d coasted to 55, it made no sense.

Days like these are a mystery that may haunt this team and its legacy but, most importantly for now, may haunt this entire season. The cup failures from the previous season were excused because they were dwarfed by 55 and, being honest, made more plateable because of who didn’t win them. This capitulation to Hibs brought Gerrard's only real failings (domestic cups) back into sharp focus; worse still was who would benefit directly from our blundering generosity. Additionally, all of this was watched by our incoming manager, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. I’d have hoped this would give the players something/someone to shine for but the old insecurities surfaced and totally overwhelmed the occasion.

Gio seemed like the natural fit and most were certainly happy to replace Gerrard so swiftly and painlessly. It could be argued that Gio has the greater footballing experience and a more cultured and rounded footballing education than Gerrard and that this could and should kick us on as a team? A win against Sparta Prague and a draw at Lyon saw us qualify from the Europa League group. A long unbeaten start saw Gio win every league game up to Christmas. In December now and our form was good and many of the careless individual errors had stopped – unsurprisingly not gifting teams a handful of goals helped us win games. The real Alfredo Morelos had also turned up after an uninspiring start under Gerrard. We still had our six-point lead in the league and although our rivals form had improved, they had injuries and fatigue building up fast and were starting to creak. Things were going in the right direction. For now.

Sporadic Integrity

If I had to sum up the domestic season in a few phrases then not learning lessons or lack of recognising situations would be the Rangers threads across the year. This isn’t aimed at just the players, or managers, but especially so for the board and even us the support. Mid-December and new covid restrictions on crowds were announced. One team wasn’t slow in pushing for the Christmas schedule to be postponed into February; their reasons were clear, they had an injury backlog and had reinforcements scheduled to arrive in January. Pushing games beyond a transfer window, surely this ran roughshod over the sporting integrity of the league? Of course, after rushing to stitch-up a league title over Zoom (when of the rest of the world played out their leagues) and simultaneously pushing to play a cup-final in the middle of the following season – I think we can safely say sporting integrity was always a myth and anything goes.

For our part, we had good form and looked good money to take maximum points from the Aberdeen and Celtic games. I genuinely believe that and it certainly felt that way. As a club we should know that you cannot take good form for granted, especially on the other side of a prolonged break. We also signed-up to playing those games without key players as the African Cup of Nations (Aribo, Balogun) and other internationals (Morelos) were scheduled. This is a lot of advantages to just meekly allow to be taken away.

It’s been a whole two years since the SPFL carved up Celtic's previous title win. Rangers rightly challenged the SPFL at that time and for a moment looked like making a break-through. Everyone could see what was going on and the iron was hot to remove undesirable loafers like Doncaster, Mulraney and MacLennan. But ultimately nothing happened. The SPFL and their media friends circled the wagons and as Rangers were teased and derided, so others just lost interest and settled back into the status quo. The same people remain in place today. Politically, Rangers have been out manoeuvred here. Again. And easily. The other ten clubs were mustered and on board the postponement before Rangers had even gathered its thoughts. They even had the tag line “football for fans” to thump in the press. A lesson in pro-active PR and realpolitik. Of course, all of the fans and family and friends getting together over the festive period were watching EPL games instead but that doesn’t matter to this version of the SPFL.

I guess it was an easy sell to the rest of the clubs. Money from home crowds matters to them and better to postpone to a drab February midweek than play as per the agreed schedule during in the festive period. Maybe. Whatever. Regardless, it happened. My problem here is with how easily Rangers accepted this and were left with no option but to accept this. Even simply insisting that any postponement should be at a date not affected by ACON or that affected matches cannot include new transfers, because sporting integrity! That card is available to play and if others are going to play fast and loose then at least make it difficult for them. Do not say and do nothing.

Same Old Flaws

Our worst fears were realised as we restarted against Aberdeen, in the first of the postponed games. We started well enough and took the lead. However, we seemed to sit back, retreat and invite Aberdeen on to us. McGregor's reluctance to leave his line was now stark, players weren’t communicating or working together and it was causing us problems. The wind was blowing a gale and, in a theme keeping with other post-break games from previous seasons, Kevin Clancy seemed to forego any neutrality in one of the most ridiculous displays ever witnessed.

Gio had previously used the phrase "keep the zero" but sitting-in in those conditions against an average but physical and motivated SPFL side was always a massive risk. This is one of those instances where Gerrards’ learned and accrued knowledge (footballing and political) appeared to have left the club with him and his staff. Gio’s post-match interview was way too accepting both of the performance, tactical failings, and the officiating. Gerrard had learned the hard way that appeasement doesn’t work in Scotland. Are we willing to do whatever it takes to win the title? Because you can be sure that others are.

If the referee had a big factor in those dropped points, then the 3-3 that followed against Ross County was entirely self-inflicted. We gifted them three goals, including surrendering the lead twice. And beyond that, we had gifted momentum to our rivals who were now going on a run of their own. This was rammed home as we were thrashed at Parkhead. Another three goals in the first half strangely echoing our other collapses this season and if anything, getting away with conceding just three was a bonus - such was the gutlessness of this display. It was another wake-up call but was it too late now? We were now behind in the league. Players were being played in an as yet unidentifiable system and/or not to their strengths. We looked lost and listless. Our game-plan appeared confused and non-existent at this point, and any remanence of good-will around the 55’ers had long since evaporated as reality started to hit. This was not a happy period and such is the fickleness of the football supporter I’d have been glad to see a total revamp the squad at this moment – they had a long, hard road back to favour.

February 2022, and we see the sublime, ridiculous, sublime, and ridiculous again. The results and performances home and away against Dortmund are some of Rangers greatest ever, by any metric. The 6-4 aggregate win is a seismic European result against a proper big club and EL favourites, and considering what was going on domestically, this was a potentially season saving result for the club and a much-needed ray of hope for the support in general. And what was going on domestically was another suspect officiating performance in a 1-1 draw at Dundee Utd. Again, questions need asked about the pressures put upon our referees through the press and their thought process in the game, because this was a couple of obvious match-changing decisions. Of course, these incidents can happen, that’s not unusual, but it is unusual when they never happen to one team. And as before, referee-led dropped points were followed by dropped points due to ineptitude. The day before and Celtic had dropped points for the first time in a while and a win against Motherwell would put us right back in it. From two goals up and coasting we somehow contrived to throw that lead away and waved goodbye to another priceless two points and with it any initiative in the title race. A clear message was sent to our rivals that we don’t want to win this league this season.

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The Sydney Super Dupe

So as the team floundered, then so questions were being asked of Gio. Sure, he had played for Rangers under Advocaat, but that was in a different time, a different world. Did he really understand the past ten years? Did he understand the landscape of Scottish football now? And if not, had no-one at the club explained to him what we had all been through and what we routinely face? Come to think of it, did any at the club understand it either? Apparently not as an Old Firm friendly was announced in Australia. Actually, announced isn’t quite the right word, leaked to help cover-up and deflect from the civil case brought against Celtic by 30 victims of CSA would be more accurate. Questions and heat were now directed towards our board and other senior figures at the club.

I wrote about my disgust and dismay at the whole thing on Gersnet here. To say the majority were unhappy was an understatement. The month of March had turned into a blunt, vocal protest at every game. Did this affect the players and our title charge? It’s hard to say, it couldn’t have helped, although four domestic wins and another scintillating victory over Red Star suggests otherwise. It is bad enough advantages being taken from you, it’s another thing signing advantages away whilst bringing all sorts of problems upon yourself that could’ve very easily been avoided. By the end of March Rangers had apparently found a way out of the cursed arrangement. But with potential legal repercussions to come – of course there was.

This whole affair was obvious to everyone apart from the Rangers board. Football supports can be simplified into base personalities and stereotypes and the behaviour and response of fanbases can largely be predicted. This friendly pushed all of the wrong buttons and what unfolded was an obvious reaction - all negative, energy-sapping, and self-defeating. The way it all unfolded it is easy to imagine this being plotted out beforehand, almost as a bit of a laugh. What’s not so amusing is someone at the club actually signing up to it without any fore-thought. We’ve clearly not learned our lessons at all regarding the environment we operate in and the traps others will gladly set us or push us into. And yet we walk in every time. Something has seriously failed at the club here.

We have to be thankful to the board for Gerrard, and for the progress across the Gerrard years. It cannot have been easy and people have put in huge sums of their own cash. Our hands have been tied and money is still tight. However, the board, like the playing staff, have to be measured on their progress and achievements. Influence within the SPFL would be one such metric. Influence within the traditional press would be another. Having a pro-active and effective PR has to be one. Not having the entire support demanding you f*ck off for an entire month, I would put that down as a nice to have. And by the way, the genie is still out of the bottle regarding the singing of certain antiquated battle hymns. We all need to learn from this and plot a route out of it and forward.

I don’t expect Rangers to win every battle but I do expect the club to leave a clear statement of fact on every major issue affecting the club. No doubt ongoing legal issues will be used as an excuse not to address what happened with the Sydney Cup episode, but come on guys, we got played there. Five years on and the BBC still gleefully boycott us and deny us parity. After three years of none-too-subtly targeting our players, with the help of individuals at Sportscene, the Compliance Officer has largely disappeared - what happened there? Are the club just accepting what we could all see during those seasons? Celtic board members and representatives openly target refs in the press – even after they have had a fair performance - surely Rangers and other clubs aren’t happy about this? And not even just the clubs, surely the SFA and the refs cannot be happy about this? Are we still that far out in the wilderness that we can’t garner support to even broach these subjects? For me these are metrics for the board.

And as a wider support how have we faired? Club 1872 seems to have tied itself in knots through a lack of transparency and accountability and has vapourised much of its mass as a result. However, it popped up during the Sydney debacle but surely it should be earning its donations through regular sound bites and battles for both club and support? Are we all doing what we can? Are we seeking out positions for our ourselves and friends in areas where Rangers are under-represented or even just good old-fashioned discriminated against? Are we giving ourselves the tools and grounding to succeed, have we honed and sharpened our arguments to defend our corner and ensure inclusion going forward? Are we calling out politicians or journalists who don’t just favour rivals but who actively attack Rangers from their professional position? I hope to hell we aren’t voting for them or supporting them. Are we supporting Rangers in the right way and not given our enemies ammunition to fire back at us?

The End of the Season?

There’s mathematically impossible and then there’s the moment when you know that it isn’t happening. When we lost at Ibrox on the third of April most knew that it was now out of our hands. Gio’s job was undoubtedly on the line. From six points ahead at Christmas to a complete reverse, I don’t know anyone who wasn’t questioning him at this point. And yet we still had a quarter final against Braga to fight for. We still had to fight and keep believing in the league. And we still had to play Celtic in the Scottish cup semi-final.

From the depths and doldrums of seeing the league slipping away to the other-worldly experience of winning both the Europa League quarter final and a Scottish Cup semi-final against that lot, both in 120mins extra time. This was as surreal as it was welcomed; heightened further by considering what the alternative would’ve meant for the season – for Rangers, the fans, the board and for Gio. Those efforts and achievements across those four days and four hours of football cannot be under-stated and equally cannot be squared with the shambolic point-dropping moments strewn across the season. This was all-time legendary Herculean work against the earlier Petrofac Cup fare.

Gerrard and his team had three years to identify and fix the domestic blips. They managed it to a degree last season but obviously not entirely. Even with a director of football and numerous transfer windows it could not be diagnosed and remedied sufficiently to retain our league title. That it has continued under Gio suggests it is neither a direct management flaw nor easy to pin down. Perhaps focus, perhaps tactics, perhaps weather, fitness, pitches, prestige, refs, surroundings, anything but clearly not talent or ability.

A solid defensive display against a very talented (and expensive) RB Leipzig kept us in the semi-final. A battling draw against Celtic from a goal down and some missed golden chances with an injury ravaged squad saw some pride restored, all be it too late for the league. Earlier mistakes and errors aside (forgiven) there is clearly a good solid core in that squad. The new management team is starting to know and trust its players and vice versa. We have to keep the best and add to it, if we can then we have everything to play for next season.

But we weren’t finished there. The 3-1 home-leg semi-final win against RB Leipzig on the fifth of May is already being talked about as one of Ibrox’ finest ever moments. The noise, the unity, the belief, the drama, and it was all deliciously topped off with a late goal and progress to a European final. Against all odds. We all dreamed but this is wild stuff. Bloody hell!

This was a game we tackled without key men and big names – Morelos, Roofe, Helander, Hagi and Ramsey to name a few. A game where McGregor oozed reassurance. Where Goldson and Tavernier grew even more as leaders. Lundstram completed his redemption and then some. Where Bassey continued to shine and Kamara stood tall. Ryan Jack surrendered nothing to anybody. Aribo and Kent carried it to them. One team, where Barisic, Wright, Sakala, Arfield and Balogun gave their all and were contributing in the best possible ways when it mattered. Everyone in it together and for each other. For Jimmy Bell and for Rangers. Gio was now getting his message across and it showed. The crowd drove the players and the players drove to crowd. Our tactics and form were now clicking and it was night and day from our bleak escape from the Scottish winter.

Keep Winning

During the worst moments of the past ten years, when it felt like we were being set upon from literally every corner of Scottish society, a friend would tell me that we only need to start winning again. It sounds overly simplistic but watching the official UEFA or BT Sports twitter accounts or the Sky Sports news feed in the build-up and aftermath of the Europa League matches and there is a lot of truth in that comment. The pure footballing PR that flows from winning on the pitch at this level is unrivalled. This is why many in Scotland cannot bear to cover Rangers fairly, if at all. They know that our story, our last ten years, our 55th title, our recent Europa exploits, our world acclaimed Ibrox stadium and atmosphere and the beautiful high-definition 360-footage, are all pure footballing morphine that reaches into the hearts and minds of all neutral football fans.

Winning removes the convenient accusation and dismissal of sour grapes. It’s easier to address instances of poor treatment or inconsistency in Scottish football when winning on the pitch. It adds weight to any insistence that we have to be represented in Scottish football and have a say in its direction and governance, especially when others have failed so badly. It provides room and time to work on all of the things behind the scenes that then go to support putting a winning team on the park and giving our first team (and B-team and Womens’ team) every opportunity. It opens new doors to network in European football. It provides a draw to players, to sponsors and investors. It’s priceless.

We know that the measuring of success is different between domestic football and Europe. Domestically, Rangers have to win and anything less is rightfully considered failure. We can have valid excuses but second is a failure. Whereas in Europe the reality and expectations are different, we are now a small fish in a big sea. Each win is a success in its own right. Getting to the group stages, getting out of the group stages, and on, and on, each a tangible level of success. Does Europe erase our failure in the league this year? No, but it certainly soothes it, and reaching the Europa League final overshadows it to the point of insignificance. Reaching the final stands alone as an incredible feat to celebrate. Rangers fans know now to never take anything for granted and this is an occasion to be appreciated and enjoyed. Like preceding rounds, we may not be favourites but we have a chance and that is all we need. And then we have another final against Hearts.

Keep winning Rangers and immortality awaits.

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