I thought Saturday’s result, entirely jammy in how it came about, merely papered over the cracks of what has been a frankly disgraceful start to the season. The sight of Walter Smith by the side of the pitch only brought home how shamefully un-Rangers it all was.
I mean I only got logged on in time for the coverage beginning at 2.30pm because I thought it started at 2. My half hour of trying to find and then work an access code the club e-mailed me in July - which I’ve used twice already - typified the embarrassing form I’ve displayed in trying to operate RangersTV on my laptop since the start of 2020-21. What did I really expect though, after a shocking pre-season in which I resorted to watching our Motherwell and Coventry friendlies on an Irish Sports channel rather than get some solid preparation under my belt.
But, while I continue to think “casting to your TV” is a catchphrase from that Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse fishing programme, Rangers have enjoyed a record-breaking, record-equalling, solid as the Welsh-quarried redbrick on a listed main stand frontage, start to the new SPFL Premiership season. And what we did at Ibrox against Killie last weekend made me even happier than the fact this Saturday’s trip to Hamilton is live on Sky (even I can work a remote).
Yes, another clean sheets milestone was lovely. Proving we can mix it up tactically, dominate and win with neither Alfredo Morelos nor Joe Aribo in the squad is further encouragement. But, for me, it’s all about the grind.
It has become an obsession for more bears than just me, but the only recurring fault I can find with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers is our occasional inability to grind out a result against low-blocking elevens representing low-achieving clubs. On Saturday we ground out a result. And we ground it out against a team who, in the league, have always ground down Stevie G’s Gers.
On each of the three previous occasions Kilmarnock have visited Gerrard’s Rangers we’ve managed just one goal; All scored by Alfredo Morelos who, you may have deduced from Michael Stewart’s manic delivery and discernibly higher register on Sportscene, was absent from Saturday’s squad.
Yes, Gerrard’s stuffed them home and away in the Cups, but this was just our buoyantly coiffured gaffer’s second home league win over Kilmarnock. And this time we scored twice without reply, and this time Killie never threatened; And this time we didn’t need our Colombian talisman to dig us out of a hole.
And it’s the digging ourselves out which pleased me most. Now that the match is won, I’m actually glad we went in 0-0 at half-time. Now that the three points are secure and we top the table, I’m delighted I was so bored and frustrated at the break. I’ve seen all the Ibrox romps I need to see to tell me Gerrard has the ability to win stuff.
Coasting’s nice but we’ve done that. Now I want to see us overcoming those little road blocks of frustration and boredom – the kind Kilmarnock have placed across our path better than anyone else this last three years – which evidence the mental fortitude required to fulfil potential.
Six days earlier the same blank score-line reigned at full-time in Livingston. It was Monday before I’d recovered my composure. But this last eight years I’m always too high or too low in the 24 hours after a Rangers triumph or setback. Regarding a draw, at a ground where no-one scores goals, as a disaster rather than an acceptable blip, is purely about my inordinate desperation for 55.
In fact, to continue Clive Tyldesley’s lovely contextualising of this season’s ambitions during Saturday’s commentary, it’s not even “55” as such. That just happens to be the number of our next title. Like you, I just need to see Rangers back on top domestically to know we have finally and fully recovered from 2012. I need that for my soul and it makes me impatient.
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But that’s a mania, a psychological legacy of liquidation. By Post-Match Hour 25 I can usually see that, yet again, we’re making season-on-season progress. That’s the only guaranteed way to our next major trophy.
Three straight poor halves of football, as the manager himself called them, may seem the weirdest way yet to confirm progress but I Tweeted at half-time on Saturday that the bore-fest we’d just watched, following hard on the heels of the Livi damp squib, presented a massive opportunity. All Gerrard’s squad have left to demonstrate is that they can shift mental gears, dig deeper and even mix metaphors when required - that they can, ye know, grind.
At this point in the league last season we went on a sizzling three game streak, winning 4-0 in Perth before beating both Aberdeen and Hamilton 5-0 at Ibrox. There has never been any doubt that when Gerrard’s Rangers are in the right mood – particularly when we get a confidence-boosting early goal – we can decimate and dismantle all bar one in the SPFL. We do turn on the style. We really can entertain.
But while these performances are also essential - while the players absolutely need the psychological respite afforded by the occasional goal deluge – the campaigns that produce league titles are marked by spreading the goals more evenly across the season.
There is no law against winning each of 38 straight games by five clear goals. But there is little evidence of it happening in any title-winning campaign. And if the sight, around 5pm last Saturday, of Steven Gerrard on the same Rangers TV podium as Walter Smith doesn’t remind you of this then nothing will.
Sir Walter has been called a few things. Master of the Grind never has and, really, never should be one of them. But the man who took us closest to winning the two European trophies not already silhouetted in red above the Rangers Store, did so in epic, nerve-sapping, marathon seasons which also went all the way on every domestic front. At Rangers it has never been about how comprehensively you win – it’s about how often. This demands an almost forensic weighing, division and distribution of, if not goals, then game-winning moments.
With Super Ally’s “help”, Walter may have required a replay to beat Partick Thistle in the Scottish Cup and extra-time and penalties to beat St Johnstone in the semi-final. But he only needed nine men to beat St Mirren in a League Cup final. Gerrard is cut from the same cloth – win everything. But he inherited a squad which wasn’t. His European runs prove he can take us places. His domestic implosions prove his players need upgrading. Or, to hammer home the wider point about spreading the good stuff more evenly, his player pool needs a better balance of talent.
It’s an age thing, I suppose. I was delighted to see Itten and Roofe doing reasonably well on their first starts – and was seriously encouraged by Brandon Barker seizing on his opportunity to impress beside, across and behind them. But while I enjoy analysing why or how we won, I know I’m no Michael Beale. My favoured arbiter of progress is results. All I really know is we did better hosting Kilmarnock in the league with two half-fit strikers, an unfancied midfielder and a slow first half, than we ever did with an Alfredo Morelos firing on all cylinders.
If Gerrard knows what he’ll get from a player he can better deploy him. If we’re less dependent on whether or not our star man will turn up, the team is less likely to be held hostage by any one collective mood – we won’t stop if it isn’t going our way and we won’t think we’re world-beaters when it is. If we stop playing at 3-0 up against St Mirren and St Johnstone it’s probably because we’re learning we’ll need something in reserve for that Ibrox afternoon Aberdeen might take a point or that mid-week when Hamilton once took all three.
Because Stevie G is a quick study. Hamilton is where he won his first league away game as Rangers manager. It was October. In a season which began with us conceding injury time equalisers at Pittodrie and Fir Park, Accies levelled with ten minutes remaining. But this time we won 4-1.
So I’ll tune in on Saturday tea-time, hoping for an easy away romp on the plastic but knowing that, should we struggle to a one-goal win, it’s just more sand in the oyster grinding out that pearl – more gristle in the meat, grinding our teeth into shape…
Yeah. I promise not to use the word grind ever again. As long as you promise to help me find Sky Sports on my telly… or is it BT? Maybe Setanta? I don’t know. Just gonnae show me where I key in my season ticket number…
Possible starting XI (4-2-3-1):
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