Hired to restore Rangers as a force in Scottish football, Steven Gerrard could barely have asked for a more testing introduction to senior management. The thousands of supporters who packed out Ibrox’s main stand to welcome the former England and Liverpool captain illustrated the weight of pressure heaped on his shoulders from the very moment he arrived in Govan.
That pressure had crushed many respected managers before Gerrard. Mark Warburton was highly rated at a good level before making the move north to Glasgow where he was quickly found out. Pedro Caixinha also allowed it to affect him, with the Portuguese chewed up and spat out within just seven minutes.
Gerrard is made of much sterner stuff, though. His first season in charge of Rangers was certainly trying. At times, he looked on the verge of allowing himself to be engulfed by whatever claimed Caixinha and Warburton before him, but unlike his predecessors Gerrard has come out the other side stronger.
Rangers have won all but two of their opening 14 league fixtures this season, sitting joint top of the Scottish Premiership table with rivals Celtic. Now, Gerrard can claim his first piece of silverware as a manager by beating the Hoops in this weekend’s Betfred Cup final. Nobody could deny the symbolism of that should it come to pass.
For Rangers, it would be a sign of how they have caught Celtic at the top of the Scottish game. Of course, the league table come the end of May will be a true reflection of where these two teams are, but victory at Hampden Park on Sunday would underline how Rangers are at least now in a position to compete. That wasn’t the case when Gerrard first took charge.
For Gerrard, it would be a validation of his ability as a manager. Rangers threw the dice two summers ago by appointing a coach with no previous experience at senior level. They knew Gerrard would attract players to the club, they knew he would draw attention on the basis of his background as a player, but there was no real indication of whether he could effectively mould a team and point them towards success.
One wonders if Liverpool will be watching if Gerrard goes on to lift the Betfred Cup this weekend. As soon as their former captain, their hero of Istanbul and spiritual leader for over a decade, pitched up at Ibrox chat was sparked over how he could one day wind his way back to Anfield again.
Indeed, there is an air of inevitability about Gerrard’s return to Liverpool as manager in the future. Of course, Jurgen Klopp is the Master of Merseyside right now having carried the Reds to the brink of their first league title in nearly three decades, but the German’s contract at the club only runs to the end of the 2021/22 season with suggestions he could depart at that point.
Despite his undeniable connection to the Anfield club, Gerrard was always going to need to prove himself as a manager elsewhere before being handed the top job at Liverpool. That’s what he’s doing at Rangers, though. While he might not admit as much, this was surely a factor in making the move to Scotland in the first place.
In Glasgow, Gerrard is proving that he can handle the pressure that comes being at a club that demands perpetual success. He is also proving that he can navigate European football – a prerequisite for any prospective Liverpool manager – by leading Rangers to the group stages of the Europa League in back-to-back seasons, with the Gers on the verge of last 32 qualification this season.
But the emblematic power of Gerrard holding aloft a piece of silverware would trump all this. It should certainly catch the eye of Liverpool who are surely looking for signs from their former captain that they would be safe in his hands one day. For all concerned, Sunday could be a day of great symbolism.