There was an undeniable symbolism to Rangers’ Old Firm derby win at Celtic Park just before the turn of the year on December 29. It was the Ibrox side’s first win on their fiercest rivals’ home patch for more than nine years, but even more significantly it put them in control of the title race at the top of the Scottish Premiership. This Rangers team, it was widely believed, was for real.
A lot has changed in just two months. With February turning to March, Rangers now trail Celtic by 12 points. Even if they win the game in-hand they hold, a nine-point gap will surely prove impossible to bridge. The Scottish Premiership trophy seems destined to have green and white ribbons tied to it for a ninth straight season (Celtic are now 1/25 to win the title, with Rangers a long way out at 12/1).
The most concerning thing for Rangers is that history is repeating itself. Steven Gerrard’s side put themselves in a similarly strong position with an Old Firm derby win before last season’s winter break only to suffer disappointing results against Kilmarnock (twice) and St Johnstone before a defeat to Celtic ended all title hopes for good. This season has so far been a near carbon copy, with Rangers dropping points to Hearts, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and St Johnstone in recent weeks.
It’s been a collapse, setting up arguably the most important week of Gerrard’s managerial career to date. Europa League elimination to Braga on Thursday night would pile even more pressure on the former England and Liverpool captain (Rangers are 10/3 to win in Portugal). For the first time since his appointment at Ibrox in the summer of 2018, serious questions are being asked of Gerrard.
A manager of lesser stature would surely have faced closer examination before now. Rangers have spent big, in Scottish terms, over the past two seasons, bowing to Gerrard’s every demand. While last season he could fall back on the excuse that he was still moulding things at Ibrox, this is now his team.
This hasn’t stopped Gerrard publicly criticising his side in light of recent poor results. Rather than putting an arm around his under-performing players, as many managers would have, the Rangers boss has instead questioned their mentality. There has been no positive reaction. If anything, Rangers’ performances are getting worse with every match they play. Nothing is coming easily for them at the moment. Every game is a slog no matter the standard of opposition.
Gerrard’s approach has led some to ponder whether he has the mentality himself for a title race. For all his elite level experience as a player, the former midfielder never got over the line as a league winner. Is it possible that Gerrard’s own nervousness has manifested itself in the recent performances of his players?
While Gerrard has appeared weighed down by the pressure, his Celtic counterpart Neil Lennon has been liberated by it. The Hoops have won every league game they have played since losing to Rangers on December 29, scoring 27 times in their last eight outings. Celtic’s soaring form is just another reason why a Rangers fightback seems unlikely.
Between now and the end of the season, Gerrard must give the Govan outfit reason to believe they are still moving forward otherwise this could prove to be the beginning of the end for him as Rangers manager. He might be a legend of the game, a figure of the pedigree rarely seen in Scottish football, but Rangers can’t wait around for answers. It’s not so long ago that Gerrard was viewed as the perfect man for the job, but he must keep delivering and right now there’s little evidence to suggest he is doing so.