I’m not sure if it’s because I’m getting older or if it’s the modern era of constant 24/7 Rangers debate across legacy and new media but, by the time we reach May in the football season, I’m usually more ready for the end of the season than any title battle. Unfortunately, in recent years the lack of such battles gives us minimal chance of increasing our mental and physical stamina. With that in mind, the Rangers players - and manager if I’m entirely honest – look equally short of puff as we stumble more than stride towards the finish line.

That’s not to say there haven’t been many positive moments this season. As such, when the manager speaks of being ahead since he took over and having pride in his players’ efforts, it’s difficult not to acknowledge this. When Michael Beale left last autumn, we were a team bereft of any kind of identity under the leadership of a manager who brought a new meaning to incompetent despite fairly healthy backing in the summer transfer window. Hindsight is always more of a magic power than a fair analysis technique but Beale must surely look back as frustrated as the rest of us in his failure to build on a reasonable period in charge that ended with a convincing win over Celtic this time last year (even if it was a dead rubber). It’s easy to forget that, as fans, many of us were enthused by the range of signings but much easier to remember just how quickly things went wrong.

All things considered then, the performance of Phillipe Clement is worthy of praise and this column, as well as this week’s legacy football writers’ award nominations, have recognised that over the last seven months. Yes, Celtic stumbled badly across the winter period whilst we seemed to go from strength to strength culminating in taking over the top spot in the Scottish Premiership just two months ago. Unfortunately, instead of moving into that extra gear to maintain the lead going into the final quarter of the campaign, we could only find reverse. A home defeat to Motherwell in early March, followed by a timid Europa League exit to Benfica showed some early signs of weakness but positive wins at home and away to Hibs in the Scottish Cup and league suggested we still had it in us to challenge.

Indeed, by the time we faced Celtic this time last month at Ibrox only the farce of postponed matches in Dundee cost us top spot before that crucial Old Firm fixture and it was the latter issue that really started to concern me as the manager seemed to lose focus around that time. Of course, he was well within his rights to criticise the Tayside club and SPFL for their inability to get that game played but to my eye it was a distraction we could easily have ignored. For example, as much as I’d always prefer to get games played at the earliest opportunity, at that time we did have players coming back from injury so the delay certainly wasn’t the end of the world. Yet the manager’s frustration was palpable so I do wonder if that transferred itself onto the players.

Our performance in the last Old Firm certainly wasn’t one of a side completely focussed on the job at hand – namely beating Celtic to, not only go top of the league once again, but to deliver the kind of psychological blow than can affect both sides going for the trophy. Indeed, that lack of focus was evident within 60secs as an incredible error (and stroke of fortune if we’re fair) allowed Celtic an early lead and, although an improved second half display delivered an unlikely draw, I don’t think we’ve ever really recovered from that moment. More dropped points ensued in short order away to Ross County and Dundee, and whilst we’ve won our three games since then and, still sit just three points behind Celtic going into tomorrow’s match, there’s a vicious circle of the worst kind affecting out outlook.

The manager played a blinder earlier in this season discussing synergy between the supporters and players which resulted in the club applying an ‘everything from everyone’ slogan to our treble efforts. Initially this worked well and both the players and the fans referenced this positive relationship as we maintained our form through the earlier part of 2024. Sadly, this form was lost whilst impatience and doubt have spread like wildfire from the moment James Tavernier failed to clear his lines against Celtic in April. Right through the team we’ve completely lost confidence and that familiar story transferred to the stands where negativity became our default position; meaning those that rightly still speak of our treble chances struggled to be heard over those critical of our shortcomings.

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At this point, I’d like to argue against these critics. A win tomorrow would put us level on points and decrease the goal difference gap. The psychological aspect we discussed above would also come into play with Celtic still to face Kilmarnock and St Mirren – two teams that can provide a stiff challenge home or away – so there’s no doubt a win for us tomorrow really would change things significantly, if not for this season but for our medium to long term aspirations. The same can be said for the Scottish Cup final two weeks’ time. Are we really that downbeat to write off the opportunity to win everything?

Yep, that doubt is there so cannot be underplayed. We’ve not beaten Celtic in the league for almost three years; we’ve not won at Parkhead since October 2020 and not scored first in an Old Firm game since a defeat at Ibrox in April 2022. To say our record in these games is dire is an under-statement so it’s no wonder that the Brendan Rodgers is applying the pressure ahead of this match by suggesting his team will have fun.

Examining his comments is somewhat interesting. Are they the understandable words of a manager confident of his team’s winning mentality – not only in Old Firm games but in delivering consistent success? Are they comments to relax his players ahead of a match that that has undoubted pressure for both sides? Are they a direct challenge to Phillipe Clement who hasn’t looked quite as steady in the media glare as Rangers have stumbled in recent times? Or could they have the opposite effect in making his players complacent? Can they fire up our players who too easily wilt in such encounters?

Rodgers adopting this position is certainly the opposite of the Rangers manager who, at all times, has been at pains to underplay his own hand. Week after week as we firstly reined in Celtic then overtook them, Clement refused to entertain public discussion of us winning the league. Was this a sensible way of keeping pressure off his squad or a mental fragility that perhaps allowed a get-out clause to players that often struggle to believe in themselves? Would he have been better served laying down the gauntlet to both his own squad and Celtic?

I don’t have the answer to that question but, as much as I’m eager to find out what Clement can do with more of his own players next season, it’s vital we see genuine improvement tomorrow. Yes, for a variety of valid reasons we’re far from favourites but it’s the manager’s job to instil the belief that we can do it. The return of players like Yilmaz will help, strengthening the midfield with the athleticism of Sterling will help, getting at the Celtic defence more often will help and avoiding the concession of cheap, early goals will go a long way to giving us a foothold in a match that genuinely could go either way going by the tight encounters so far this season.

Ultimately, I can’t pretend I’m confident we’ll win tomorrow. The inconvenient truth is I just don’t think this squad have it in them and I’m equally unsure the manager can do what he did for six months and reapply the winning mentality we lost two months ago. As I highlighted last month, there are just too many doubts about too many players which means only substantial summer changes in the squad may make the difference, no matter how capable the manager. But stranger things have happened, and at the very least I expect, indeed demand, everything from everyone when everything still remains in the balance. May battle commence….

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