The jerking of knees and other tales

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This article came from a discussion on our current condition and whether we could realistically be any further ahead. It’s a recap on our rehabilitation and rebuild, a pause to think about progress and any missteps. And ultimately, are we where we expect to be and can we draw any lessons and apply them going forward?

Part 1 - Rebuild Begins

I’ll reset the clock to when Dave King and the three bears came in: January 2015, over five years ago now. Let’s count this as ground zero as the previous regimes were a sand upon which nothing purposeful could be built. And at that time almost every facet of the club was a pitiful, dilapidated mess.

2015, a New Year and McDowall was in place following McCoist’s departure. The football was dreadful, soulless and fruitless - lurching to third place in that year’s Championship tells us everything we need to know. The boardroom was a battlefield and much of the corporate violence and parting shots from the charlatans are still being felt many years in the future. The first six months on the pitch were a write-off but then more important work and energy were required elsewhere, repairing the club and laying down some proper foundations for the first time in four (if not fourteen) years.

With that in mind, given our place and time, Mark Warburton was somewhat of a coup. Up-and-coming, a decent enough shout and generally well-received. He came aboard in June 2015. We got some good value and promising players in the door, and importantly, we started to take tangible steps forward. We had some football and players to properly celebrate for the first time in a while. One thread to consider which is still valid today were the budgetary constraints. For Rangers, and Rangers-sized expectations, the money was still very limited.

He came, he saw, he was gone (or was pushed out the door he had opened). Things had run their course and perhaps Rangers had out-grown Warburton. By the end, the timing and manner of departure in Feb 2017 were inglorious and it left us in a bit of a pickle. Youth coach Graeme Murty stood up and stepped in. This was still our first season back in the SPFL Premiership and it had been a steep learning curve for everybody.

Pedro Caixinha joined in March 2017 and was probably the first contentious move from the club but with some of the players brought in (e.g. Bruno Alves and Mexican internationalists) I could certainly see the intrigue at the time. In reality (through migraine-inducing hindsight) it was a disaster and probably wasted a whole season. The Caixinha experiment ended not much more than six months later. Player-wise we arguably saw a general improvement. However, we undoubtedly saw too much wastage and shouldered many unwanted burdens which would linger for a few years. Caixinha was perhaps doomed from the start and was certainly never going get a fair crack at it, as the press were on his back from day one and wishing him to fail - that said our board should have known better.

Next up is perhaps the least impressive move from the board as Murty was again asked to stand-up and took the reins through to the end of April 2018. This really was wasted time. The only tolerable explanation was that the Gerrard deal was already in the pipeline and we had chosen to wait it out until his arrival.

Off the pitch and our growth was (still is?) being stunted by Mike Ashley’s depraved badness. We’ve had Dave King and others tied up in legal rope for years. Our press relations, in Scotland anyway, still at rock bottom and our name still a punchbag for any small-minded broadcaster with low self-esteem. By any measure our turnover was still pretty poor - not that we shouldn’t have been pulling away from Aberdeen and the rest of the pack by this stage. The constant clear outs, periods of uncertainty and upheaval didn’t help anybody.

Part 2 - Gerrard Years

Like most fans, I was happy when Steven Gerrard joined. And mostly I still am. He brought a clarity and a positive, tangible rise in standards across the club. A higher state of consciousness and stability, if you will. The Gerrard name is an undoubted factor. It commands respect across the football world and it has helped us land some prospects and players perhaps otherwise unavailable to us. In 2018/2019 our Europa League adventure brought a welcome distraction and something fresh and enjoyable away from the perma-toxic domestic slog. Progress was being made but we were still guilty of being soft and predictable. Our competitors were again figuring us out as the officials allowed the game to be taken to the floor. An unwanted trend of this season was the lack of winning runs and the unwelcome bottom line was the lack of any trophy. We had found another gear but couldn’t find it anywhere near often enough.

Like the year before, 2019/2020 has been highlighted by our Europa run. This has been a truly incredible achievement, really. But perhaps we’d swap some of that stardust for a bit more grit and functionality domestically. There has been tangible improvements and solutions to old problems but, again, there have been more mistakes. The win rate has improved, a lot. But the repeat of the post-break slump is a serious concern.

It is currently nearing the end of February and the mood, like the title challenge, are burst balls – both very much deflated after a flurry of dropped points. A heroic Europa win against Braga appears at this stage a dead cat bounce. How the season unfolds from this point forward will dictate whether plaudits and reprieves are on hand or whether thermo-nuclear criticism will be aimed at Gerrard and his team.

Recruitment will be scrutinised - a less than perfect hit rate is expected and low risk, low cost punts can be worthwhile but the lack of real contribution to the campaign, compounded by a lack of success, will judge last summer to be a poor window. More wasted time. A lucky few have been the manager's favourites and have been afforded regular valuable match time but some have offered little. We have to yield to the manager's discretion on his choice and handling of his players but if a standard is applied then it must be applied to all? Surely favouritism has to be earned and reviewed on a weekly basis. I agree with the logic of Gerrard’s philosophy of insisting on perfection in training but is being an excellent or diligent trainer worth anything if you’re not showing up on the park?

Everybody will have theories about the post-break slump. I subscribe to the theory of over-reaching and unsustainable form. From a purely athletic point of view, then peak physical form only lasts for several weeks. Exceptional or gifted athletes may be able to operate at a consistently high level throughout the year but even for them there is a window of peak conditioning that they can work towards. Outwith that window there is a drop off. Anyone not naturally exceptional or gifted has to strive harder to reach those same peaks. And when it comes then the inevitable drop off is greater.

Perhaps a positive we can draw from our Europa nights and December form is that Gerrard and his staff are able to build our players into a place of exceptional form – a plateau within the season where we have a footballing unit capable of operating at a very high level and capable of giving everyone a run for their money. But perhaps too, in those moments we are performing well above the sum of our parts and when the form drops, then the residual level is only average.

Players can only go to the well so often. Striving for perfection is fine but continually over-reaching is unsustainable. The science of athletic performance and capacity is well defined and measurable, but equally other factors exist which all play a part and follow similar curves – concentration, focus, ambition, morality etc. For world class players like Gerrard, and world class squads like Liverpool’s, then perhaps the reach to perfection is sustainable over a long period of time. But not all men are equal and the reach for lesser players is perhaps too much. Maybe not at first, but after a month, or six months then it would understandably start to falter – physically and mentally.

The solution would be to use and rotate the squad to stagger these peaks and loads. This perhaps dulls the highs but then it also minimises the lows. Alternatively, we find a high quality, more capable, more consistent calibre of player who can handle these demands – not easy within a limited budget.

Others have stated and explained the limitations of our tactics and our go-to set-up and formation, which appear well suited to certain situations, but which are now repeatedly falling short in domestic games. All of these are factors, and all are fixable if our management team can recognise short-comings and adapt. I would like to think that pride doesn’t prevent us bringing in whatever help is needed to clear any blind spots and find solutions.

Part 3 - Reflection

Before I started this, I would have said we were pretty much on course but upon reflection we have written off considerable chunks of entire seasons (admittedly my outlook may have hardened in recent weeks watching this season escape from our grasp). To be at Rangers compels that every single minute has to be focused towards winning. I believe the board has some questions to answer on that score. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. I believe they have to provide greater and more robust support to Gerrard in all areas of football and the business of football.

The media impasse and accompanying PR mess are worrying. Our assets and brand being attacked and devalued is worrying. The referee situation and any possibility of external influence on our title challenge is unacceptable. The merchandise/retail situation remains frustrating with Hummel and Elite now apparently on the black-list. The board have to stand up here, they have to improve – on both communication and performance. If they cannot perform then they must bring in help or move on, because like the playing staff, there isn’t any time for sentimentality at Rangers.

On the park, we are where we are. We have some real assets and quality to build upon. We could possibly be further along but equally we could be considerably worse off too (and I don't think this can be dismissed or taken for granted, considering the scale of the rebuild). Gerrard is certainly capable of getting this squad of players punching above their weight on occasion and I really can’t see any knee-jerk upheaval going smoothly or without considerable cost and disruption. We need better players in, absolutely, but another total rework and rebuild is not an attractive or viable option. Like all areas of the club, there is an ongoing necessity to see quality and consistency added to the right positions.

Returning success to Rangers was never going to be an overnight job for Dave King and, five years in, it's never been more true. Taking all the above into account, then the old adage of patience being a virtue has to be our conclusion.

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