The Dubai Hangover

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When you only shower five minutes before hitting the sofa for a 1:30pm kick-off, and the bran flakes you’re trying to force over as the players come down the tunnel taste like Sellotaped cardboard, you know you’re a bit hungover (I know it’s “live from the Fair City of Perth!”, Eilidh, so please stop shouting into that mic).

But then, as we go one-nil down to a punt up the park before you’ve even attempted a slurp of flaccid Tetley’s, you think, nope – that is a hangover. That right there; that big Croatian bloke I recently thought was the new Beckenbauer has just collapsed under the weight of some Tayside winter sunshine and let the son of an ex-Ranger walk it into the box and past Greegs.

I might not have crossed the door since falling over it last night but I’m more fresh, focussed and ready for this game than big Niko Katic. His isn’t an alcoholic hangover. Nor is it a European hangover. He, like most of his team-mates, is suffering from a clear and ongoing case of 'The Dubai Hangover (Season 2)'. And I want to know what the hell’s caused it and when in the name of Goram it’s going to end.

So far, with one point from three Premiership away games and even fewer convincing performances since we returned from the mid-winter break, it looks like we’ll need more than a can of Irn Bru and a lukewarm steak bake to cure 'The Dubai Hangover'. But I can’t help thinking the real answer is something even more clichéd yet even more precious. No - not Pepto-Bismol: Patience.

The improvement under Steven Gerrard isn’t just palpable and ongoing, it’s so dramatic it almost demands a huge dip in form to facilitate it. As Sir Isaac Newton said when explaining why he needed a day in his kip after a day in the boozer, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Rangers currently look like a team reacting in direct opposition to our pre-January form.

The most obvious difference since the mid-winter break is the poor body language of the players and the non-existent tempo of our play. This is what leads to rumours of a dressing room rift, taking place, of course, in a dressing room Steven Gerrard has somehow misplaced. All those digs he has at the players, by telling them they can play better when they play rubbish, must have upset them. Just the same way they did last January and February when we endured the exact same slump.

The compounding problem is Celtic just won’t stop beating everyone else; this further clouds judgement of the current Rangers manager. We get over-emotional. I’m hearing Walter Smith would never have done any of this when Sir Walter actually lost 4-1 at Perth ten years ago and in his post-match interview, asked what would have happened if he’d started with the two players he brought on at half-time, he answered “we’d have lost 3-1”.

The lack of conviction displayed by the team on the field only increases the conviction with which opinions and blame about the causes are issued.

For me, it’s a fatigue thang. The players look drained. The exceptions are Hagi, Kamberi and Arfield who either arrived at the club after Dubai or are coming back from a spell on the side-lines. Given the form in which we ended last season, could it be Stevie and his backroom team use the mid-season break to put another pre-season in the legs. A pre-season so brutal the payers need about six weeks to feel the benefit?

Perhaps. However, given Alfredo Morelos has gained weight during that “pre-season”, it can’t have been overly intense. More likely is that fourteen European games before Christmas, at least nine of which were of cup final magnitude, induced a fatigue which a winter break taps into rather than cures.

We’ve reached the Europa League group stage via all four qualifying rounds, and been in with a chance of qualifying from that group until Match Day Six, during both Gerrard’s seasons at Rangers. In both seasons we’ve ended December with our most tumultuous domestic display so far then resumed in January looking exhausted. It wouldn’t surprise me if the mid-season break is becoming the Rangers equivalent of one of those afternoon naps that, instead of reviving you, only makes you realise how utterly knackered you actually are.

Of course, the research behind my opinion isn’t exactly exhaustive. Same as most, I’m watching the away games live on the box, attending everything at Ibrox, and injecting Rangers Twitter into my eye balls on an hourly basis. However, what the nascent Gerrard Out brigade are forgetting or, more worryingly, dismissing, is where Rangers were before Stevie G arrived. They seem to not care about what he brought to us last season, this season, last Thursday night, and what he’s laid on for us this Wednesday tea-time.

Hey, it might end up we take a doing in Braga. But it’s European football in February and in Steven Gerrard terms a doing is anything more than a one-goal defeat. That’s happened to him twice during his entire Ibrox tenure. What I remember from before the summer of 2018 is losing nine goals to nil over two consecutive Old Firm games. Gerrard did equal his heaviest Rangers defeat when a last-minute goal made it 2-0 to Celtic in this season’s first derby. But, other than that, he’s made us the only Scottish team who can beat them regularly.

And beating Celtic, especially at Parkhead, felt like the last of the hurdles we had to get over before the domestic dynamic returned to how we left it in 2012 – a two-horse race to the title. Yup, for the second season on the trot we’re chucking that race as soon as we’ve majestically cleared that last December 29th jump. For the second straight Gerrard campaign we’re having a horrendous January and February. Mix that with the fact Celtic have again been domestically flawless in the same period - that they’ve returned from the same break and the same Old Firm defeat like champions - and the pain of knowing 55 won’t come soon enough to stop another nine-in-a-row has to go somewhere.

Some punters are angry about the system – the tactics – and Gerrard’s perceived inability to change or realise when a change is not working. He’s also criticised for failing to make substitutions quickly enough. Somehow, having done just that on Sunday – Kamberi on at half-time as we went two up-front - he is still criticised for reverting to his starting system when we took the lead. Yet this is a second formational change in one game, and bringing on Steven Davis is another proactive substitution.

I’m afraid the true source of Gerrard doubting is misplaced anger about the speed of “the journey back”. We thought, as a fan base, we’d already shown more patience than anyone could ask for. We believed coming up through the bottom three tiers of Scottish league football was the most “lower league” thing we’d ever have to do, especially when it took one year longer than we’d hoped.

Rangers waited until our final season outside the top flight to win that Challenge Cup, did it at the National Stadium in front of fifty thousand and then, as if that was the goodbye done correctly, we said a big “Hullo again!” to the top flight back at Hampden the following week by beating the Scottish champions Celtic in … in, well, what was last Scottish competition they haven’t won to date.

But we’re still far from “back”.

All we really did in the spring of 2016 was confirm to Peter Lawwell he’d have to step it up a notch to keep onside with the faithful. It’s no coincidence Celtic couldn’t win a treble the entire time we were in the lower leagues but have done nothing else since our return. Financially and motivationally, they’ve timed this to perfection. Our final promotion gave them the crucial extra nudge in both respects. Celtic currently have a depth of squad and infrastructure steadily amassed over a period of years marked by boardroom cataclysms at Ibrox. None of this is Steven Gerrard’s fault.

It is 35 years since a non-Old Firm club were Scottish champions. For most of that period we were part of a duopoly which morphed into a league within a league – a two-team mini-league. That’s the one we’ve yo-yoed in and out of these last two seasons. Before that we were finishing third. Gerrard’s only fault, that I can see, is getting us so painfully close to breaking the Celtic trophy monopoly – to within a missed penalty and an offside goal of ending their trebles – that we’re forgetting his overall achievement.

It’s not just that he’s taken us to our first major cup final in four years or that we’re eleven points better off than we were at this stage last season:

The football cognoscenti of the Iberian Peninsula, the Low Countries and the Eastern Steppe might know Celtic are on the cusp of another treble - the internet’s a great thing. But they only really care about action on their TV screens and Steven Gerrard’s Rangers have hit those screens up to 30 times in the last 20 months. Perhaps just a flashing result during the qualifying rounds and then just a two minute highlight clip in the group stages. But continental Europe – like most of Britain – only rates the big five domestic leagues and UEFA club competition.

Stopping a Celtic Nine-in-a-row would be marvellous. Even stopping another Celtic treble would be lovely right now. But that cannot be the only metric by which we judge our team’s progress. That’s obsession. That’s like only getting in a decent manager and only trying to win everything because a hated rival is on the up. George Smiley knew he would beat the KGB the moment he realised Karla was a fanatic – but he knew it was still going to take time.

Let Celtic obsess with one more Scottish title or treble. No-one outside these shores gives a sh!t about that. The educated foreigner will know Rangers were demoted to the bottom tier and now, comparatively soon after, they’re matching Celtic in European competition. As far as the rest of the world is concerned we were probably “back” the moment Gerrard took the job. But what he’s done since has brought international kudos.

It absolutely hurts that he hasn’t brought a trophy. But neither did any of his half dozen predecessors and Gerrard has brought trophy-equivalent explosions of joy, moments of genuine catharsis. This Wednesday is our thirtieth game in Europe in 20 months. Nights against Feyenoord, Porto, Legia and Braga – added to Maribor, Ufa, Rapid and Villarreal last season – are not only golden memories but the kind of experience from which the whole club learns and our profile benefits.

You don’t earn a second Champions League berth for your country by winning the League Cup. But by competing in Europe you do lay the foundations, financial and experiential, to ensure league titles 56, 57 and 58.

Coming from the West of Scotland, I know drinking for 13 hours straight on Saturday wasn’t particularly hard core. Especially as I started at lunchtime and didn’t hit the spirits until 1am Sunday (a “wee nightcap”) and cheated by eating twice.

And the half-time introduction of Florian Kamberi on Sunday was cheating twice – his sweet-as-a- tomato-&-mint-yoghurt-dipping-sauce volleyed equaliser, the four chicken pakora I had in the pub, and the sumptuous work he did to create the second for Aribo was the chips and curry sauce I grabbed on the way up the road. That was cheating us into thinking we’d turned a corner.

But I’m too long in the tooth for it now. I’m too old to think I can do that kinda drinking every weekend and not be dead in a month. And I’m too fat and old to have the large donner kebab and chips, can of Coke and Mars Bar I actually wanted on my way home. I wish I was still young enough to eat like that when pished and get away with it and I wish that when we went 2-1 up at McDiarmid I believed we’d win the game, far less that the team had finally come out its post-Dubai slump.

But whenever we take the lead on the Premiership road these days we concede fatal late goals. And the malaise is so evident - even when we were taking a first half lead at Rugby Park – the tempo is off and the players body language is so horrible, that it becomes obvious whatever’s ailing them is going to have its way with us again. The bastard.

Listen, had Gerrard not brought on Davis on Sunday he’d be slated for going for a third goal when, with only ten minutes left, “any sensible manager would have reverted to one striker and tightened things up to secure the three points”. Because Katic would still have made his second error or someone else would have gifted St Johnstone their equaliser. We almost have to be poor right now. It’s almost like if we’re not this thin, overworked squad will never do anything great again.

Thing is, Sunday in Perth was actually an improvement. We’ve been losing these games – now we’re drawing them. No matter what happens in Braga, we’ve improved on last season’s miraculous European run. Finally beat a terrible Hearts side at Tynecastle this Saturday, and we’ve improved on last season’s Scottish Cup run.

Win the Scottish Cup and, well, you’ll suddenly realise it was always really all about stopping Celtic doing the first Ten-in-a-row – we didn’t really care about them equalling our nine - and we’re launching into 2020-21 with a manager who isn’t throwing anyone under the bus so much as asking how badly you want to be on it with him.

Perhaps the final hurdle we need to clear before properly re-entering the two-horse race is indeed lifting silverware. Well, that’s still very much a possibility for 2019-20. And we can’t come any closer than we did at Hampden in December. We can’t come any closer without actually lifting the Scottish Cup. And, to do that, we’ll need to be fitter at the end of the season than anyone else…

As Rangers Twitter breaks down into “you either want Rangers to win everything every year or you’re happy with Gerrard as manager” it’s worth remembering that expecting a certain standard doesn’t change the amount of time and effort required to attain it. What none of us want to realise during this horrible silverware drought is Stevie G might actually have us ahead of the curve.

Because while stopping Celtic’s run of success will almost inevitably coincide with us lifting our first proper domestic silverware since 2011, these are not one and the same thing.

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