Wonderful Wednesday to shameful Saturday: Two tea-time kick-offs, one miraculous progression then one embarrassing exit. Three nights after our best performance of the season, Rangers delivered their worst. And both those accolades, in 2019-20, are becoming tougher to win.
Yet Celtic at Parkhead in December is maybe our only truly great domestic performance this season - Young Boys in Berne our only properly gutting European match. Like unhappily married men knocking about on foreign business trips, Steven Gerrard’s Rangers are letting what happens on the continent stay there when, really, it ought to help sort things out on the home front.
I spent the build-up to the Braga second leg convincing myself our epic European run was sapping energy from our domestic performances. And Stevie had probably over-trained them in Dubai in January but the benefit of that fitness would soon kick in and, at least, get us to a Scottish Cup semi. This would confirm our upward trajectory on all fronts since his arrival.But then the Braga second leg was so good it became unavoidably clear any tiredness was gone and that, even knackered, even without a striker, this group of players should destroy a basement-dwelling Hearts side.
Instead, as we back-heeled Stevie Naismith clean through on goal, as the only thing to trouble the Hearts keeper came from behind him, and as we failed to cohere in any visible way in any playing department, Hearts only beat us by one but utterly destroyed any mitigation for our defeat.
We’ve spent the entire Gerrard reign bemoaning our inability to deal with an organised low block. Here was a crap side who open up. We don’t like being bullied? The last goal we scored, during Braga’s most dangerous period of possession, was the epitome of dispossessing and slicing through teams stupid enough to come at us aggressively. The Tynecastle atmosphere gets to our players? There were more empty seats than fans in the home stands on Saturday.
But, most damning, this was the third time we’d been to Tynecastle this season and it’s certainly not the first time we’ve had to do without Alfredo Morelos in a tricky tie. Every excuse had been exhausted. This was blatant incompetence.
My previous explanations of our 2020 domestic slump were exposed as officially bogus. By not just the Tynecastle capitulation, but by what the domestically struggling Ryan Kent expressed both on that beautiful Portuguese pitch last Wednesday night and in the subsequent post-match interview alongside the equally sublime Ryan Jack.
Emma Dodds of BT Sport was told the European performances are coming from a place free of pressure. In Europe, unlike Scotland, said Ryan the Kent, the players enjoy the fact Rangers are not expected to win every game.
This isn’t entirely accurate. That Gerrard’s Rangers have a better record against the one team above us in the SPFL Premiership than we have against Kilmarnock, shows the split personality of this Rangers side is not about Domestic v Europe – it’s about Expected to Win v Not Expected to Win.
This is further borne out by fact Ryan Kent’s performances at Parkhead have become almost iconic. No matter the state of our boardroom or kit deals, over 40,000 Ibrox season ticket holders means Celtic are the only Scottish club we shouldn’t necessarily be beating. Yet we’ve just done them three times in a year. Kent scored twice at Parkhead in seven months. In the last two months he’s only turned up in Braga.
I love Ryan’s Ja-fakin’ accent in interviews – now I equally admire his honesty. He’s explained with rare candidness why this team seem to almost shy away the moment they see the whites of a trophy’s eyes. At least now we know.
When results were going against Mark Warburton, culminating in a Tynecastle nightmare, Warbs hinted we should recalibrate our expectations given the infrastructural damage the club suffered in 2012: Mark Warburton was soon recalibrating his career path. Steven Gerrard doesn’t even think like this – he’s made it clear he knows Rangers = trophies and we know the player Steven Gerrard = trophies. But his Rangers players are now saying what? That we should cut them a break?
We know how this ends. The question is whether it’s just the players who get cut.
As per Warburton’s last game at Tynecastle, James Tavernier had a stinker on Saturday and his captaincy was again the second target for those who wanted Gerrard gone. Another increasingly common criticism of Stevie G is his post-match comments can sound like those of a player rather than a manager. He still sounds like a captain having a go at the lads.
And I get this theory. This dynamic – the star player who is suddenly one of us - might prove why we’re different in big European ties, where a relaxed esprit de corps helps the team over-perform; but in domestic games it leaves them a bit rudderless.
Maybe Tavernier isn’t the man to take over, but Steven Gerrard, the theory goes, absolutely needs to resign as Rangers captain. No more running onto the park in Maribor to get Andy Halliday under his arm at full-time. From now on he only kisses cameras and jumps onto the player celebrations when we win trophies. Because, for most domestic games, a Rangers team will need an authority figure - someone more aloof - to compel them through the grind.
Like I say, I sympathise with this point of view – that our players don’t need the most up-for-it guy in the dressing room suddenly leaving them at the touchline when the first whistle sounds. But watch that fly-on-the-wall Man City documentary on Prime – where another manager who had a fantastic playing career is as skinny, trendy and matey as any of his players. Or try to remember a Liverpool game where Jurgen Klopp doesn’t parade all over the pitch getting more involved with opposing players, Liverpool fans and all the officials than most of his charges. Gerrard’s laddish enthusiasm – to cheer or jeer his team like he’s one of them - merely follows the mould of the modern top class manager.
Perhaps next week I’ll need a third excuse for our 2020 domestic slump but the problem still isn’t Steven Gerrard. This week I’m admitting it isn’t, after all, player fatigue – but Ryan Kent, and our last two matches, hint at a laziness of character in those players. You cannot do what we did in both games against Braga and then claim you can’t cope with the SPFL. It’s simply that you don’t want to.
The mid-winter break, it transpires, was just an extended version of Celtic going down to ten men in the League Cup final – we realised we were favourites and retreated into the shell of our tactical formation. Only this time we had three weeks to dwell on it, resulting in two months of shitting out all over Scotland instead of just half an hour at Hampden.
Steven Davis and Allan McGregor are the only players in the dressing room who know exactly what it takes to win in Scotland and Europe, and how to do both simultaneously. But you imagine the former is too quiet to convey it and the latter may well be regarded as something of an old loon by his younger colleagues. And, right now, it looks like trying to epitomise The Rangers Way is sapping both Davis and McGregor’s performances.
Ultimately, it comes down to the manager to inspire the team. Gerrard is not without blame for this slump but I find it very difficult to think most Rangers fans would feel relief and a sense of a club rejuvenated if he went anytime soon. Frankly, I find it difficult to think he’s not still doing better than anyone else could.
That player Steven Gerrard won the UEFA Cup and the Champions League, scoring in the final of each. It’s little wonder he inspires us in Europe. Yet for all the digs he suffers about never winning the richest league in the world as a player, he lifted two FA Cups and three English League Cups, again scoring in the final of each. Domestic football doesn’t exactly scare him.
And if the team have that lack of fortitude in their locker, isn’t it greater testament to Stevie G that he’s somehow got them to the last 16 of European competition?
I can easily understand how a bunch of non-Scottish players think the only thing worth doing in Scotland is beating the other half of the Old Firm and punching above in Europe. More to the point, the atmosphere at Ibrox by the end of the Braga game – like so many other European nights of the last two years - would tell them we feel exactly the same way.
Yet I ultimately stand by Gerrard because, objectively speaking, getting this far in Europe, at this point in Scottish football history, easily equates with any trophy this country can offer. Doing it with our current resources is worth at least a domestic double.
Furthermore, how many trebles do Celtic have to win before this Rangers start realising every game they currently play is against the historical odds? They must soon realise every domestic match right now is actually against Celtic, no matter the on-field opposition. We’re never favourites. Not really.
I’m actually worried this squad, so phobic about leading any pack they even chucked leadership of their Europa League group while qualifying for the Last 32, might find out we last week went further than Celtic in a competition for the first time in four years. Yet I’m also scared to think what hammering Hamilton and Ross County would mean for our chances against Bayer Leverkusen.
But surely a few days of realising Braga didn’t excuse Tynecastle must help towards chilled-but-brill European Rangers replacing uptight-and-shite Domestic Rangers.
The problem isn’t that Gerrard is taking us backwards. It’s that his advances are unevenly spilt between Scottish and European football. By Saturday we all felt re-encased in the claustrophobic world of never-ending Celtic trebles. Yet the pain this caused can’t exist independently thirty two European games and counting.
Yes, something has to change this almost perverse consistency which has simultaneously enriched and blighted the Gerrard era: Rangers have been great in Europe – Rangers keep getting better in Europe; Rangers have been awful at Tynecastle and Rugby Park – they get worse at Tynecastle and Rugby Park.
But when we’re talking about sackings we have to look at things objectively. And to sack a guy who’s done that in the UEFA Europa League, with a club who took four of the previous six years to win the Challenge Cup, would make us look far more foolish than any quadruple treble across the way.
And the “24-48 hours he needed to go away and think about things” after Tynecastle proves he knows there has to be a change. He wasn’t resigning but neither was he telling us it was our fault for expecting too much. He was letting us know he gets that, for most Rangers managers, this would be a resigning matter. He’s drawing a line – he’s making a change.
Short-term it might just be big Edmundson into midfield, but I’m actually excited to see what our current manager will change over the course of a third season. I’m excited just to have a manager who lasts three seasons. A lot of bears, especially in the weekends between our two games with Braga, seemed to think our European run comes at the expense of domestic success. But, hard as it is to believe when you see us unable to make a simple pass or basic clearance at Tynecastle, it’s the very thing which will eventually guarantee it. Steven Gerrard + crazy Ibrox nights all over British and European television = Ross Wilson having the easiest gig in recruitment.
Every personal trainer in every gym on the planet tells his sweaty, wobbly clients that pain is just weakness leaving the body (or so I’ve heard). The pain we’re suffering domestically – the gut-churning physical trauma we all experienced on Saturday - should ensure Stevie G cuts the weakness from his squad this summer. Europe is the proof of our above-basic health. Scotland, right now, I’m afraid, is the burn.
“No-one does comebacks like Steven Gerrard” said a smiling Owen Hargreaves as footage of our Braga win was shown at the end of at the end of BT’s Champions League highlights package last Wednesday night. And he’s right. And no-one can spot the potential for a comeback like Stevie G and, in us - in this support and our club - he’s seen a kindred spirit.
Did he know what he was getting himself in to? Better than anyone. Does he know how to get out of it? The forty-odd quid about to disappear from your bank account would say he already has. The atmosphere next Thursday night will confirm it.
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