Friendly Fire!

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Let’s be honest, it’s not just Celtic fans phoning Radio Clyde who thought our Veolia Trophy win was tainted. Instead of becoming a screamingly Freudian meme on it this week, Frank the call-in caller should have tuned into Rangers Twitter last week. There plenty of our very own fans regarded our last four or five wins the same way the French FA saw Ryan Kent’s red card in Lyon - i.e., doesn’t really count because it was only a friendly.

Our 2020-21 SPFL campaign kicks-off at a Pittodrie as busy as it always is when hosting anyone other than Rangers. But apparently more Bears are taking comfort from the lack of a home support this coming Saturday than from the nine July days that resulted in four victories, four clean sheets, one trophy formerly used as Don Johnson’s girlfriend’s vase in an episode of Miami Vice, and ten goals scored.

I understand. Some Rangers fans are protecting their emotions. They’re reining in the optimism because we’ve been sold this promise before. In January, in Dubai, we put six past Lokomotiv Tashkent of Uzbekistan before returning to Scotland to struggle against minnows in the Scottish Cup and systematically sabotage our Premiership-winning position. What’s worse, we did the exact same thing in 2018-19, that winter break incorporating a 3-2 Ibrox victory over Alfie’s former employers HJK Helsinki.

So it doesn’t matter that Lyon have one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals, that OGC Nice finished two places above them in Ligue 1, or that Motherwell were blown away in the first half at Ibrox last Thursday as effectively as Coventry City’s resistance was stomped out in the second half on the same pitch, two days later. Friendly form doesn’t win domestic silver.

Throw in the Auchenhowie bounce game with Hamilton and Rangers have actually won five matches this July. The problem is we haven’t won any trophies in any December or May under Steven Gerrard and his sublime friendlies record is becoming as standard as his painfully unrequited domestic ambitions. As a support that remembers how real trophies are won, we constantly look for signs of that kind of form returning. But what we end up seeing is bogus patterns. Being good at friendlies is becoming automatically, and wrongly, connected with being bad at the real thing.

At a quick count, since he arrived at the club two years ago, Stevie G has overseen 16 non-competitive games; Amazingly, he has won 15 and drawn one (Blackburn Rovers last summer, the buggers). “Never lost a friendly” is hardly a boast; the worry is that for a club like Rangers and a man like Gerrard - who I first saw dominating the pitch in a 4-0 pre-season Liverpool mauling of Walter’s Rangers in 2008 - it’s a record ripe for mockery.

Yet I remember Chelsea at Ibrox in July 2007. Anyone who was there won’t forget it in a hurry. Rather than the insipid play in front of as many half-interested punters as empty seats, a rammed, bouncing Ibrox saw us hammer away at a team of superstars until we won it in the last five minutes. You might not believe Filip Sebo scored the winner – but you can’t avoid the fact each club would go on to lose one of that season’s European finals.

I felt something in the air that day, but it was all on the pitch. Rangers generated an over-achieving momentum which produced our longest ever competitive season (in terms of games played) and got us to within two final-round losses of a historic quadruple.

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But optimism isn’t necessarily fostered by marquis friendly victories. As both clubs entered what would be Championship winning seasons, the way Rangers played during Burnley’s 1-0 Ibrox win in July 2015 had us buzzing about new manager Mark Warburton.

One year later, with both sides newly installed in their respective top flights, the Clarets were 2-0 up and hitting the Copland woodwork within 18 minutes. We eventually lost 3-1 that day but I often wonder if Sean Dyche eased up on his friend in the opposite dugout. Warbs was gone by February.

Liverpool’s Ibrox romp in July 2008 didn’t do our domestic hopes any harm, but it presaged what was then our worst ever continental result, exiting Europe after one tie against Lithuania’s finest.

There are many valid reasons for not attending challenge matches, often glorified fitness exercises further stymied by 22 substitutions and a tepid atmosphere. But other than a few dozen noisy Bears in Lyon, Rangers fans ain’t attending anything this summer. The complete lack of atmosphere at this month’s matches is vital acclimatisation to playing competitive football in empty stadiums in this Covid-afflicted year.

And, irrespective of the number of subs, Rangers tempo this last few weeks has been anything but tepid. Our sharpness has been through the roof, be it in the barrage of pressing against Motherwell which resulted in two goals in the first ten minutes or the quick Greg Stewart throw-in which let Jamie Barjonas seal the Nice victory with the last kick of the game.

Aberdeen have, at one point this month, had to play themselves because opponents have pulled out of bounce games. Our first competitive opponents of the season would kill for our schedule, far less our form in pre-season friendlies.

Yes, beating Mansfield in the Algarve or The New Saints at Auchenhowie doesn’t prove you’re going to win at Parkhead in December. But if the main problem with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers is an inability to pluck the low hanging fruit, how would it look if we couldn’t gather the stuff that’s already fallen off the tree?

Rangers do not resolve our inability to maintain a good start to a campaign by failing to repeat the good start. You cannot be upset we only scored two against Coventry’s second eleven last Saturday and remain unimpressed by Gerrard previously taking us to five- and six-goal friendly wins over Oxford United and Bury respectively.

Stevie G’s Rangers friendlies have resulted in 47 goals scored and only six conceded – none of those six were scored by Nice, Marseille, Lyon or Derby County. While he’s sure to remain our most prestigious member of staff, defeating the kind of opposition Gerrard attracts reminds the world who Rangers are. Defeating high calibre sides in any kind of game not only makes us more attractive to prospective signings, it ensures we gain those inches of confidence so vital to a club still rebuilding its infrastructure.

And we have won at Parkhead under Gerrard. When he arrived, winning trophies was the ambition but an inability to cope with Celtic - our regular Old Firm humiliations - was the pressing issue. He took us from losing by five at Parkhead to losing by one at Parkhead, to losing by one goal with ten men, to winning at Parkhead. That took him 18 months.

By the end of his second year in charge Gerrard went from a shitshow League Cup semi and just missing out on Europa League knock-out stages, to being seriously unlucky to lose the League Cup final and making the Europa League round of 16. That he’s still hammering everything in front of him in friendlies shows the players are still listening to Steven Gerrard, that he has us on the right path, and that we’ll win by two clear goals this Saturday or by one goal against ten men who never threaten (see our last two Opening Day results).

The pressing issue at Rangers now is failure to break down defensive SPFL fodder. By the end of his third year I expect Steven Gerrard to have resolved that too. And we can all claim we knew he would when he defeated Hamilton Accies and Motherwell in Glasgow, in July 2020 friendlies.

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