What a difference four days make. What a difference no Aribo makes. What a difference when, instead of Clive Tyldesley and Kevin Thomson waxing knowledgeably over sun-drenched strolls on the resplendent Ibrox lawn, we have Ian Croker and Andy Walker being as dull as the clouds above our stumbles on a pish-flattened West Lothian bathroom mat.
Most of all, though, how different your run of clean sheets appears when suddenly your opponent ain’t conceding either.
Sunday’s dropping of two points at Livingston wasn’t the end of anything significant - the Gerrard era, our chances of winning this league title or, ye know, the world. But it was the first competitive game this season in which we didn’t take the lead between the 20th and 24th minute. That, given the apparent downing of Rangers tools around the half hour mark, was all it took to curb our momentum on the pitch and end our one hundred percent record in the 2020-21 Premiership table.
Admittedly, before our second game under the Sky cameras this season there was no unanimous conviction Title 55 was imminent. In fact, even during our win over St Johnstone last Wednesday, the Negativity Loyal was getting its condemnation fix on-line. Why did we make so many substitutions so early? Why were we apparently settling for 3-0 with most of the second half remaining?
But Covid-19 has at least ensured such criticism is channelled healthily. Before the players had even showered and switched on their Twitter feeds, the manager calmly but firmly asserted to Rangers TV it was a good win over a sticky Perth side but it wasn’t good enough. Rather than fat, old blokes like me critiquing new signings to their face or slating easy wins from the stands, the players are hearing it constructively, from a source they respect and trust.
So we found ourselves, by close of Wednesday, winning three in a row and worried only about scoring yet more goals. Now that Stevie G had spoken, the future looked shiny. Shelley Kerr, Alex Rae and Neil McCann stood on that balmy Ibrox trackside and told us the compacted season ahead would stretch SPFL squads and ours looked deeper than it has been for a decade. Suddenly, four substitutions on the hour mark hadn’t disrupted a game-winning XI – they were part of a title-winning rotation.
Killing St Johnstone’s challenge by the 48th minute allowed us to bring on two brand new but rusty strikers for proper run-outs. Alfredo Morelos had created or scored all four goals in our previous two games. Even if he still wants to leave it was apparent he was again giving us his best. And the extended-by-Covid transfer window means Alfie might not depart until mid-October. By that time Itten and Roofe will be comfortably match-fit and Jermain Defoe back among the goals too.
Furthermore, the Da-secure environment created by empty stadiums means the ongoing development of Gerrard’s side will be incubated.
Suddenly, with Celtic’s next two league games postponed the previous day and no European football for us until September, we could do more than just nick ahead of Hibs on goal-difference at the top of the nascent Premiership table: Suddenly, getting up a seminal head of domestic steam seemed possible. Just like that, the Trophee Veolia wasn’t a pre-season friendly tournament – it was a harbinger of us finishing competitions ahead of Celtic.
But if you’re ever getting ahead of yourself, the Tony Macaroni is the place to go. The service is always cripplingly slow – there was neither pitch-side multi-ball nor seat-jumping ball boys in evidence on Sunday - and the only condiment is the generous sprinkling of black rubber pellets to choke on. The only speed evident comes from their defenders getting on you like a rash. And if there’s one stadium in the world where a lack of crowd doesn’t freak out the home side, it’s here. There’s never a Livingston support big enough to fill even their shallow, perfunctory, new town shopping centre-appropriate main stand.
Yet Livi were fielding a debutant goalkeeper and their biggest goal threat was unavailable because he was too busy signing for Mark Warburton’s latest Rangers: By kick-off the only thing worrying me was our Rangers weren’t wearing their traditional socks. But the Castore blue stockings have a nice red-on-white band round the middle of the fold. We looked sharper yet in our Mod tracky tops as we honoured Tam Forsyth. And then we kicked off with the tempo and endeavour everyone expects and desires.
But slowly it became evident Hagi wasn’t using those wiles which compensate for his lack of pace and Ryan Jack was too deep or too slow. Big Helander was having a less than comfortable time against their emergency striker. Glen Kamara was looking more 50 Grand than ten million, their goalie’s confidence soared with every passing minute he remained untested and, before you know it, instead of gaining some bonus fitness training, Itten and Roofe are being thrown on to win the actual points.
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Were we really missing Joe Aribo that badly or was it once again the case that, had we stuck Lionel Messi in a Rangers shirt, he’d have less joy against Livingston on Sunday than he did against Bayern on Friday?
The Livi who shipped four at home to Hibs the previous Saturday were gone – their old resolutely parsimonious selves were back. Our worry is that the revitalised Rangers we’d envisaged on Wednesday night is also gone. We’re replete with players who should be able to “break the lines” but the same old problem of the Steven Gerrard era seemed to have returned: This Da certainly jerked his knee to the tune of, “Can’t deal with a low block!”, “We always slip up against minnows!” and, that floor-filling Ibiza classic, “If the first goal doesn’t come early we just can’t seem to grind out a result!”
And that relentless Premiership schedule which suits our squad? Suddenly we have a free mid-week at the very point we need a quick bounce-back result. But Negative Loyalists like me, terrified we’ve let Celtic off the hook again, might employ this spare Wednesday contemplating the fact we’ve just won as many points in one game at Livi as Celtic got from two West Lothian trips last season. We might also ponder the stat saying Livingston conceded just eight league goals at home in that same season. And, if you push your rubber pellet garnish to one side, there’s yet more palatable stuff to chew on:
Two seasons ago we lost at Almondvale. At this exact stage last season we lost pathetically at home to Celtic – hardly a minnow - by over-complicating things. We dropped two points at Pittodrie in December, not after starting too slowly but after going two up in the first half-hour playing like demons. We’ve clawed wins from poor starts to games at everywhere from Perth in Gerrard’s first campaign – that glorious late Alfie brace - to Dingwall in our last league match of last season when Ryan Kent’s trundler was the very epitome of grinding it out.
There are clearly recurring themes, yes, but it’s not so much the “same old” problem as there’s just no such thing as a problem-free league campaign; even for the eventual champions. And you can’t incubate a team trying to win on all fronts from opposition players who only have to draw with you to be heroes.
The difference is made by, as Samuel Beckett put it, failing better. This is perhaps why the manager didn’t throw anyone under the bus on Sunday. He knows the Barisic free-kick which brought the late, great save from the Livi keeper was struck even sweeter than Borna’s opener last Wednesday. He knows Kent’s fluffed chance in injury time doesn’t cancel out Ryan’s pivotal strikes versus St Johnstone on Wednesday and at Pittodrie on Day One of 2020-21.
He will absolutely know we are actually top of the league and have just improved our points tally over our opening four league games for the third season running.
We want the team to grind our results? The entire club, like a waiter adding pepper to every Minestrone and Lasagne in every branch of an entire chain of plastic Italian restaurants, has been grinding its way back since 2012. Sometimes we’re so busy looking at the failure to attain perfection we miss the progress being irrefutably made. And Ian Crocker always just makes everything sound worse than it really is.
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