The Paisley Road to Glory

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Why was I eating an entire quarter of watermelon at midnight on Monday? Because it was either that or it went in the bin. Why, rather than salad and veg, does my crisper currently contain a family sized strawberry trifle, a bottle of Pinot, some runny cheese and a box of After Eights? Because there’s only so much fridge space and there’s only so much shopping time. Multiply by projected increases in appetite, subtract your sell-by dates and filling your face at Christmas is a tactical nightmare.

Forget Covid. Ignore Brexit. Pay no heed to whether they’re closing borders at Carlisle or Dover or in what month they’ll be injecting vaccines in yer arse or yer elbow. Right now you need to focus because every December of your adult life has been about averting the same potential crisis: Christmas means many hours when the shops are shut and entire days you won’t want to leave the sofa, far less hit Tesco. It’s not just about having the resources to properly celebrate – it’s about how you prioritise and deploy those resources.

Many of us have discovered this truth during a December trip to Braehead Shopping & Leisure Centre, equidistant from Ibrox and Paisley. Steven Gerrard discovered it this December, at the hands of a team once sponsored by Braehead Shopping & Leisure Centre. Too many of his goodies sat unused for too long. Treats were spoiled. Festivities were ruined.

When our centre-half waltzed in a seventh minute opener, on the back of a 27-game unbeaten run, St Mirren FC looked like being reduced to another statistic under the steamroller that is Rangers 2020-21. We weren’t just going to win this League Cup, we were going to turn it into the kind of extended lap of honour needed by a club who hasn’t won a major trophy in a decade.

Turned out even a last-minute Rangers equaliser, and me shouting “Finish them, Teds!” (quite forcefully), couldn’t stop St Mirren eliminating us without the need for extra time. The knee-jerk conclusion was we’d got too cocky. The suspicion was that a decade without one had let Rangers forget the focus required to win a major trophy.

The actual truth was we’d learned a hard lesson about deployment. Bonagni Zungu shouldn’t have started against St Mirren. Not alongside Arfield and Aribo anyway. And the failure to get Borna Barisic on at half-time in Paisley – not because Calvin Bassey was completely failing to defend but because his inability to get the ball forward was dragging Ryan Kent to places he wasn’t wanted – was the moment Stevie G demonstrated, consciously or otherwise, the league was his priority.

St Mirren’s outside-right Connolly, fouled by Calvin for their first-half penalty equaliser after a Kent mistake, again dangerously outsmarted our understudy left-back in the opening minutes of the second half. Borna was asked to warm up. Connolly got another cross past Calvin - it came off the bar. Borna was stripped and stood on the side-line, Jimmy Bell giving the details to the fourth official. Before Borna got on, Calvin was done by Connolly yet again and it resulted in St Mirren taking the lead.

We never properly recovered from that 53rd minute goal. But in the subsequent two league matches we’ve more than recovered from that League Cup exit. And I suspect Steven Gerrard needed that defeat to discover exactly which players he could use and when if he wants to lay on the far greater festivities concomitant with our first league title in a decade. With injury the only thing to have stopped Itten and Roofe so far, with Jermain Defoe still able to finish like a master craftsman and Ryan Kent an incessant menace, the Rangers forwards fridge looks deliciously well stocked. Yes, we’ve complained about Alfredo not scoring many this year. But he’s so heavily involved in killer build-ups he doesn’t have to - not when our centre-half and right back are goal machines.

We have Aribo, Hagi and even speed-meister Brandon Barker, all ready to replace or compliment the revitalised Scott Arfield in weaponising the Jack-Davis-Kamara midfield base. One day Connor Goldson might let Helander and Balogun be the centre-half pairing rather than his reliable but interchangeable partners. We have the best goalkeeper in Scotland - and the second-best too.

So in our unbeaten, mostly winning, start to the season – from 1st August to mid-December - we’ve all enjoyed telling ourselves that, with the possible exception of James Tavernier, Rangers now have two players for every position.

But we don’t. Not really.

Calvin can come on for Borna in Liege and maintain the pace because, (a) Borna has already set the pace and (b), the other ten Calvin is joining are first-picks and/or hugely experienced. Zungu can chew up the scenery for a half against Hamilton and when starting versus Falkirk. But when we’re playing top flight sides, until he’s fully bedded-in, Bongani can only come on after two of Jack, Davis or Kamara have established the tone alongside Arfield or Aribo.

And we all suspect neither Balogun nor Helander would be half as good without Goldson.

Some positions have more options than others. Some players are still more vital than others. But Steven Gerrard knows his best starting XI. All he discovered in Paisley is how far he could dilute it and when.

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Now we've all consumed our hearty Christmas dinners and the team hits this ridiculously intense festive period of fixtures, us punters also need to get brutally pragmatic. This is the best season to exit the League Cup early. In historical terms, the Scottish Cup is the only domestic competition in which we trail Celtic. We’ve won 27 League Cups and the nearest challenger, with 19, went out the round before us this season. In the more recent context of “the journey back”, the time for being satisfied with a League Cup is long gone.

During Mark Warbuton’s reign? Yes, it would have meant the world. In our second season back in the top flight, it would’ve been great. But by the time Steven Gerrard arrived at Ibrox, a League Cup was only of use as a marker of progress – confidence booster for us, treble-buster for Celtic. And even that ship sailed last December when a Hampden linesman gave his flag arm a rest and Tav gave that penalty to Alfie.

With Covid rescheduling the current season in much the same way an accordionist reschedules his bellows, winning at St Mirren last week would have meant a January semi and probably a February final: Two massive games – both carrying the possibility of extra time, penalties and general fatigue - at the very point we’ve collapsed in the past two seasons, and at the time we’ll be entering two rounds of the Scottish Cup and two massive games versus Royal Antwerp.

Had we been trailing in the Premiership last Wednesday, then fine. Had we won last season’s League Cup, meaning two no-win games at Hampden would now have no psychological drag, perfect. But, frankly, our league form in the first half of the season has made finishing this campaign with just one, even both cups in the bag, the stuff of failure. It’s 55 or bust now. And a team with no top tier titles in ten years needs to focus harder than a recent champ. Our next treble can wait, because we won’t achieve it until we get used to winning leagues again.

At the outset of this season there was still some room for improvement under Gerrard, for tacit success, without us necessarily winning the title. That angle disappeared when we won at Tannadice. Having also come away from Easter Road, Parkhead, Rugby Park and Pittodrie comparatively unmolested, we’d proved we had what league titles take. And since cruising to victory at McDiarmid – something we don’t always do - we’re halfway through our league campaign with four points dropped.

We’ve won 53 points from a possible 57.

Had Celtic kept pace, had they been the team to take points from us then, again, we could have contented ourselves with a cup or two and more season-on-season improvement. But our only serious challengers have fallen so far behind the psychological and financial damage we’d suffer by not winning this title could be catastrophic. The thought of our miraculous, even-more-spectacularly-improving European form of the last three seasons putting Celtic rather than ourselves straight into the Champions League group stages is unbearable. It’s all gone too far. We’re too good. We have to win this league now.

They’re currently telling themselves they trail by just seven points. But we all know that, should Celtic start clawing us back, they’ll want the world to know we were 16 points in front. With the festive week bringing Hibs, a return to Paisley, and Celtic themselves, retaining our focus and intensity is paramount.

The Scottish Cup and Europe will provide distraction enough in the next two months. Depending on how draws and first legs go, they could also provide the first games of 2021, and the first this season since Falkirk, where we can afford to rest most key players. Celtic, on the other hand, now have nothing better to do than trying to stop us winning the league.

Gerrard didn’t deliberately chuck the League Cup. But he knew how packed the fridge was for the rest of the month. He prioritised ruthlessly. He deployed accordingly. Cups can wait. Zungu came on when we went 2-1 up versus Motherwell on Saturday and killed it. Bassey’s development continues. Barker and Defoe will be needed yet. Jordan Jones and George Edmundson can come on against Edinburgh City or Spartans in the Scottish.

Maybe Steven Gerrard, who only failed to win the league at Liverpool, will make that the only thing he wins at Rangers. And that particular deployment, of silverware, would be just fine by me. Across the festive period I have no time to shop for extras and little taste for the watermelon that’s oh so healthy for my body. It’s all about the turkey, trimmings, pudding and booze that’s absolutely vital to my soul. And this season is now about winning the one prize the soul of our club demands above all others.

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