When rumours of Steven Gerrard being linked with the Rangers manager job first appeared on our forum in late April, it's fair to say that my first reaction was to smile disbelievingly then, once I knew there was substance in the rumour, doubt was my next emotion. After all, as much as no-one can deny the quality of Gerrard's playing CV, his managerial experience is minimal and neither is he any expert in Scottish football or Rangers.
It's also fair to say, many Rangers fans had these same initial doubts. In just under 1000 fans polled on our main site in April, there was no clear majority in favour of the appointment. Sure, just over a third of fans felt his profile and reputation would work well as manager of our club but the very same percentage disagreed, believing his inexperience was an unnecessary risk after the failure of Pedro Caixinha. A slightly smaller number of fans were undecided - rightly feeling both the excitement and the fear of this perceived gamble.
Events moved quickly after we posted that poll. Within days it was confirmed Gerrard was to be the next manager of the club and thousands of bears filled the enclosures at Ibrox to welcome him ahead of his starting date in June. After what was a very impressive press conference, the mood had definitely shifted and any earlier fear replaced with a obvious confidence amongst Rangers supporters. If we conducted the same poll again today, I suspect the results would be very different.
Of course, despite that new found belief gleaned from Gerrard's comments so far, there's still no guarantee of success under the former Liverpool skipper. Rangers fans have been annoyed with some of the press coverage saying as much but the simple fact is it's the truth. Yes, as seems the norm nowadays, a few commentators have lacked balance in their approach but there are question marks over Gerrard and it would be churlish and downright daft to ignore them. As a rule though, Dave King's reasoned response at the Gerrard announcement presser is perhaps the best retort. Yes, not having top-level experience is a box not ticked but that sole negative (no matter it's size) is, at the very worst, balanced by several positives. And, in a decade where Rangers supporters have had minimal good news to enjoy, it's difficult not to blame us for lingering on the affirmative.
What our club has lacked more than anything else in recent years - certainly since our return to the SPFL Premiership - has been leadership in the dressing room. For all their strengths and weaknesses, Warburton, Caixinha, Murty and their various captains have lacked that vital element of leading our club back to success. Far too often, this has been visible on the pitch as player after player goes missing in games and that has never been more evident in our lacklustre efforts to compete toe-to-toe with Celtic. Dressing room bust ups just point to further division and there's now a long list of players guilty of extracting the proverbial out of the very people that pay their wages.
Under Steven Gerrard, no player will be allowed to take such liberties. No Mexicans with personal problems will be signed and no Barton/Miller/Wallace scenarios of players thinking they know better than the man in charge will develop when the manager has seen and done it all. That's not to say there won't (or shouldn't be) a mutual respect between him and his squad - just that everyone knows who's in charge.
Improving that squad will be Gerrard's first and most important task. As much as Rangers fans will be hoping for a substantial transfer budget, without serious investment, I don't see a huge amount being spent over the piece. A cursory look across the Clyde to Parkhead shows that, yes, of course we need to buy new talent but existing and under-performing players can be managed into title-winners. That doesn't mean we'll be expected to cheer on players who've shown they don't have the mentality or quality to remain at Ibrox, just that we may not need the wholesale squad changes some suggest. For example, as much as it's obvious we need at least two new centre-halves to improve our defence and another bustling, strong striker capable of leading the line, the fact our team outscored the rest of the SPFL last season shows there are positives to build on.
Gerrard's message to the Rangers fans yesterday (perhaps in lieu of another press conference today as he spends time abroad looking at players) was a glimpse of what to expect over the coming weeks. First of all, naming Mark Allen shows how important their relationship will be over the summer. The Director of Football clearly has a lot of faith in his favoured candidate and it's vital they can work well together to bring in players to improve the squad for next season. Secondly, a training camp in Spain towards the middle of the month will allow the manager to get to know his players quickly over pre-season and offer a chance to build positive relationships throughout the squad ahead of an early start in Europa Cup qualifying. Finally, Gerrard speaking of his work outwith Auchenhowie shows he is keen to see who can join Allan McGregor, Scott Arfield and Jamie Murphy as new signings in this window. The quicker new players can be brought in the better and the same can be said for moving on any surplus.
Indeed, it will be the Europa Cup of early July that will provide a very early determination of Gerrard and any new signings he does make. Last season Pedro Caixinha and his team failed badly in their first test and that put the Portuguese manager on the back foot from the outset. A look at the teams in the qualifying rounds does show it's not an easy task to qualify for the group stages of European tournaments nowadays but a similar exit at the first stage has to be unthinkable - not just in financial terms for the club but to maintain the early goodwill offered to the new manager.
In that sense, the Rangers fans' backing for Gerrard has been remarkable so far. Record levels of season ticket uptake and a waiting list larger than some other clubs' annual numbers means Gerrard can start his new job today knowing every supporter is behind him. Even better, these impressive ticket sales will allow the board to front load any transfer investment, meaning he and Allen can work through their player menu and order quickly to sate all our appetites. That's not to say they'll be ordering fillet steak but hopefully doing the best with their budget so we can hit the ground running over the summer.
And that's what will be offering food for thought for the new manager. As a player of course he experienced pressure and, for the most part, he dealt with it well. However, the difference this time is that as much as it was often him that led his Liverpool team from the front as captain, at least he could do so on the pitch. Now, like the rest of us, Gerrard is limited to watching from the side-lines and that's something that may take him a while to get to grips with. The pressure on a Rangers manager is another significant factor. At Liverpool, fan expectation was similarly high but the environment in Glasgow is arguably unique with both Rangers and Celtic vying for the title each season. Recent years may have brought in extra variables but that rule remains and plenty of experienced, high-level footballers have struggled to work under it. Only time will tell if Gerrard can do so.
In closing though, something just feels different this time. Neither Warburton nor Caixinha gave me much confidence from the outset. And, as much as they offered familiarity, both McCoist and Smith didn't bring real excitement either. Paul Le Guen did capture our supporters' imagination (for a few months at least) but, even then, I didn't feel the same enthusiasm I do today knowing Steven Gerrard is the Rangers manager.
Yes, of course there are doubts and there's nothing tangible (yet anyway) to really outline why there's a new found confidence amongst fans but, for the first time in a long time, I feel genuinely optimistic for our club's direction. Obviously there will still be bumps in the road ahead but I think the first of June 2018 will be a significant day in the long history of Rangers Football Club. I believe that this date will signal a new era of success at Rangers - perhaps not immediately - but in the near future.
I actually feel Ready again. Let's go!
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