Easter Road provides stiff test for Gerrard and Rangers as they make final push for title

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Easter Road is not a ground new to the concept of being an important venue in Rangers’ attempts to stop Celtic winning ‘ten-in-a-row’.

It was there on 29 March 1975 that Rangers secured the league title for the first time in nine attempts and stopped Jock Stein’s Celtic from amassing ten consecutive titles.

Rangers arrived on that day knowing that if they avoided defeat the title they so badly craved would be theirs. However Eddie Turnbull had created a formidable Hibs side, which had actually mounted a title challenge of their own – sitting ahead of Celtic in second place towards the end of the season.

Rangers went behind after 19 minutes thanks to a goal from Ally MacLeod. Hibs were dominating and Rangers struggled to get any rhythm to their game. To compound matters, Sandy Jardine missed a penalty after Bobby McKean was brought down by Hibs’ keeper Jim McArthur – hitting his kick against the base of the post.

But then came the moment that every Rangers supporter craved.

Sandy Jardine drove past two Hibs defenders, laid the ball out wide for Bobby McKean who sent in a great cross which Colin Stein bulleted in to the top corner with a fantastic header. With the 1-1 result came the title and an end to Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football.

Although Rangers won’t have the opportunity to win the title on Wednesday night there is a feeling that victory here will be another huge step for Rangers in their attempts to replicate that feat of the 1975 side.

As things stand, Rangers are 28 points – or nine games – away from confirming their status as the champions of Scotland. After the depths the club has plummeted in recent years, it is hard to believe that they have reached the single figure mark in terms of the number of wins required.

But the mood at Ibrox is not one of celebration. If anything, Steven Gerrard and his players seem more focussed now than ever in maintaining the levels which have put them 23 points clear and a position of considerable strength.

The demolition of Ross County at Ibrox on Saturday was latest statement of intent, and one that was so impressive it even had Staggies boss John Hughes gushing in his praise. “We were up against a top class team,” he said afterwards. “I hope all my players come back and say ‘that’s how to play football.’”

But Easter Road is always a tricky venue for Rangers and Gerrard’s record there – one win in four attempts – shows victory in Leith is far from a foregone conclusion.

The sides fought out a 2-2 draw there in September in a game which had a nasty edge to it. Rangers, rightly, felt aggrieved with a poor decision which allowed Christian Doidge’s offside equaliser to stand, then Ryan Porteous exchanged words with Alfredo Morelos, James Tavernier and Steven Gerrard at the end of the game. Regardless of how timid Hibs were in Saturday's defeat to St Johnstone in the BetFred Cup semi-final, Gerrard knows his side will need to be at their best if they are to secure all three points.

“Easter Road is always a tough challenge and probably one of the toughest away fixtures you can get in the schedule”, the Rangers manager said at his pre-match press conference on Tuesday.

“They are a good team, they've got good players and a good manager. I think our performances have been really good at Easter Road and maybe we haven't got the results we deserved.

“We have had a couple of draws there where we have had double figures in terms of chances to win the game, so we have actually been a little bit frustrated and disappointed in the outcome of them.”

One positive going into the game is the return of Ryan Jack to the squad. The midfielder made his comeback as a substitute against County on Saturday, managing to score within a few minutes of his introduction. Kemar Roofe has also returned to the squad and Scott Arfield’s rehabilitation continues well, which is good news for the Rangers boss as it increases his selection options at a time when he is looking to make that final push domestically, whilst preparing for the reintroduction of European football next month.

For Hibs, the bright early season form has dipped somewhat. Two wins in their last six league games represents a miserly return for Jack Ross’s men. Add to that the aforementioned 3-0 defeat on Saturday to St Johnstone and you could easily describe their current run of form as poor. Not that anyone at Ibrox will view that as a reason to assume victory.

On the field Gerrard continues to adopt a ‘one-game-at-a-time’ policy, but off the field plans are already afoot for the longer term with the announcements that Scott Wright has signed a pre-contract and will move to Ibrox in the summer, and that Kai Kennedy and Nathan Patterson have agreed extensions to their current deals. Gerrard appears keen to show there is a pathway to the first-team for academy players at Ibrox if they want it, with Patterson being the latest to benefit from this with a substitute appearance in the latter stages of Saturday’s win.

“Ross [Wilson] and I have discussed our plan with Nathan for the incoming 18 months and have made our expectations clear”, said Gerrard. “Nathan is a strong example of our player pathway for those who are training with the first-team and in our Academy.”

The expectation on any players stepping up through the ranks will be to be part of a squad and club that consistently wins titles. That has not been the case for a number of years. Victory on Wednesday will take Gerrard and Rangers a step closer to addressing that.

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