Steven Gerrard has learned not to take anything for granted in a title race, but the man who has long been touted as Jurgen Klopp’s natural successor as Liverpool manager is on the brink of writing history with Rangers. He’s suffered too much sporting heartache to entertain the prospect of glory just yet, but pulling Rangers back to the summit of Scottish football will be no small achievement.
Rangers, without a league championship since 2011, travel to Hibernian on Wednesday (2:45 pm ET, stream live on ESPN+) sat 23 points clear at the top of the 12-team Scottish Premiership (although second-placed Celtic have three games in hand), unbeaten in the league all season and knowing that nine more wins will secure the club’s 55th title.
In their last game, Rangers coasted to a 5-0 win at home to Ross County to emphasise the apparent inevitability of their impending success, but Gerrard is refusing to accept that the title is even close.
“When it’s done,” Gerrard said, when asked when he would start to believe. “When it gets done…”
In 2019, Gerrard told ESPN of the “wound that will not close,” his slip while playing for Liverpool against Chelsea in 2014, which led to a goal in a loss that blew Liverpool off course in the Premier League title race (eventually won by Manchester City). Liverpool’s collapse that year was not solely down to Gerrard’s moment of misfortune, far from it, but it became the defining image and the former midfielder would end his playing career having won every major club honour with the club apart from the Premier League.
In that context, his reticence when asked to focus on winning the Scottish title is perhaps understandable.
“It doesn’t make any sense to be getting ahead of ourselves in terms of where we are right now,” Gerrard said.
But such is Rangers’ dominance this season in Scotland, it is becoming increasingly clear that the club will be crowned champions, ensuring that they both create and prevent history at the same time.
Winning a 55th league title would not only extend Rangers’ world record for most domestic league titles, currently shared with Northern Ireland’s Linfield, but more importantly, it would stop bitter rivals Celtic from becoming the first Scottish club to win 10 successive titles. Four words — “10 in a row” — have dominated Scottish football and haunted Rangers for the best part of a decade, as the Celtic juggernaut threatened to tear apart the record books.
Paul Lambert, former Celtic midfielder, said after the club’s ninth successive title was confirmed last year: “If Rangers lose 10 in a row now, the history of Rangers is gone.”
The history of Rangers and Celtic is intertwined with a rivalry that transcends football and extends into religion and Irish politics: Rangers are traditionally backed by Protestant and Loyalist communities and Celtic, who have Irish origins, drawing their support from those with Catholic and Republican backgrounds. Despite being Scottish teams, the Irish tricolour dominates at Celtic Park, while Union flags and the Flag of Northern Ireland (Ulster Banner) are widespread at Ibrox.
Rangers and Celtic, the so-called “Old Firm,” have won 105 of the 123 championships since the Scottish League began in 1890 and no club outside of Glasgow’s big two has been champions since Aberdeen — then managed by Sir Alex Ferguson — in 1985. It is a rivalry regarded by many as the most intense in world football and one which has deepened further since 2012, when Rangers were demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game as a result of a financial scandal that led to the club being liquidated and re-formed.
Imagine Barcelona or Real Madrid being forced to play in Spain’s fourth division, among amateur teams at tiny stadiums whose clubs have an average attendance of fewer than 500 people. That is the fate that befell Rangers, and their climb back to the top has been long and arduous, made more unbearable by Celtic winning every domestic title during that period.
“It felt like a jail sentence,” David Edgar, of the Heart & Hand Rangers podcast, told ESPN. “Coming back up the divisions was something the club had to get through and the novelty of playing at the lowest levels wore off very quickly.
“I remember seeing Rangers lose at home to Annan Athletic in the fourth tier. That was a real low, but I think the worst point was when we lost to Raith Rovers in the Challenge Cup final — a cup for lower league teams — in 2014.
“The Challenge Cup was sponsored by Ramsdens, a chain of pawnshops, that year so it seemed to sum up everything about Rangers at the time.”
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Rangers would spend four years outside the top division, winning three promotions in four seasons to reclaim their place in the Premiership and renew the rivalry with Celtic, but the journey wasn’t over.
“Once we were back in the Premiership, that’s when the real punishment started,” Edgar said. “The financial gap between Rangers and Celtic had become so big that it seemed insurmountable and you began to wonder whether we would ever win the title again.”
When Gerrard was named as Rangers manager in May 2018, leaving his role as youth-team coach at Liverpool, the challenge facing the former England captain in his first management job was immense. Rangers had finished third the previous season, 12 points behind Celtic, having been beaten 5-0 and 4-0 in league and cup by their rivals a month earlier.
“Those defeats could both have been double figures,” Edgar said. “The Celtic players were high-fiving and laughing at each other. Rangers needed a leader, somebody to give us confidence and professionalism again, and Steven Gerrard walked in, and pretty quickly, he showed that we weren’t going to be a joke anymore.”
It has taken Gerrard almost three years to get to the point of being able to topple Celtic, though, with the manager trusting players like captain James Tavernier, Ryan Kent, Ryan Jack and Ianis Hagi, son of Romanian star Gheorghe, to help turn the tide. Gerrard has also introduced a slick passing game, mixed the experience of Steven Davis and Jermain Defoe with the raw talent of volatile striker Alfredo Morelos and winger Joe Aribo, and learned how to blank out the incessant noise that comes with managing one of the Old Firm.
But it has not all been plain sailing, with fears that the 40-year-old would quit last season after he spoke of needing “to do some serious thinking” after a Scottish Cup quarterfinal defeat against Hearts that left him “the lowest I have felt since I came here, by a long way.”
“Stevie took that defeat really hard,” a source close to Gerrard told ESPN. “He takes a lot of pressure on himself and he always has, but I think that side of his character was really shaped by carrying the weight of being Liverpool captain for so long. When they lost to Hearts, you could see he was feeling it and doubting himself.”
Three weeks later, however, the coronavirus pandemic led to Scottish football being suspended — the season was cancelled in May with Celtic announced as champions. The new season began in August, when a revitalised Gerrard oversaw an opening day victory at Aberdeen that laid the foundations for the unbeaten run that now leaves them in pole position to win the title.
“You can see the difference in him from the aftermath of the Hearts game to today,” the source close to Gerrard said. “The flip side of him taking the pressure on his shoulders is how convincing he is when things are going well. He knows he is in control of the situation now and Rangers are flying.”
Gerrard’s team are also earning plaudits from their rivals, with Ross County manager John Hughes making clear his admiration of Rangers’ football during their 5-0 victory on Saturday.
“We were up against a top-class team,” Hughes said. “I hope all my players come back and say ‘that’s how to play football.’ If you are a professional footballer and you think you are half-decent, after that you should think ‘I’ve still got a bit to go.’”
A win against Hibernian at Easter Road on Wednesday will be Gerrard’s 99th victory as Rangers manager from just 151 games. It will take a maximum of nine wins from this point to win the title, but with Celtic so far back, the championship could yet be sealed in seven games’ time when they travel to the east end of Glasgow to face their rivals on March 20.
Yet with football in Scotland being played behind closed doors throughout this season due to the pandemic, Rangers are facing the prospect of making history without their fans being able to witness it.
“It’s tough, but it’s just where the world is right now,” Gerrard told ESPN. “It’s not an ideal situation and we really feel for the supporters not being able to come and support the team. We know they are with us, in a different way, but we have to accept where the world is at the moment.
“It’s fantastic to see that the [COVID-19] numbers are improving and dropping, so hopefully, at some point in the near future, it will safe enough for the fans to return because they play such a big part here and that is what the club has been built on. We want the fans back as soon as possible.”
For Edgar, a lifelong Rangers fan who has experienced the highs and lows following the club, this season has been a challenge and a much-needed distraction.
“There are lots of frustrations among Rangers fans about not being able to salute this wonderful team,” Edgar said. “But at least we have been winning, so in many ways, the team’s success has been a rare shining light for many people in such difficult times.
“Some people think that football should have stopped completely during the pandemic, but you cannot quantify how the game has helped so many people through it.
“But when or if Gerrard has revitalised Rangers and can stop Celtic’s ’10 in a row’ No. 55 is confirmed, there will be an explosion of joy and relief among Rangers fans and I just hope the authorities are prepared for that. They can’t be King Canute and hope that celebrations won’t happen.”
For now, however, it is only the supporters who are allowing themselves to think so far ahead. Gerrard is only interested in the next game and the next points. And Hibs, third in the table, are a clear and present danger to his team’s unbeaten record.
“They are a good team and they won’t make it easy for us,” Gerrard said. “They have always been one of the strongest teams in the league, so it will be a challenge and a test.
“We know what we have to do because Hibs are going to try to do everything they can to be the first team to beat us in the league this season.”
Gerrard won’t take his eyes off the prize until it is firmly within his grasp, with history made and, for Celtic, history denied.