Steven Gerrard: 'Reality of Scottish football bites Rangers manager'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard looks on as his side failed to break down Hamilton at Ibrox

On his greatest night in football, Steven Gerrard got the better of Paolo Maldini of AC Milan in Istanbul. Now the team Gerrard manages can't get the better of David Moyo of Hamilton Academical in Glasgow.

Wednesday's loss at home to the 11th best team in the Scottish Premiership was another Rangers low in a lengthening list. Increasingly, Gerrard is looking like a man who has no idea what to do to arrest the slapstick that's going on in his defence and the obvious lack of mettle throughout the team when they're in a hole and need to get out of it.

They are now producing the kind of results that led to the dismissal of his predecessor Pedro Caixinha. The fans signalled their support for him during Wednesday's game, but the backing has to be wearing thin. The same fans turned on Ally McCoist in the dog-days of his management of Rangers, their superhero pilloried. Gerrard can expect to feel their brutal force if the awfulness continues much longer.

On Saturday, when Rangers were knocked out of the Scottish Cup by the 12th best team in the country - Hearts - Gerrard looked a haunted man and said he needed a "real, strong, long think" about things.

He said that losing to Hearts was the lowest moment of his time in Scotland because it signalled the end of his last shot at silverware this season, the league title all but conceded to Celtic. Six domestic trophies entered and nothing to show for it but one losing final. "It's not good enough and I'm responsible," he stressed, quietly and almost forlornly.

'Rangers scaled the mountain and got dizzy'

Watch Gerrard's wild celebrations after first Celtic Park win in nine years

Gerrard wanted a response from his players against Hamilton and all he got was more vulnerability. Since returning from their winter break, Rangers have played 14 matches and have won only eight. They lead a bizarre double life between impressive performances as underdogs in Europe and feeble performances as favourites in domestic competition.

At the turn of the year, when he roared in acclamation of victory at Celtic Park, it was easy to see his project as a serious thing, nearing maturity. Rangers were clever, physical, well-organised, well-motivated and deserving of what looked like a significant win in the backyard of their great rival, a first in many years.

Having scaled the mountain, they got dizzy. Announcing themselves as title contenders in the first half of the season was all very well, but backing it up in the second half has been beyond them again. Gerrard's players have shrunk in front of his eyes. From storming Celtic to being spooked by Hamilton. The manager is in a bad place right now.

Back in late November, when times were good for Rangers, the chairman Dave King asked Gerrard and the director of football, Ross Wilson, to calculate what the Ibrox player pool was worth in the here and now and what it could be worth in the near future.

Clearly King was wanting to hear some telephone numbers or else why ask the question in the first place. And, regardless of the fact that Rangers had won no trophies under Gerrard, telephone numbers were exactly what he got.

The valuations reported back to King were £55m and £103m respectively. "They are estimates by two individuals who know the qualities of players and who know the market," said King at the time. "This exercise validated my own information that the losses we have incurred have been well spent."

King would no doubt want to take those words back, but not nearly as much as he'd like to take the money back. Under Gerrard, more than £20m has been spent on transfer fees and many more millions have been spent on salaries and yet the team is going backwards, further adrift in the league now than they were a year ago.

It's hard to know what value Wilson and Gerrard put on Connor Goldson, but the centre-half sold the winner to Hamilton. It's hard to know what price tag was ascribed to James Tavernier and Ryan Jack and the other Rangers players who gifted Hearts the winner on Saturday. There's no telling how much the management thought they could get for Alfredo Morelos, a player who missed the cup quarter-final on account of his latest disciplinary issue, but Morelos has now scored one goal in his last 12.9 hours of football.

Not that long ago, King and Gerrard almost competed with each other in pointing out how much money they would refuse for their striker. Thirty million wasn't enough. Forty million wouldn't cut it. Fifty million and the bidder would be sent away with a flea in their ear.

'It's remarkable how quickly it's unravelled'

These are very different to the freakonomics that did for Rangers in 2012, but they're freakonomics none the less. They have invested heavily to stop Celtic and it's not working.

They spent £7m on Ryan Kent, who has scored seven goals in all competitions this season. Outside of Ibrox, 17 players have scored more goals than Kent has in 2019-20 and another five have scored the same number. One of them is the Celtic centre-half Christopher Jullien.

Kent is young and he might come good, but he epitomises the problem. He said recently that Rangers are at their best when they're underdogs - a bit of an issue when they are roaring hot favourites in about 90% of the games they play.

Michael Beale, Gerrard's assistant, made a similar point when asked about the success that Rangers have had in beating Braga, Porto, Feyenoord and Legia Warsaw in Europe this season, while failing to beat, and in some cases losing to, Hearts, Kilmarnock, St Johnstone, Aberdeen and now Hamilton. "I think the games in Europe are refereed in a certain way and the games are played more technically and less physically and that suits a lot of the players we have," said Beale.

Refereeing standards might be poor. Aggression might be over the top. But that's the reality of Scottish football and it has to be embraced. Celtic accept that reality and have the players with the mentality to deal with it, sometimes through the excellence of their football and sometimes through the strength of their personality and their dogged will to win ugly, if that's what it takes.

Gerrard has brought in a host of players and not many of them are showing that they've got the moral fibre to battle on. Kent wants to be the underdog, but that's not the way it works at Rangers. Beale has players who are more suited to European competition, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the matches he absolutely must win are not in Porto and Poland but in Perth and Pittodrie.

On Wednesday, Brian Rice's driven team went to Ibrox and won a fantastic victory. Hamilton live in the real world of a relegation fight. They are dwarfed by Rangers in every conceivable way bar mental strength.

Gerrard has signed too many players who are of little use to him now, bit-parters shoved to the margins. His leaders have evaporated. His chief goalscorer has stopped scoring. His defenders look fearful of their own shadow. It's remarkable how quickly it's unravelled. Europe is the only solace, but it's limited when Celtic are closing in on nine-in-a-row.

These are intense times for him. He's now fully exposed to the unique stresses of life in Glasgow as the struggling half of the big two. The pressure that comes with the territory is hard to bear. Gerrard is not quite broken, but he's buckling.

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