Steven Gerrard at Rangers: Hits, misses and a possible return to Liverpool

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From the moment Steven Gerrard bid farewell to his adoring Liverpool public it’s been assumed he’d one day return as manager.

It’s a romantic and let’s face it simplistic notion, devoid of much in the way of clear thinking.

In this fairytale scenario the local hero fulfils his destiny, leading a new crop of Reds to the one trophy that eluded him and countless more besides.

Though Gerrard’s career has literally been made into a movie, this script has always seemed far-fetched. Then again, what is football without a touch of theatre?

After returning to the fold and a brief stint as under-18s boss, Gerrard opted to fly the nest and truly earn his stripes. A ballsy move, it showed he in no way wanted, nor expected, a shortcut to the top.

But ballsy does not necessarily mean right.

Eighteen months down the line the merits of that decision, or rather his destination, could be questioned.

 

Rocky Rangers

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard during the Europa League, Qualifying Round One, First Leg match at Ibrox, Glasgow. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday July 12, 2018. See PA story SOCCER Rangers. Photo credit should read: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

On the surface Rangers seemed a good fit. A huge club in their own right, the lofty expectations that come with managing one of Glasgow’s big two would hold Gerrard in good stead.

Then there was the challenge: toppling Celtic and stopping 10 in a row—a Holy Grail north of the border. It was daunting but feasible, certainly within three years.

Add in the prospect of European football and carte blanche to overhaul the playing squad and it’s easy to see why this particular offer appealed so.

Worst-case scenario…a handful of runner-up spots. Failure, yes but hardly career defining.

For all that, it could be argued Gerrard was naive in the extreme.

Anyone with a passing interest in Scottish football could tell you Rangers have been a basket-case of a club for the best part of a decade.

Financial wrongdoing brought about administration in 2012, followed by eventual liquidation. Gers fans argue otherwise, but officially an entirely new club was launched later that year and forced to work their way up from the third division.

It proved a long road back and a belated return to the top flight hardly righted all wrongs. Their first season in the Scottish Premiership could only see them finish third, a full 39 points behind their Old Firm rivals—who they also lost to on five occasions, two of which by four-goal margins.

The following year was much the same, another third-placed finish and four Old Firm defeats—two by way of hammering.

But results and standings only tell half the story. Indeed the club and controversy are familiar bedfellows.

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - Saturday, January 14, 2017: Burnley's match-winning goal-scorer Joey Barton, with the yellow match-ball, during the FA Premier League match against Southampton at Turf Moor. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Fresh from securing promotion they signed Joey Barton. Never a smart move. To his credit he went a full two months before scrapping with a team-mate, then having his contract duly terminated.

Then manager Mark Warburton resigned in February 2017 and was eventually replaced by one Pedro Caixinha, regarded as perhaps the worst boss in this or the original club’s history.

The Portuguese lasted seven months, just enough time to oversee a Europa League exit to a Luxembourg side who had never scored a goal in continental competition.

Caretaker boss Graeme Murty steadied the ship but was soon involved in an altercation with his two senior pros (Kenny Miller and Lee Wallace), both of whom were suspended. Amazingly they successfully appealed the decision and made financial claims against their own club…

In this two-year period Rangers somehow managed to sign or loan 36 players, while 47 departed. Some turnover.

Throw in a long-running court battle with Mike Ashley (yes, really) regarding kit deals and you get the idea. Soap operas serve up less drama.

 

Drop-Off

KIEV, UKRAINE - Friday, May 25, 2018: Former Liverpool player Steven Gerrard during a training session at the NSC Olimpiyskiy ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid CF and Liverpool FC. (Handout/UEFA via Propaganda)

To say Gerrard was stepping into the breach is then an understatement. No amount of assurances will have convinced others to meet the challenge.

And all that considered he’s done…OK. Not well enough to guarantee he succeeds Jurgen Klopp by any stretch, but ‘alright’.

Unlike his predecessors he’s managed to guide the Ibrox side to the Europa League proper and restore their reputation on the continent. This ranks as far and away his biggest achievement.

Credible draws home and away to Villarreal last season have been bettered this with memorable victories over Feyenoord and Porto, securing unlikely progress from the group stage.

They’ve since gone one better, toppling Braga to set up a last-16 clash with Bayer Leverkusen. Nice work, Stevie.

On the transfer front he’s shown an eye for a player—and an appreciation for experience. Veterans Allan McGregor and Jermain Defoe have proved shrewd signings, as have the likes of Ryan Kent and Scott Arfield.

Rangers' Ryan Kent celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership match at the Hope CBD Stadium, Hamilton (Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images)

That said, he’s had more cash to throw around than previous incumbents and still appears to be taking punts.

Indeed, that aforementioned turnover of players has not exactly stopped. Gerrard signed or loaned 21 in his first summer and a further 11 last. He’s spent roughly £21 million and recouped just £3.27 million. Competitors, Celtic included, would like that luxury.

Domestically, he’s made Rangers competitive to a point. Most notably they’ve shown they cannot only give the all-conquering Hoops a game but beat them on occasion.

Following no wins in 12 against their bitter rivals, Rangers ran out deserved winners at Ibrox in December 2018. Another two victories have followed, most notably an historic 2-1 triumph at Parkhead last Christmas where Gerrard’s post-match celebrations stole the headlines.

In those games he’s shown tactical nous. Helped no doubt by the tutelage of former Liverpool coach Michael Beale, he’s tightened Rangers up defensively.

They boasted the second-best defensive record last season and have the joint-best so far this term.

BIRKENHEAD, ENGLAND - Wednesday, February 21, 2018: Liverpool's Under-18 manager Steven Gerrard during the UEFA Youth League Quarter-Final match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC at Prenton Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

He has also been able to outsmart teams. Ironically, this was most notable in a narrow defeat to Celtic in March. Having gone down to 10 men, Gerrard tweaked the shape and remarkably enabled his team to dominate possession. They were unfortunate to lose that day.

As they were in the League Cup final in December; a game in which they battered their opponents but somehow succumbed to defeat. Yet both losses encapsulate his reign to this point. Nearly but not quite.

In each of his two seasons in charge Rangers have been neck-and-neck with Celtic at the turn of the year, only to fall away quite dramatically. At the time of writing the gap is a chasm—13 points.

On both occasions the fall has been inexplicable. And Gerrard himself is showing the strain, going as far as to say he’d consider his future following a cup humbling at Hearts.

 

Mistakes

SEVILLE, SPAIN - Tuesday, November 21, 2017: Liverpool's Under-18 manager Steven Gerrard during the UEFA Youth League Group E match between Sevilla FC and Liverpool FC at the Ciudad Deportiva Jose Ramon Cisneros. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

That admission was a snapshot into an aspect of the job he’s got badly wrong.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest criticism of our former captain concerns the questionable soundbites he delivers before and after games.

All too often defeats have been followed by scathing criticism of his own players, throwing them under the bus in a manner not dissimilar to Jose Mourinho. We all know how that works out.

While that might provide an initial shock factor and stun some into improving standards, the impact lessens over time. Before long it becomes poor management. Simply put, that wouldn’t wash at Liverpool.

Other quotes have come back to haunt him, most notably that in which he declared Rangers a far superior team to Aberdeen following an opening-day draw.

Since such time they’ve struggled to beat—you guessed it—Aberdeen. In eight meetings Rangers have triumphed just twice.

Elsewhere, a claim that referees have “had it in for Rangers for years” is petty and paints him as some kind of a conspiracy theorist. A siege mentality can sometimes be misjudged.

Keeping his emotions in check is something he will have to master and quick.

KIEV, UKRAINE - Friday, May 25, 2018: Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp reacts with former players Steven Gerrard during a training session at the NSC Olimpiyskiy ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid CF and Liverpool FC. (Pic by Peter Powell/Propaganda)

Whereas Gerrard the player earned the right to display a degree of arrogance, Gerrard the manager may be advised to show a touch more humility. He has after all won nothing in that capacity, yet.

But win something he surely must if his presumed route back ‘home’ is to become a reality.

For the first time the punters are growing restless and questions over his future louder. A flurry of bets have seen odds tumble on him returning to the academy and replacing Neil Critchley. That is a backward step someone as driven as Gerrard will surely never entertain.

The few months after football’s resumption will have a major impact on his managerial career, however.

Celtic look set to complete a fourth consecutive treble meaning Gerrard’s priority will be restoring a feel-good factor ahead of an all-out assault next season—the one in which their neighbours will be gunning for 10 in a row.

That seems a natural conclusion to this first managerial role. Wrestle the title from Celtic in the most dramatic fashion and he could leave a legend with his CV enhanced. See them create history at his expense and a parting of the ways seems inevitable.

Whichever scenario plays out, Gerrard’s next port of call is arguably more important than his first.

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game during the Legends match at Anfield Stadium, Liverpool. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday March 23, 2019. See PA story SOCCER Liverpool. Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire.

Management is unforgiving. Even someone with the reputation of Steven Gerrard can quickly be written off, look no further than that other ‘Captain Fantastic’, Brian Robson, as a case in point.

Two wrong turns and his best hope of managing Liverpool will be a break-glass situation, coming in mid-season to steady the ship a la Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Not the way he or we envisaged it.

Our current ownership opted for a sentimental appointment once before and probably lived to regret it. They’re unlikely to repeat that mistake.

For that reason results and not reputation will matter most for Steven Gerrard. He better start getting some.

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