As Napoleon Bonaparte is reported to have said; ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ Try though we may to see the past as a cast-iron depiction of life, the narrowed perception of the football fan is filled with convenient interpretation, outlandish bias, revisionary falsehoods. And, as I may be rightly accused of with this article, an opportune amnesia when it comes celebrating victory.
The winning of Scottish League title number ¬__ (I’ll let you fill in the blank to fit your own fabled history; I’m nothing if not inclusive) has been a long time coming for Rangers supporters. The now-cliched ‘journey’ of recent years that got stuck in a hedge at Glebe Park before winding its way past pubs and pie-shops from Peterhead to the ironically named Progrés Neiderkorn from Luxemburg had reached its apotheosis. That the team weren’t on a Scottish pitch when the long-awaited moment of triumph finally came seems typical of the strangeness of a season like no other. In the League winning season of 2021, no paying fan of the club witnessed a single match from the stands; possibly an advantage to a group of players that could have struggled under the expectation of a support not renowned for its endless patience. Regardless, the SPL Trophy has been secured. Rangers are the current Scottish Champions. Steven Gerrard and his management team will be forever feted as club legends. And Celtic’s push for an unprecedented ten-in-a-row league titles was trampled under-boot. If history is indeed written by the victors, these are the only facts that matter.
But if Rangers supporters – and I am one – spent the summer luxuriating in the culmination of that journey, then it’s important not to forget the numerous occasions when it seemed like a mission impossible. The lowest point for me came on 27th December 2014. Rangers had just been battered and humiliated by a young, exuberant Hibs team who were everything my own team were not. With Ally McCoist tending to his garden following a dismal away loss to Queen of The South, Kenny McDowall was in post as caretaker manager. Our squad comprised a motley collection of overpaid, underperforming ‘stars’. The club was in turmoil off the field and in crisis on it. The 4-0 loss at Easter Road was the fourth time Rangers had failed to win against the Edinburgh sides that season. Failure to finish in the top 4 of the Championship began to seem far more likely than scrambling a leg onto the life-raft of an end of season play-off match.
There were so many words written about the situation Rangers found themselves in at that point. Some were funny; many unintentionally so. Other pieces were cliché-ridden, purporting to certainty when it was apparent to even the uninformed reader that they were highly speculative at best. But what could I possibly add to the Mount Everest of popular opinion on the subject? This isn’t a lookback piece about the various accusations, counterarguments or moral rights and wrongs surrounding the circumstances that led to Rangers’ demotion to the lowest division of the Scottish game. I am not qualified to make those observations, although it didn’t stop others in a similar position. Good luck to them. As I mentioned earlier, uninformed speculation propels football, and is often the most entertaining aspect of it. This is simply a personal acknowledgement of the precipice of apathy Rangers once teetered over, and of the huge strides it has made on the pitch since then.
The turning of the year of season 2014/15 at Ibrox felt like a Shakespearean tragedy playing itself out well into the third act. A football club and its most loyal supporters are regularly looking backwards more than forwards. Despite the inverse logic, perhaps that’s to be expected. Fans indulge in – and feed off – nostalgia. It’s their lifeblood. Statistics matter. Long memories triumph in pub (or Zoom) arguments, or social media-based ding-dongs. Men (because it is invariably a male tribal habit) lay claims to victories from days before they were born that subsequently define their adulthood and bind them to others of a like-mind. If football is diminished without rivalries, a team’s achievements remain the epitome of the fanatic’s one-upmanship and a demonstration of superiority over others. Yet for Rangers at the beginning of 2015, this had become its biggest curse. When the club went to the third division, numerous opportunities to rebuild and develop – and perhaps shake off some of the widespread criticism in the process – presented themselves. Almost 50,000 defiant ones, a European record for a fourth-tier football match that is unlikely to ever be broken, packed Ibrox Stadium to watch the team demolish East Stirling. Loyalty of the fan-base wasn’t the problem. For those prepared to look hard enough though, there were troubling signs.
Rather than recognise the opportunity for what it was, an age-old combination of hubris and arrogance seemed to prompt unjustifiable business and footballing decisions which didn’t require the benefit of hindsight to be considered as madness. Rather than reduce the expenditure appropriate to affect necessary financial restructuring everywhere in the organisation, the management team of the time signed experienced but expensive players on unsustainable – and it transpires, undeserved – contracts. It felt like a deliberate attempt at sticking two fingers up at the rest of the footballing fraternity; those that had ruthlessly demoted the club despite the inference that it could harm their own their own interests. Of course, the truth is more complex. If the club’s management had only looked forward, rather than backward … if it had accepted the situation rather than look anywhere else for scapegoats … if it had contributed to the rebuilding of the club’s longer-term infrastructure by clearing out the financial deadwood at all levels and applying a tough, self-imposed self-discipline to blood a team full of talented young players. If only.
To do that would have required leadership, resourcefulness, sound judgement and, crucially, an ability to communicate these clearly to others. This is the very foundation of any business success. It may not have changed the attitudes of the club’s rival supporters, but it might have created some reluctant empathy. After all, a football fan is someone who follows their team through thick and thin, good times and bad, right? Almost every football fan can identify with fears about their own team’s future during the uncertain times of the last two years.
In the dark days of winter 2015, Rangers biggest problem wasn’t its precarious financial position. Paradoxically, given the previous ebullience about not walking away, its biggest challenge was an apathy which could ultimately have been fatal. It takes a substantial amount of opprobrium being brought down on the die-hard football fan’s head for him or her to decide enough is enough. When the paying customer has lost interest, most businesses are in real trouble. When that happens in a business context as precarious as Scottish Football, it can be catastrophic. For Rangers, with all the mounting baggage that was slowly suffocating the club, it could easily have been the death knell.
Hindsight is the lens that football fans focus to assess (or re-evaluate) their judgement. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but Dave King’s coronation as Chairman in the early months of 2015 was the start of the long and sometimes faltering process that culminated in the winning of the title six years later. There were still obstacles along the way, no doubting. And despite the unjustified bravado, it was clear in the games following the Hibs defeat, that we were not ready to rejoin the top league. We may have clawed our way to the play-offs, but it only resulted in a thumping over two traumatic final games by a Motherwell team that had similarly underperformed for much of their season. Back to the tactics board.
A new season brought a new direction with the dawning of the Mark Warburton years. Unsuccessful in terms of the main trophies but capable of articulating a tactical philosophy that was as evident from his media relations as it was on the pitch. Still in the Championship at the start of his tenure, admittedly, but we were playing good football. And in what may well be his ultimate legacy, Warburton signed James Tavernier, the defender scoring the goal that eventually secured our return to the top division. By admission, most found Warburton to be an engaging individual. Ultimately, his failings lay in the paucity of the squad at his disposal, as opposed to the appropriateness of his philosophy about how the game should be played. And let’s be honest, he’s not the only high-profile coach who has struggled to identify and implement a Plan B for when Plan A gets nullified.
Warburton’s managerial highlight – the unexpected victory for an under-strength team against huge pre-match favourites Celtic in a thrilling Scottish Cup semi-final – did not quite herald the spectacular return of Rangers that long-suffering fans had been hoping for. We would go on to lose the 2016 Final against Hibs, Celtic would ultimately replace Ronny Delia with Brendan Rogers, and so would begin a run of total domination of the Scottish game that only started to crack when he was replaced by Neil Lennon.
Meantime, bookended by yet more caretaker appointments in Graeme Murty (twice) and Jimmy Nicholl, we had an ‘interesting’ 26 games with the previously unknown Pedro Caixinha in charge. It was a bold move, no doubt. Perhaps like the one which brought Paul Le Guen to Ibrox in 2006. The Frenchman was a lauded name in European football. He had won three successive titles with Lyon, as well as reaching the later stages of the Champions League on two occasions. Caixinha had no obvious managerial pedigree, and a parochial phalanx of pundits questioned the appointment from day one. Perhaps mindful of the explosive way the Le Guen era ended, and sensing the growing uncertainty of the Rangers support, the media had the passionate Portuguese permanently on the back foot. Ultimately, too many of the eleven players brought in over a hectic close season in 2017 struggled. Whether it was with the aggressive type of football in Scotland, the culture shock of playing for Rangers, or their own limitations or fitness, the Europa League loss over two legs to the fourth-rated club from Luxembourg seemed to typify Caixinha’s short time in charge. It would also provide the second most famous image of the ‘journey’, Pedro, up to his knees in fauna and mud. However, like Warburton with Tavernier, Caixinha’s part in this story lies in the prescient signings of Alfredo Morelos, Ryan Jack and the now departed Daniel Candeias.
And so, to the Steven Gerrard era. When the Englishman agreed a four-year deal to manage Rangers, the scale of the task ahead had just been reinforced. Only a few days earlier, Celtic’s 5-0 win over our dispirited team had meant a seventh title in succession for Brendan Rodgers side. Despite this, there was the calmness and confidence you would expect from someone who had played at the very top level. Perhaps as a result, there was something intriguingly different about this appointment compared to previous ones. At the very least, the new Rangers boss had played for – and captained – teams led by some of the best managers in the game. The capacity to lead does not always translate from the armband to the padded jacket but there was enough evidence in Gerrard’s playing career to indicate leadership, and the ability to motivate those around him were strengths. The expectation level was unchanged as always, but there was a new vibe; one of realistic hope, as opposed to hopeful optimism. In sport, as in life, thin margins separate those instincts.
The mutual respect between Gerrard and Rodgers, his former manager at Liverpool, was obvious from the beginning; a welcome shift away from the heated exchanges of the infamous McCoist/Lennon touchline spat. Gerrard dealt with the media inferences about his lack of managerial experience by welcoming the challenge. All experience must begin somewhere however the claustrophobic cauldron of Glaswegian football fanaticism is rarely one where beginners flourish, it was chronicled.
Any choice of manager is an unpredictable and risky undertaking. Logic suggests that to lower the risk, you need to substantially increase the expenditure. The same can be said of player acquisition of course but the fall-out for getting it wrong in the dug-out is far greater. And though some fans of the Old Firm would contest differently, the pulling power of both clubs is diminished. Sooner or later, and to different extents, all clubs face this dilemma. Although they have greater resources, Celtic are now heading into that cycle of root-and-branch rebuilding. It is interesting that they have also gone down the route of a manager largely unknown to those in Scotland. This, it seems likely, is the way of the future.
At the end of a disappointing first season in charge, few believed Gerrard would transform the club in the way that he has. The performances in Europe alone have been enough to merit the faith shown in him by Dave King. But the longer the club failed to win silverware, the greater the pressure from all sides grew. The Rangers board deserve credit for the backing Gerrard and his team after another fruitless end to his second season. It would have been easy for both to capitulate and part company during that summer. But there had been enough evidence of – yes, that word that had previously haunted us – progress to suspect that the coherent structure that had been put in place would translate to the pitch. A promising transfer window added further encouragement where Gerrard secured his prime targets early and strengthened the squad. Celtic, on the other hand appeared to delay, perhaps assuming their need to bolster a treble, treble-winning combination was far less pressing.
From the start of his third season in charge, there were several noticeable characteristics about Rangers. There was a clear strategy about the team’s formation. And it could adapt to the challenges of different opposition. Equally strong on both flanks, and resolute in defence, based on the consistent and redoubtable axis of Allan McGregor and Conor Goldson. Fast-moving inter-passing, and less reliant on Morelos alone for goals. In Michael Beale, Gerrard and Gary McAllister had a sound tactician, arguably the club’s unsung hero on its relentless march to the title. It was a successful formula that continued for the whole season, at home and abroad. Gerrard had finally assembled a squad that were organised, disciplined and great to watch.
Much has been made about Rangers not conceding any penalties or accumulating red cards during the campaign. This is obviously down to attitudes instilled by the manager. Contrast the Alfredo Morelos sent off twelve minutes into Gerrard’s first game in charge with the same player wrongly booked for diving at Livingstone in February of last year. The talking was being done on the pitch. Perhaps unrelated, but the confrontational club statements were also largely absent for much of the season. Bizarrely, a trip to Dubai that had holed us below the waterline last season did the same (but for different reasons) to Celtic during this. For such a monumentally significant season for both clubs, it was astonishing to see an almost complete role reversal of the previous one.
History will record these two past seasons similarly for fans of the Old Firm clubs. For both, it represented the end of nearly a decade of dominance; even if one bemoaned the loss, and the other anticipated the alternative. For the fans of other teams, the game did not collapse as foretold because Rangers were not in the top league. Some adjusted better than others. And in the last few years, St. Johnstone and Kilmarnock – and to a lesser extent, Motherwell – have prospered under stable management and, in the process, over-achieved. For the other clubs, 2020/21 will be recalled as the campaign where a much more impactful threat to the game’s future descended.
Even before the pandemic effect, it had been six months since I watched Rangers without the portal of satellite TV. But our football team of choice is often not entirely our choice at all. My Shettleston-based family were all Rangers supporters. I was born and indoctrinated early into the football supporter’s routine. Relatives of mine rarely missed a game at Ibrox yet travelled to Lisbon in 1967 because they genuinely believed it to be an astonishing achievement for any Scottish team. Any post-match guilt felt about that decision was assuaged in Barcelona in 1972.
My dad stopped going to football of any kind after the Ibrox disaster in 1971. He and his brother had been promising footballers, my uncle John even lining up against the legendary Torry Gillick while playing for Stranraer in a match at Ibrox. Yet he turned his back on the game they all loved. It just didn’t hold the same appeal or importance for him after being in the Rangers end that fateful January. I started going to Ibrox in his place the season after that with my grandfather and my uncle. I was seven years old. I vividly recall the atmosphere, the cartoonishly obscene language, the macaroon bars, the wee white wall surrounding the track around Ibrox. Floodlit midweek matches against exotic teams with unpronounceable names from faraway places. Cup matches and Cup finals. My first Old Firm match.
This league title – number 55, for those who stayed with the piece thus far – mattered more to me for that kid I once was than the man I am now. I can still be on the edge of my seat, or rather, sofa, but the game is different now. Television and money have changed it for the poorer, in my opinion. I can still get as energized in Rangers winning – and as downbeat in them losing – but these feelings are far more fleeting. Like my dad before me, the reality of other things being far more important kicks in about half an hour after the final whistle. Retaining an appropriate perspective is important. Twitter debates centred on perceived refereeing bias or who would benefit more from VAR hold little interest. As briefly entertaining as they can be, they are merely the time-stealing distractions of most social media discourse. I am not naïve enough to believe a football club – or a political party since support for each seems so similarly voiced these days – should be a mirror of my own values. But there is ambition in the Rangers Charity Foundation’s ‘Everyone Anyone’ initiative and I dearly wish that all Rangers fans would support it wholeheartedly. A major anniversary beckons. Irrespective of current form, there is much to celebrate.
If 2020 proved anything it is that predicting the future is a fool’s errand. Football clubs are in essential states of perpetual change just to survive. Often so slow as to be imperceptible, but changing, nonetheless. Celtic’s investment this summer, gamble though it may have been at the time, is paying off. It seems highly unlikely that either of the Old Firm will win the league by the margins of the last two seasons. The title may well go to the final days once again. Even imagining that would’ve been unthinkable back in 2014.
Steven Gerrard stayed four months longer than I thought he would, but as sure as night followed day, the inevitable lure of a bigger challenge became too difficult to resist. Giovanni van Bronckhorst isn’t long enough into his tenure to assess if there’s progression, or even a seamless handover, but Rangers under Gerrard (and the current board) were transformed. And for now, that’s a convenient enough interpretation for me.