Rangers, Champions League and new No.1: Why Allan McGregor's future is such a major issue for Ibrox club
Assuming their current serene trajectory towards a first league title in a decade does not dramatically veer off course in the coming weeks and months, Rangers will start next season just two ties away from a return to the group stage of the Champions League.
The financial impact of appearing in that phase of Europe’s elite tournament for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign cannot be overstated from the perspective of the Ibrox club as they continue their rebuild on and off the pitch.
Saturday’s 1-0 win over Celtic at Ibrox again underlined the huge influence one individual has had in the revival of their fortunes overseen by Steven Gerrard.
The Rangers manager described the signing of Allan McGregor in the summer of 2018 as ‘a no-brainer’ and the veteran goalkeeper’s second spell at the club has duly played an immense role in helping the former Liverpool and England captain restore a winning mentality to a previously weak-willed and dispirited dressing room environment.
It is why one of the issues uppermost in Gerrard’s mind when it comes to planning for a Champions League campaign will be whether McGregor remains part of his squad.
No certainty over new deal
He will celebrate his 39th birthday at the end of this month and is out of contract at the end of the season. So far, both Gerrard and his assistant Gary McAllister have been ambiguous in their responses when asked in recent weeks about the likelihood of McGregor signing a new deal.
The obstacle to agreeing a new contract will not be a financial one – Rangers fully appreciate McGregor’s continued value as a goalkeeper of exceptional and regularly match-winning quality, while he would certainly not be difficult to deal with if he decides to play on.
The dilemma potentially facing McGregor is a physical one as he makes an assessment of whether his body remains robust enough to meet the demands of performing to the high standards he sets for himself going into a season which would take him beyond his 40th birthday.
In March 2019, that was the reason McGregor decided to retire from international football. It came at a stage when he had firmly re-established himself as Scotland’s first choice goalkeeper – his wonder save to deny Tomer Hemed in the closing stages of the 3-2 Nations League win over Israel at Hampden in November 2018 clinched the Euro 2020 play-off spot which provided the route for his country to reach a first major tournament finals since 1998.
"This decision was an extremely hard one for me to make," said McGregor at the time.
"It's a sad day for me to bring an end to my international career, but unfortunately I feel it is a decision I have to make.
"I am playing over 50 games each season, but I know my body and at this stage of my career I need to use the international breaks to rest up to help ensure that I play at the top level for as long as possible."
Major concern for Rangers fans
For Rangers supporters, many of whom now regard McGregor on a par with Andy Goram, whom they voted the club’s greatest ever goalkeeper in a 1999 poll, there will be genuine anxiety over the prospect of the man whose brilliance defied Celtic at the weekend opting to hang up his boots this summer.
They will hope that the lure of Champions League football can tempt McGregor to carry on for at least one more season.
Even in the unlikely scenario that they surrender their current 19-point lead at the top of the Premiership, Rangers can look forward to a tilt at the Champions League as Scotland’s improved UEFA coefficient ranking will see both the title winners and runners-up entering in the qualifying rounds.
Rangers’ outstanding form in the Europa League under Gerrard, reaching the group stage in each of his three seasons in charge and losing just five of the 41 games played so far, has been the major factor in that revival in Scotland’s standing.
McGregor has kept 19 clean sheets during the Europa League campaigns under Gerrard, which continue with a last 32 tie against Royal Antwerp next month, and this season set a new all-time European appearance record for Rangers when his 83rd game against Standard Liege last month took him beyond the previous mark set by his former team-mate and captain Barry Ferguson.
For Rangers, finding a goalkeeper of similar quality to McGregor, one who is capable of performing consistently well at European level and delivering the kind of breathtaking saves which can prove decisive in making progress to the group stage and beyond, would be no easy task.
Is McLaughlin capable of filling big shoes?
Last summer, Jon McLaughlin was recruited on a free transfer from Sunderland as back-up to McGregor. The 33-year-old former Hearts goalkeeper has performed admirably whenever called upon so far, keeping 10 clean sheets in his 11 appearances so far.
When McGregor was sidelined by a knee injury back in August, McLaughlin played his part in the Rangers defence setting a new shut-out record at the start of a top flight Scottish league season.
But while he is a Scotland international and current member of Steve Clarke’s squad, McLaughlin lacks experience at the highest level. He only made his European debut last month in the dead rubber Europa League Group D win over Lech Poznan in Poland.
If McGregor doesn’t stick around, Rangers would certainly need to source a goalkeeper of proven European pedigree to contest the number one position with McLaughlin.
For McGregor, helping Rangers end their long wait for a 55th league title may well feel like the perfect swansong for his playing career. But if the competitive fires which have long burned so fiercely inside him can be stoked again, he remains capable of being a star performer on the Champions League stage for Rangers.
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