The remarkable Rangers turnaround by James Tavernier - and how he's set for glory
When James Tavernier stepped forward to take the penalty kick which would put his team nine points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership on Sunday afternoon, there would not have been many Rangers supporters who even doubted for a second he would find the net.
It’s safe to say that their faith in Tavernier has seldom been stronger during his five-and-a-half years at the Ibrox club than it is right now. It’s certainly in the sharpest possible contrast to the far less positive view of the right-back which was prevalent among the Rangers fan base just eight months ago.
Those programme notes
Back in March, when the season was unravelling rapidly for Steven Gerrard’s squad after the winter break, Tavernier caused a furore with comments he made in his programme notes for the visit of Hamilton Accies on league business. It came just four days after Rangers had been bundled out of the Scottish Cup at the quarter-final stage by Hearts at Tynecastle.
“Whenever anybody puts a bit of pressure on us in Scotland or gets in our face it seems to affect us too much,” wrote Tavernier.
“At the start of the season teams dropped off us and we were scoring four or five goals but now they smell blood straight away and put us under pressure. We are not good enough domestically at the minute to react to that.”
A lot has changed
It was an honest and inarguable assessment of the situation Gerrard’s team found themselves in at the time. But for many Rangers fans, it was regarded as an unacceptable public admission of failure not befitting a captain of their club.
It didn’t help Tavernier’s cause that Rangers lost 1-0 to Hamilton that evening, effectively snuffing out their already fading prospects of catching Celtic in a title race which was subsequently curtailed by the coronavirus crisis after just one more round of fixtures.
But as Rangers’ await Hamilton’s first visit of this season to Ibrox next Sunday, no-one is questioning Tavernier’s status as skipper any longer. Since football’s return from lockdown, he has led by example in a start to the 2020-21 campaign which currently sees Rangers unbeaten after 18 games in all competitions. Tavernier, who celebrated his 29th birthday on Saturday, and central defender Connor Goldson have been the only ever-presents in Gerrard’s starting line-up throughout that sequence which has seen them record a remarkable 15 clean sheets so far.
If he could turn back time for one penalty ...
There is no doubt that Tavernier’s form slumped last season. Defensively, he was caught out on more than one occasion – including a mix-up which led to Oliver Bozanic scoring the only goal of that Scottish Cup exit against Hearts for which he accepted the blame in those notorious programme notes.
Even his normal deadliness from 12 yards had deserted him. He missed three penalties earlier in the campaign, prompting his temporary removal from the role. It was a decision which came back to haunt Rangers in the League Cup Final against Celtic at Hampden in December when Alfredo Morelos saw his penalty saved by Fraser Forster at a pivotal moment of a contest dominated by the Ibrox men but ultimately lost to the only goal of the game by Christopher Jullien.
If Tavernier could have that moment back now, he would probably grab the ball and place it on the spot – although Forster simply looked unbeatable that day. At the time, it was perhaps another indication of a loss of confidence which went hand in hand with his struggle to find the performance levels which had persuaded Gerrard to hand him the captain’s armband in the first place back in the summer of 2018.
Improvement and focus
But Tavernier clearly utilised the opportunity provided by lockdown to reset himself to full effect. His whole demeanour since the new season began has been that of a player ferociously focused on achieving success and lifting major silverware.
Defensively, he has been as sound as at any time since he joined Rangers from Wigan Athletic in 2015. His attacking prowess has never been in doubt and he has been highly effective in providing width and dynamism to Rangers’ play down the right flank as they have made such strong starts to both their Premiership and Europa League campaigns.
Tavernier’s goal in the 1-0 win over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park was his 10th of the season, putting him top of their scoring chart. He has scored four more than the club’s leading striker Morelos so far.
While six of his goals have been from the penalty spot, it is an exceptional tally for a defender at this stage of a campaign. His impressive numbers have been complemented by six assists as he plays just as crucial a role in bringing creativity to Rangers’ play as he does in helping achieve the defensive solidity underpinning what appears to be their most credible bid yet to end Celtic’s unprecedented run of domestic dominance in Scottish football.
Ready for silverware
There is an undeniable weight of responsibility which comes with the captaincy at Rangers. It has become even more pronounced in recent years as the club has recovered from the impact of its financial collapse in 2012. No Rangers captain has lifted a major trophy since Davie Weir held the Scottish Premier League silverware aloft back in May 2011.
The next man to get his hands on a trophy with red, white and blue ribbons attached to it will therefore secure a momentous entry in Rangers’ history. With every passing week, James Tavernier looks as if he is now ready to be that man.
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