Steven Gerrard staying humble as he looks to steer Rangers clear of the January blues
For Steven Gerrard, the warm afterglow of a festive Old Firm victory was all too quickly replaced by the chill factor of a bitter and costly defeat in his first two seasons as Rangers manager.
As he prepares to lead his squad north this weekend for their meeting with Aberdeen at Pittodrie, Gerrard looks to be far better insulated against the threat of suffering a third consecutive dose of the January blues.
But the painful memories of setbacks at Rugby Park and Tynecastle in the first month of 2019 and 2020 respectively will underscore Gerrard’s determination to ensure not even a sliver of complacency creeps into the mindset of his players in 2021.
Keeping a lid on it
The relatively subdued reaction from Gerrard when the final whistle blew on Rangers’ 1-0 win over Celtic at Ibrox last Saturday was an indication of a lesson learned from the former Liverpool and England captain’s perspective as he continues to evolve and develop in his first managerial role.
It was in the sharpest possible contrast to the almost frenzied roar of jubilation he directed straight down the lens of a Sky Sports cameraman as he savoured the 2-1 win at Celtic Park 12 months earlier.
If those celebrations proved premature, it would have been difficult to begrudge Gerrard an effusive show of emotion this time around as Rangers opened up a 19-point lead at the top of the Premiership table which has left them priced as short as 1/33 by bookmakers to go on and win their first title in a decade.
But for those who have observed Gerrard closely since the start of this season, his downbeat reaction came as no great surprise.
The 40-year-old has consistently preached a mantra of humility throughout a league campaign which, thus far, has been close to flawless. That wasn’t about to change, regardless of how significant his latest Old Firm victory unquestionably felt.
Protecting his players
“We haven’t shown in previous years that we can go the distance,” reflected Gerrard. “So the challenge for us is to stay humble and hungry.
“I’d be a liar if I said we are not going to be aware of (people outside thinking the title race is over). Prior to this game, we were aware of the noise.
“But it’s my job to protect my players and we are not going to gain anything or get an advantage by listening to the noise and getting involved in playing to it.
“We need to keep a tight-knit group and keep doing the right things. We know it’s going to be tough. Teams are going to keep trying to beat us. But we need to just keep being ourselves.
“Everything we have done this season has got us into this position and we need to keep fighting to remain there.”
The cautionary tales of the post-New Year slumps suffered by Rangers during his first two tilts at the title make Gerrard’s approach understandable. Yet it’s equally clear that the situation he finds himself in this season is barely comparable to those ultimately anti-climactic bids to dethrone Celtic.
When Ryan Jack scored the only goal of the Old Firm showdown at Ibrox at the end of December 2018, it left Rangers level on points with Celtic at the top of the Premiership table after playing 21 matches. But the champions were still ahead on goal difference and had the added comfort of a game in hand.
Momentum and opportunity were with Rangers at that stage but they dissipated on their return to action in January after a winter break training camp in Tenerife. After Jermain Defoe gave them an early lead against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park, Rangers were quickly pegged back by Eamonn Brophy’s equaliser before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat courtesy of a second half goal from Jordan Jones, a player whose pre-contract move to Ibrox had been confirmed in the build-up to the match.
Although Rangers’ subsequent form in the Premiership was solid enough, losing just twice more in the rest of the season to finish nine points behind Celtic, that evening in South Ayrshire was without doubt when they surrendered whatever initiative they had worked so hard to secure in the title race.
A similar scenario unfolded in the aftermath of that 2-1 win at Celtic Park in December 2019 when goals from Ryan Kent and Nikola Katic sparked Gerrard’s outpouring of delight and fuelled belief among Rangers fans that this was the signal title number 55 was about to be delivered.
That result left Rangers two points behind Celtic at the top of the table after playing 19 matches but with the notional advantage of a game in hand. It was in their second league match after a warm weather training trip to Dubai, against a struggling Hearts side at Tynecastle, that they were shunted off course as Kent’s opener was cancelled out by Steven Naismith before Liam Boyce grabbed a late winner for the hosts.
The form of Gerrard’s team never really recovered from that blow and they were 13 points behind Celtic, with a game in hand, when the season was curtailed in March by the coronavirus crisis.
This year, Rangers find themselves with a margin for error in the second half of the season which could scarcely have been imagined back in August. Even allowing for Celtic winning their three games in hand, Gerrard’s team has a notional lead of 10 points over their great rivals and a significantly superior goal difference with 16 matches left to play.
With the trip to Pittodrie followed by other potentially hazardous away fixtures at Motherwell and Hibs this month, either side of a home game against Ross County, another January mishap for Rangers cannot be ruled out.
But thanks to the remarkable consistency and mental strength they have shown so far, the consequences of any slip-up should not be so severe.
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