Should Rangers fans be worried about Steven Gerrard leaving?
Background image: Gregor Smith, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Brendan Rodgers set Scottish football alight in his first season as Celtic manager, leading the Bhoys to an undefeated record and domestic treble. Glaswegians whose favourite colour was green instantly began referring to their side as the Invincibles. Down south, Arsenal remained the genuine article for their dominance of the 2003/04 Premier League campaign. Rodgers’ feat initially did less to restore faith in his managerial skills following his underwhelming time with Liverpool than to highlight the growing disparity in quality between the Scottish and English top flights.
The Northern Irishman eventually redeemed himself in the eyes of Premier League aficionados, extending Celtic’s unbeaten run to a record 69 games and winning seven consecutive trophies in his two-plus campaigns at Parkhead. He left the club for Leicester in February 2019 with the Hoops nine points beyond the chasing pack.
His fellow Northern Irishman and predecessor once removed, the irascible Neil Lennon, returned to complete the season, Celtic’s eighth consecutive as Scottish champions. The fiery ginger then wedged another SPL trophy into a crowded cabinet before a genuine Liverpool legend cut his legs out from under, denying Lennon the place in history a tenth title on the trot would have assured him.
With no previous managerial experience, Steven Gerrard needed time to build up to that undefeated campaign. Still, he signed on as Rangers boss for the 2018/19 season and immediately gave the blue side of Glasgow an emotional boost.
Following Gers’ return to the top flight in 2016/17, after being forced to claw their way back up from the fourth tier in the wake of administration, bankruptcy, liquidation and reformation, the side finished its first two seasons in third, with Derek McGinnes’ Aberdeen barring them from challenging Celtic in the table.
Gerrard and his squad immediately shouldered McGinnes and the Dons aside, finishing the Liverpudlian’s debut campaign as runners up, nine points behind the Hoops. His sophomore season was cut short by COVID at 30 games, with the Light Blues 13 points adrift of Lennon’s title winners.
From there, however, Stevie G and Rangers began measuring the gap between Old Firm sides from the opposite perspective. The club’s 55th league title was assured ridiculously early on 7 March when the Bhoys stumbled to a 0-0 draw with Dundee United at Tannadice Park. Gers’ 3-0 victory over St Mirren 24 hours earlier had started the doomsday clock ticking when Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos scored on 14 and 16 minutes with Ianis Hagi sealing the deal 120 seconds after the interval.
When the Celtic Park braintrust revealed financial losses in the millions for the 2019/2 campaign, it was probably the first harbinger of doom for the club’s anticipated milestone decade of league titles. Those who view football through blue-tinted spectacles may tell you Rangers, having come through administration and learned their lesson, were better prepared for the pandemic than their overconfident nemesis whereas those whose eyewear features green lenses might counter that their age-old rivals had a decapitated, plucked chicken in a Wuhan market to thank for their success in the 2020/21 campaign. Either way, Gers and their Scouse icon stand two matches from duplicating Brendan Rodgers and Celtic’s unbeaten Premiership season following a resounding 4-1 triumph in the campaign’s final Old Firm fixture on Sunday at Ibrox. Callum MacGregor’s second rash tackle in less than a half-hour couldn’t prevent Kemar Roof’s opener but it did earn him the second yellow and subsequent sending off that opened the floodgates.
Again, Celtic fans will argue that the upstarts' failures in the Scottish Cup and League Cup make the Teddy Bears slightly more vincible, assuming they deliver the required results against Livingstone in a week's time and Aberdeen on the following Saturday. Twelve days between matches could erode the side's focus.However, the more pressing question for Ibrox denizens might be whether their manager will complete his contract.
The same question was asked of Brendan Rodgers almost immediately after he completed his Invincible season. He deflected it repeatedly, claiming ahead of the ‘18/19 campaign that he’d “found happiness” at Celtic Park. In February, he left happiness behind for Leicester City.
Despite his achievements in Glasgow, however, Rangers supporters know Steven Gerrard’s heart and therefore his happiness lies in Liverpool. Their beloved boss hasn’t yet been spurned by English footbal. With that in mind, they can hold no desperate hope that he has no desire to return.
Further, like Rodgers, opportunity may be knocking even as Gerrard's fortunes rise. Jurgen Klopp endures his worst season at Anfield since replacing Rodgers nine games into the 2015/16 season.
The Reds finished eighth in the German’s debut campaign, on 60 points. From there they climbed the table in a progressive fashion, finishing fourth in the next two sessions, second in 2018/19 [with a Champions League trophy thrown in] and, finally, winning their 19th English top flight title in 2019/20. This term, Liverpool sit seventh on 54 points, seven behind Chelsea for the final Champions League qualification place, assuming Arsenal don’t win the Europa League while Chelsea take the Champions League after falling to fifth. To use a metaphor that, appropriately enough, was once used in Glasgow, that would open a whole different can of worms.
Regardless, in his sixth year in charge at Anfield, Liverpool’s manager has hit the proverbial brick wall. In all fairness, the situation isn’t as dire as his final season at Borussia Dortmund, when der BVB flirted with relegation during the campaign’s first half. The comparative lack of alarm would explain why the German hasn’t announced his resignation at season’s end as he did in 2014/15.
Whether or not Klopp thinks his Anfield legacy is incomplete, Gerrard has taken Rangers as far as he can. They are unlikely to finish 23 points above Celtic on an annual basis or go undefeated for that matter. He could win a domestic cup or two but multiple trophies wouldn’t eclipse his accomplishment in this campaign. Nor can he expect to do much in Europe. Rangers don’t possess the financial clout and aren’t tested sufficiently in domestic competition to develop the required steel. If you believe in the old vaudeville maxim of leaving the audience wanting more, it's as good a time as any for the manager to seek a new project.
On the other hand, you can see why some observers compare his potential LFC appointment to Frank Lampard’s premature, ill-fated tenure with Chelsea. The Blues legend returned to Stamford Bridge on the back of one successful season in the Championship, steering Derby County into the Championship playoffs. Ultimately, he fell to the infinitely more experienced Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United. Would jumping from the Scottish Premiership to the English Premier League prove just as calamitous to Gerrard?
Liverpool legends Mark Lawrenson and Ian Rush believe it would. So does Celtic hero Charlie Nicholas, who you would think would be eager to see the back of the man who finally broke his club’s iron grip on Scottish football.
The man himself recently gave an interview in which he put off speculation albeit not by claiming he was unprepared. Rather, in an interview with Peter A Smith, the former Reds and England captain argued that the Kop still had enormous faith, as did he, in Jurgen Klopp.
That isn’t to say that Fenway Sports Group, in their infinite wisdom, see things differently. After all, they did jump into the European Super League mud puddle with both feet and joyous enthusiasm.
Of course fan reaction to that decision may cause the Americans to think twice before making any further moves of such significance with equal abandon.
On the other hand, if Klopp can’t procure European football and/or a result in the postponed match with hated rivals Manchester United in the campaign’s final days, it’s possible they’ll be tempted to reassert their authority over the club by dismissing the German and bringing in a club legend to replace him. Further, if fans view Gerrard’s appointment as a fait accompli after the German’s sacking, they would be less likely to storm the battlements and stage a similar invasion of Anfield as occurred at Old Trafford earlier in the week. He could credibly insist he wasn’t seeking the job but felt obligated to step in once the man he deeply respected was no longer in the picture.
Football is, after all, a what have you done for me lately business and, at the moment, Steven Gerrard is doing a lot more for his club than Jurgen Klopp.