Gerrard is rising to the challenge as Rangers go 16 points clear
Steven Gerrard is rising to the challenge of working in a pressure cooker as Rangers go 16 points clear of rivals Celtic at the top of the table
- Steven Gerrard is making a major impact with his Rangers side 16 points clear
- Celtic have three games in hand, meaning Rangers cannot rest on their laurels
- Gerrard stressed the importance of not getting carried away in quest for glory
It should not have been possible in an empty stadium, but as the clock ticked down relentlessly, you could feel it everywhere: tension.
Rangers have made a breathtaking start to the Scottish Premiership season, but on Saturday afternoon, as they unexpectedly trailed Motherwell at Ibrox, you knew that nerves across one half of this febrile city would be fraying.
You could see the expectation of fans written all over the face of Steven Gerrard, the manager who is carrying their hopes.
Steven Gerrard has risen to the challenge at Rangers, with his side 16 points clear at the top
He scowled at misplaced passes, spun on his heel when attacks broke down. It was so intense, it felt like all those wins and clean sheets that had been racked up stood for nothing.
Then, in the 73rd minute, a melee in the penalty area saw Kemar Roofe thrash in from close range, before Swiss forward Cedric Itten, one of three game-changing substitutes, pounced in the 82nd minute. Roofe struck again in stoppage time to complete the turnaround. Gerrard, an open book on the touchline, roared in delight.
Rangers will be top on Christmas Day, regardless of what happens at St Johnstone on Wednesday. The advantage over Celtic is 16 points, though the team chasing their 10th consecutive title have three games in hand and it is widely assumed they will win them all to cut the deficit to seven.
It explains the tension. Some may sniff at the standard of football in Scotland but the scrutiny Gerrard is under — and the expectation that has been placed on him — would not be greater if he had a job in the Premier League.
Rangers showed great spirit to overcome Motherwell but Gerrard knows there is more to do
‘You definitely feel they are craving success,’ he told Sportsmail. ‘I wouldn’t call it desperation. I’m not sure it’s the right word. This club has been built on these supporters and the supporters have stuck with the club through some really low moments.
‘It is very understandable where the fans are and what they demand. It’s my job to try to deliver it. At this moment in time, I’ve got to stay on the inside and I have to protect this group, keep taking it game by game.
‘We can’t get involved in the noise and the emotion.’ Yet this has been an incredibly emotional time for the 40-year-old.
The sudden death of Gerrard’s mentor, Gerard Houllier, last Monday cast a long shadow and changed the whole dynamic of a week that had started with a 2-1 win at Dundee United.
This, effectively, was a death in his family.
The sudden death of former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier changed the whole dynamic of the week for Gerrard
‘I came into work on Monday morning in a fantastic mood, as you do after a win, but I was then pulled to one side by Dr Waller and he told me the news,’ said Gerrard, his tone lowering. ‘It was just gut-wrenching, such unexpected and shocking news.
‘Gerard had a massive influence on me. He went out of the way to help me understand what you need to do in your life to be successful, how you live your life. But he was just always there for me. I’ve got my mum and dad and family who are blood-related, but he has always been there.
‘He went out of his way to help in any way that he could. He’d ring me up, tell me things that he thought I could do different. He’d praise me, tell me he was proud of me. In a nutshell, he was always there for me. That’s not there now and it’s tough to get my head around. It’s all so raw.’
It will continue to be for some time. Football will, however, provide a distraction and certainly Houllier would have taken pride on Saturday at the tactical alterations Gerrard made to secure Rangers’ 18th league win in 20 games.
Gerrard praised Joe Aribo, whose introduction provided Rangers with added dynamism
He spoke enthusiastically about Joe Aribo, the Nigeria forward whose introduction provided Rangers with dynamism, and Itten, signed from St Gallen in August. A sign of good managers is helping players to improve and this pair are developing, as is captain and right back James Tavernier.
The biggest challenge for a manager, nonetheless, is to oversee success and Gerrard knows what is expected. He played for a club who were fixated on becoming domestic champions and you suspect that Liverpool education will be crucial in 2021 as he tries to deliver Scotland’s ultimate prize.
‘I have to be as balanced as I can be,’ said Gerrard.
‘I have given everything I have got to this role. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices, but that doesn’t mean everything is going to be plain sailing and rosy.
‘It’s important when we get big wins that I don’t get carried away or get too low when we suffer a setback. The focus is the next game and the next challenge. It can’t be anything else.’
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