Steven Gerrard waxes lyrical about 'absolute mountain' in his Rangers team

Steven Gerrard briefly draws breath as he admits he struggles to find the words which can fully express his admiration for Connor Goldson.

Connor Goldson leaps highest to beat Antwerp striker Felipe Avenatti to the ball during Rangers' Europa League thriller in Belgium on Thursday night. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Connor Goldson leaps highest to beat Antwerp striker Felipe Avenatti to the ball during Rangers' Europa League thriller in Belgium on Thursday night. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

But the Rangers manager, never at a loss for an eye-catching metaphor for too long, is soon in full flow as he assesses the impact his ultra-reliable central defender has had on the side he has built at Ibrox.

“Connor has been an absolute mountain for this team, a warrior,” says Gerrard. “I can’t describe to you how well he has done for this team, not just in terms of what you have seen on the pitch but also his leadership on the inside of the club and his availability every single day.”

Perfect attendance

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard has described defender Connor Goldson as a 'proper leader' as he maintains his 100 percent appearance record this season. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

This season, as Rangers have relentlessly pushed towards a first title win for a decade, it hasn’t just been every single day that Gerrard has been able to count on Goldson - more like every single second.

The 28-year-old has played every minute of the 41 games Rangers have played domestically and in the Europa League so far. That’s 3690 minutes and counting - more club football than any other top flight player in European football has racked up in the 2020-21 campaign.

While their normal standards slipped with the manner of the goals they conceded in the stunning 4-3 Europa League win at Royal Antwerp on Thursday night, Goldson has underpinned a defensive set-up which will attempt to keep a 29th clean sheet of the season against Dundee United at Ibrox on Sunday afternoon.

“He has had a lot of stick over the years, wrongly in my opinion, but he has continued to improve and strive to improve from a personal point of view,” adds Gerrard.

Borna Barisic, Connor Goldson and Filip Helander greet the final whistle in Antwerp after Rangers' dramatic 4-3 win in the first leg of their Europa League last 32 tie. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

“He has been one of our most consistent players. I wasn’t too happy with the back line in Antwerp and they will find that out in the coming days but if you look at the big picture, Connor Goldson has been absolutely immense.

“It’s about standards with Connor, his own and pushing other people to improve their standards. Connor is a proper leader and I am made up for him.”

Gerrard urges caution

Rangers are firm favourites to press home their advantage in the second leg of their tie against Antwerp at Ibrox next Thursday and reach the last 16 of the Europa League for the second successive season.

It has raised expectations among their supporters of a potential run to the latter stages of the tournament but Gerrard sounds a cautionary note.

“In years to come we may be a team capable of competing at that stage in Europe but we have to be careful we don’t look too far ahead,” he said.

“From the inside, we understand that the supporters can get excited but we have to be realistic about where we are and what’s in front of us.

“There’s still a big challenge on Thursday - Antwerp will have players returning from injury and they will be stronger.

“But we have put ourselves in a really strong position to go and finish the job off. I would love nothing better than to improve on last year, try to go a step further.

“There is no harm in aiming as high as you can and trying to get the best out of this group of players and taking them as far as we can. But we don’t want to make any targets or say unrealistic things.

“We believe that on our day we are a good match for the majority of teams, certainly at Europa League level.

“Last year, it was only against Bayer Leverkusen in the last 16 where I felt there was a big gap in the quality of the sides, but I think that was natural when you think about the amount of money they have spent on their squad.

“The domestic league is the bread and butter at this football club but Europe is so, so important. It’s never ever been a case of me picking and choosing what we want to do well in.

“I would love to have a domestic cup on the CV, of course I would, but financially this club doesn’t function how we want it to without European funds. So that goes to show how important it is.”

The coefficient battle with Ukraine

The financial incentives will multiply significantly for Rangers if they can return to the Champions League group stage over the course of the next few seasons.

Their current Europa League run has an intriguing subplot in that regard with Scotland currently holding a narrow lead over Ukraine in the UEFA coefficient rankings for a potential automatic place for the country’s domestic title winners in the group stage of the 2022-23 Champions League.

Rangers need to try and outperform either or both of Ukraine’s two remaining teams in this season’s Europa League - Shakhtar Donetsk, who won 2-0 at Maccabi Tel Aviv on Thursday and Dynamo Kiev who drew 1-1 at home to Bruges.

“That is something we are trying to work on,” said Gerrard. “It’s tough, because we are fighting with two other teams at the moment.

“It’s a case of just seeing where we can take it. We want to win our second leg next Thursday, it’s not a case of trying to just scrape over the line.

“We want another positive win. We are aware of the coefficient and we want to do our best for the country and for ourselves.

‘But the most important thing for me is results and we need to keep trying to get those rather than worry about coefficients. That will take care of itself.”

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