Having spent much of his career defying expectations with club and country, Gareth McAuley is now confronting the challenge of having to fulfil them on a weekly basis at Rangers.
It was a demand he and his team-mates could not meet on Wednesday night as the club’s return to the top of the league for the first time in seven years proved short-lived.
The 1-0 defeat to Aberdeen at Ibrox, the first home loss suffered under Steven Gerrard’s management, raised fresh doubts over whether the Rangers squad have the mental strength required for a sustained and successful title tilt.
Veteran defender McAuley admits playing for the club he supported as a boy is unlike any of his previous experiences, which include representing Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 and seven years in the English Premier League with West Bromwich Albion.
But he insists he is relishing the relentless scrutiny placed on Rangers and believes he has joined a group of players capable of coping with it.
“Second is nowhere at this club – that’s basically it,” said McAuley as he reflected on the midweek setback which saw Gerrard’s men slip back into second place in the Premiership table, one point behind surprise leaders Kilmarnock and ahead of third-placed Celtic on goals scored.
“It’s certainly different to clubs I’ve played at before. It’s intense but it’s enjoyable. It’s a great pressure.
“That demand to win, day in and day out, is what you should have as a footballer. Everyone here has the desire as a group to go and challenge (for the title).
“We need to make sure we win at Dundee on Sunday and win going forward. It’s a massive club and you have a massive responsibility on and off the pitch to make sure we win. We want to get back to the top of the league and stay there.”
It was an unhappy 39th birthday for McAuley on Wednesday as Scott McKenna’s seventh minute goal, which came from a set piece poorly defended by Rangers, proved enough to earn Aberdeen all three points.
As dismayed as he was by their performance, McAuley wasn’t convinced the defeat came as a consequence of Rangers failing to handle the pressure of going into the match as league leaders.
“I’m not sure about that,” he added. “It was the first time in a long time the club had been top of the league but we didn’t talk about that before the game. The focus was on winning game. We knew what Aberdeen were going to do and they did it very well.
“We started slow and got sucked into how they wanted to play, rather than how we wanted to play. We started getting frustrated. That played into their hands.
“They won a lot of free-kicks in the first half, put a lot of balls into the box and scored off one of them. We were disappointed we didn’t defend that better, although McKenna finished it well, to be fair.
“That’s disappointing for me personally and for the other defenders. That’s why we are looking at our own performance as our downfall. We were sitting in the dressing room looking at ourselves after the game. Our standards dropped individually and as a team. We let ourselves down all over the park from where we have been this season. That’s why we lost the game.”
While much of the focus on Rangers’ quest to restore themselves as a trophy-winning force in Scotland centres on Celtic’s current domestic dominance, McAuley has been impressed by the rest of the Premiership teams since he moved to Ibrox on a free transfer in the summer.
“From what I’ve seen so far, it’s a really competitive league,” he said. “It’s a tough league, it’s tight. We know we have work to do against all of the teams.
“Bubbling under the surface we have that desire to do the hard work. We’ll get back on the training pitch and hopefully put it right on Sunday.”