Steven Gerrard may forever have a special place in Rangers’ history for the club’s runaway title success this season that rubbled Celtic’s expected construction of a 10 straight titles record. Yet, now Gerrard must scratch an 11-year itch in the Scotish Cup for the Ibrox club – which, first off, demands progress at home to St Johnstone in the quarter-final this weekend – to avoid the sort of questions that would get under his skin about his team’s end to the season.
McLeish, it is too readily forgotten, effectively won the first five trophies within his grasp subsequent to taking over at the Ibrox helm in December 2001 … with Celtic then galloping towards a second successive title in holding a 12-point advantage. He is responsible for the last treble won by a Rangers manager, which he delivered in the 2002-03 season against the strongest Celtic team over the past 40 years. And McLeish is in no doubt it was the 3-2 triumph over Martin O’Neill’s men in the 2002 Scottish Cup final, which came two months after he had led the Ibrox men to League Cup success, that allowed him to confound expectations over his appointment as successor to Dick Advocaat.
“You know when you go to one of the Old Firm clubs that you have to win trophies,” said McLeish, with the accent on “trophies” plural. “On my first day in the job I was asked by the press how I felt about the underwhelming welcome from the Rangers fans. Dick Advocaat had been a foreign coach so there was maybe a tendency to believe that the club would only go down that road. But my answer was that it was up to me to prove to fans that I was right for the job.
“And of course, the Scottish Cup final that season was an epic game. It was one of the greatest memories of my career. Winning it that day against Celtic was genuinely one of the best days of my football life. I saw what it meant to the fans. That's what turns coaches and managers on. That they can please the fans so much by winning trophies, or giving great performances.
“There's an expectancy at certain clubs to win trophies, and that will never stop at Rangers or Celtic. It's always a case of ‘on to the next one’. As soon as you win one, it's a case of moving on to the next. Because there's an expectation level that you have to keep doing it. It's a high pressure game, a high pressure club. Even if you win the league, there's still disappointment when you lose in the cup. Steven Gerrard comes from a club [in Liverpool] where there's that expectation to win trophies. When you win one, you then have to try to win the next one. That expectation will always be there at Rangers while they're dominating the game up here in Scotland.”
Expectations over what will come next for Rangers will rise exponentially. Their support believe that, with Celtic’s hold over the Scottish game well and truly broken, their club will now go on to enjoy a grip on it commensurate with the 19-trophy era enjoyed by their bitter rivals in the past decade. Beyond that, they see the potential for Rangers getting their feet under the top table in Europe again.
The continental exploits of Gerrard’s side have helped ensure Rangers will require to negotiate only two qualifying rounds to make their first appearance in the Champions League since 2011. Yet, the reality is that the Scottish champions are largely unwanted in such an environment.
The spectacularly botched bid this week to create a European Super League may have rapidly dissolved in the face of implacable supporter opposition over the profit-driven protectionism that underpinned the proposed breakaway. It may also have brought monumental embarrassment for the so-called ‘big six’ in England of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur that chased a more lucrative alternative to the current UEFA cross-border competitions. However, the ESL collapse should not blind to the fact that the tensions between the have and have nots are real and permanent. It can be no other way when the champions from a host of smaller nations are given limited access to the blue riband tournament through having to scrap across a qualification process for the handful of slots available. So much so it is eminently possible that McLeish could remain the only Rangers manager to take the club beyond the Champions League group stages - which he did by progressing to the last 16 in 2005-06.
“I do think it is becoming increasingly impossible looking,” he said “We know that sometimes you could get to that level but the smart money is on Rangers and Celtic not making it to those stages any more because of the financial weight of other clubs and their ability to sign the very top players.
“The pyramid [in this context] is being demolished. It is really irritating for a lot of the smaller countries that they don't automatically get into the Champions League. The Scottish league is compared to their neighbours over the border, which is the richest league in the world now. To think that we used to have real close clashes. The Champions League has become so mega in terms of the real top clubs and when they do play against the teams from the smaller nations you tend to see some big scores, but also you do still see a shock or two. It's becoming elitist and for some countries not to be in the top tournaments, it's hard to accept that but that is the power of money, and the big clubs. And that’s what the super league was all about.”