Steven Gerrard’s most nerve-wracking experience of what turned out to be a memorable weekend for the Rangers manager wasn’t his team’s tumultuous Old Firm victory at Celtic on Sunday afternoon.
It was his breakfast meeting with an Ibrox icon at the club’s training ground the previous day which left Gerrard with butterflies in his stomach.
He has met Walter Smith several times since taking charge of Rangers but Gerrard still regards one of his most illustrious and successful predecessors with a degree of awe.
So when he was reminded that he has now become the first Rangers manager to claim a victory at Celtic Park since Smith’s last success there back in October 2010, Gerrard was quick to shut down any comparisons.
“Don’t mention me in the same breath as Walter Smith,” said an animated Gerrard. “Please, don’t mention me and Walter Smith.
“He is a legend to me. I had breakfast with Walter Smith on Saturday and I was as nervous as a kitten. I have got nothing but admiration and respect for the guy and I love it when he comes to see me. But don’t mention me in the same breath as Walter Smith, please.”
If Gerrard can maintain the current levels of progress and momentum he has brought to Rangers, however, he is certainly on course to restore the club the kind of trophy-winning status they last enjoyed under Smith prior to their financial collapse in 2012.
Amid all of the technical and tactical excellence Gerrard’s side produced in beating Celtic 2-1 to cut the gap at the top of the Premiership to two points, there was a steeliness about them which was reminiscent of some of Smith’s title-winning teams.
For Gerrard, instilling that kind of mental strength in his squad was a priority when he took charge in the summer of 2018.
“I have got characters in the squad now,” he said. “The team needed a spine, a lot of change, it needed big players who weren’t scared of the big occasion.
“It already had some here, to be fair, and it had a few that were coming towards the end of their careers that I wished were ten years younger, like your Kenny Millers.
“But there were a lot of changes that needed to happen, we had to virtually wipe it clean over two or three transfer windows. We are still not finished, we need to keep building, keep getting stronger, keep learning. But now I look at this team and it is different to the one that I inherited by a long way.
“Look, I respect opinions about mentality and it is not always going to be nice. That is football at the top. Celtic and Rangers get a lot of attention in the media, opinions are going to fly here, there and everywhere personally, they are going to fly to my players as a group.
“But I know my players, I work with them daily, and I have gone on this journey with them. I have got a lot of belief and confidence that if we keep doing the right things and show character like we did at Celtic Park and in the cup final, then our day will come.”
With the match and potentially a credible title challenge from Rangers in the balance when the sides were level at 1-1 at half-time on Sunday, Gerrard faced one of his most significant team talks yet of his fledgling managerial career.
“I just told them to go out and play the second 45 minutes and reward themselves for the last six months of hard work,” he said.
“I told them to go back to the first day of pre-season and think of how do you want to feel walking out of this stadium?
“Do you want to reward yourself for six months of real hard graft and get a result that the majority of the first half deserved? And that the previous 90 minutes against this team deserved. I think they went out and delivered.
“I was actually absolutely delighted with the majority of the first half. When you come to places like Celtic Park, it is important that you frustrate the crowd and the Celtic team and we had them exactly where we wanted them after 35 minutes.
“We were dominating and then obviously we concede a penalty and Allan McGregor does wonders to save that. Then we suffer an equaliser that came from us getting involved in a game that was up and down and that I didn’t really want.
“I said to them at half time that we don’t want to get involved in a game that is up and down because Celtic have got good players, got pace and got quality. I wanted us to reset and continue the game plan that allowed us to dominate for 35 minutes and in periods of the second half we did it again.
“Celtic are always going to have moments and they are always going to put crosses into your box and have shots. They are a good team, a successful team.”
Gerrard’s squad will head to Dubai for warm weather training during the winter break before resuming their campaign against Stranraer in the Scottish Cup on 17 January.
“The next step for us is to qualify in the Scottish Cup, it is to be professional and be ready to try and beat Stranraer and then St Mirren in our next league game.
“Last year, after a really positive derby win, for whatever reason, we never got the result we wanted in the first game back against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park and that was damaging. So we have to be ready come the beginning of the game against St Mirren, we need to go and fight and show character like we did at Celtic Park to go and get another three points.”