'Feet on the ground and focus' is consistent Rangers mindset message after Celtic triumph
Consistency has never been a term far from descriptions of Rangers’ journey this season.
Two-thirds of the regular campaign played, 22 games and 62 points out of a possible 66. Obstacles and hurdles overcome or overturned. The latest on Saturday, with city rivals Celtic defeated for a third consecutive Old Firm encounter despite a first-half onslaught.
But as the Ibrox juggernaut continues apace, with few signs of slowing, it’s Rangers themselves looking to put the brakes on title talk before the pursuit, which is gathering a weekly momentum, gets too carried away.
Steven Gerrard’s insistence on a one match at a time focus has been as consistent as his team’s results, and one repeated by midfielder Bongani Zungu and defender Leon Balogun in the wake of their latest, and most significant, three points. The talk of trophies is conspicuous by its absence with the long road ahead to May very much ‘on topic’.
“Before the game we were very focused, the gaffer told us we needed to continue our winning run,” said Zungu, a transfer deadline day loan recruit from Amiens. “We knew, of course, it was not going to be easy because Old Firm derbies are never easy games.
“Credit must go to everyone that we managed, in the end, to win the game.
“It’s a very big win for us. A massive win on what was an emotional day for everyone."
Zungu refers to the commemorations of the Ibrox disaster, a 50-year anniversary marked on Saturday. Wreaths were laid in the centre-circle pre-match by Celtic captain Calum McGregor, and Rangers’ James Tavernier in tribute to 66 supporters who died at the same fixture in 1971.
“That was the motivation for us, and it played a big part in our build up to the game.
“We spoke, of course, about the importance of winning the game but we also spoke about the history of this club and what happened 50 years ago.
“We knew we needed to do it for the people who lost their lives, we needed to do it for the fans.
“It would have been nice if the fans had been here with us, but I hope they were all celebrating at home.
“It was for them.”
What Rangers fans are focused on now, and what they envisage celebrating come the end of the season – at home or otherwise – is the league title.
Saturday was another significant step, on a day when Rangers were not at their best, in returning top-flight silverware to the Ibrox trophy room after a nine-year absence. But the Rangers staff are keen to keep their feet on the ground, and not get carried away, despite their growing chasm in the league standings.
“There is a lot of work still to be done and a lot of games still to be played,” said the South African. “From that point of view we need to keep our feet on the ground and focus immediately on the next game.
“We have told ourselves already that we need to start the New Year as if the league has just started. That has to be our starting point and our motivation for the second half of the season.
“In our minds we are back to zero points."
On the league table, though, they are not. Complacency could be Rangers’ biggest foe for the second half of the season with such a healthy points cushion over their rivals.
They’ll need as strong a mindset as they have a squad if they want to succeed in blanking out the present 19-point advantage as Zungu suggests, while maintaining the half that’s within their control. The midfielder is confident they can do it.
“People are rightly talking about how important our bench is this season,” said the South African, a substitute late in the second half. “We have quality but we also have a strong mentality. We are strong, we have a lot of quality, not just on the park but on the bench and in the squad. We have players who can contribute.
“We know we need to play for the badge, we know we need to represent the club and the supporters.
“People are pushing for places and if you are not performing on the pitch then the gaffer knows he has options that he can bring on.
“At the end of the day we know we didn’t perform to our best against Celtic but we got the three points and that’s all that matters,” said Zungu. “We now move on to the next game.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by his team-mate Leon Balogun. Alongside Allan McGregor and Connor Goldson, the defender withstood a Celtic onslaught that threatened to slow Rangers’ juggernaut, if not quite steer them off-course, before the home side’s second-half recovery and eventual win to extend the lead at the top to 19 points.
Balogun added: “In the first 45 minutes were weren’t as keen as we should have been but we can learn from that. Some of the last few games haven’t been fluid either so it’s a challenge to get back to our best as soon as possible.
“But I’m happy to have won because it was a big game, huge for us but then at the same time there’s nothing for us to get carried away with.
“This season is still long – although this was a big and important step for us to make.
“Complacency is a killer. We worked ourselves into a place where we deserved to get some luck but I don’t think that’s anything we should rely on.
“They also still have three games in hand. So that’s how we look at it - the gap is not as big as it looks right now.
“We are the challengers. So we have to prove in every game that we want it.”