With Celtic facing a major rebuild in the summer and Steven Gerrard talking up Rangers’ progress a year into his tenure, is the Old Firm balance of power about to change?
In the world of Old Firm conflict, short-term triumphalism often holds sway over any wider sense of perspective. The unrestrained jubilation of the Rangers supporters at Ibrox on Sunday was testament to that. Seldom can they have marked the final home game of a trophyless season with such rapturous acclaim of their team. The buoyant response to a commanding performance and victory from Steven Gerrard’s players, whose superiority over Celtic on the day was barely reflected in the 2-0 scoreline, underlined a growing belief among Rangers fans that the balance of power in Scottish football can finally tip back in their favour.
It is certainly a curious state of affairs that Celtic supporters, who could witness the completion of an astonishing treble treble of domestic trophies in 11 days’ time, are suddenly displaying greater anxiety about the direction of their club this summer.
As interim manager Neil Lennon has now made clear more than once, a major squad rebuild is required by the champions, irrespective of who is handed the job on a permanent basis after the Scottish Cup Final against Hearts.
Sunday’s insipid and rudderless display in the final Old Firm showdown of the campaign, while having no bearing on the eight-in-a-row champions’ relentless pursuit of silverware, has hardened the views of many Celtic fans that Lennon’s second stint as manager should not be extended.
While major shareholder Dermot Desmond and chief executive Peter Lawwell have a big call to make on that front, they will do so mindful of a potential challenge from Rangers which is far stronger and more credible than at any time since their financial collapse seven years ago.
There was more than an element of risk for Rangers in appointing Gerrard last summer and, by his own admission, the 38-year-old has made mistakes in his first year in management. The former Liverpool captain will surely nurse a sense of frustration at what could have been achieved this season but is entitled to take encouragement from the level of progress made.
It remains to be seen whether the consistent high quality of his team’s performances in recent weeks, produced in a period when the pressure was effectively removed from their shoulders, can be delivered when it really counts over the course of a 2019-20 campaign which will be dominated by the narrative of Celtic’s bid for nine-in-a-row.
“We have made some progress and we have improved,” reflected Gerrard in an extensive interview with the Rangers matchday programme.
“I’m satisfied at the moment but at the same time I’m disappointed that we haven’t rewarded the supporters with a trophy. So from the trophy side of it, we fell short and we have to be honest and open about that and analyse it. But in terms of where the team and the squad is now, 12 months in, I’m actually quietly pleased. When I came in I was hopeful, now I’m confident and really looking forward to producing.
“Next year with better players, a stronger eleven and a stronger squad and less changes, with people knowing what we are trying to do and not everything’s new, I’m hoping it’s a bit more seamless.”
Rangers have already tied up the pre-contract signings of Kilmarnock winger Jordan Jones and Motherwell forward Jake Hastie, while Gerrard’s recruitment strategy may also be determined by whether the club receive offers they can’t refuse for prize assets such as Alfredo Morelos and Scott Arfield.
“I don’t think it will be like last summer,” added the Rangers boss. “Obviously we felt we needed big changes in different areas and we wanted to freshen it up with a lot of newness, because we felt it was broken and fractured in certain areas as a club.
“There was a lot of negativity around, so that was the reason we made a lot of changes there. We feel as though we have a decent squad here and a good team but to get to the next level now, we feel it’s about having quality.
“At this moment we can only strike for the frees that are maybe out there, for the pre-contracts which we’ve done. When the window opens we want to go and strike for the areas of the pitch where we feel we need real quality to take us to the next level.
“You obviously want to make the team strong and successful as quickly as you can. But you’ve also got to look for the deals out there that will help your squad be stronger and also maybe players who are going to help the club for many years. When those players become available, you’ve got to strike.
“Jordan and Jake give us more options in the final third. They give us pace and they give us power. They can both create and they can both score.
“At times, and in important times in the season, when I’ve looked to change things or bring people off the bench, we’ve lacked a little bit of quality in the final third. So that’s the idea and the reason behind it. They are two players with big potential who will come here and hopefully fulfil it.”