A Scottish Cup fourth round tie at home to part-time opponents who are currently seven points adrift at the bottom of League 1 appears to offer Rangers boss Steven Gerrard the ideal opportunity to hand one of his most promising young talents a competitive first team debut.
But while highly-rated right-back Nathan Patterson is in contention to make his Ibrox bow against Stranraer tonight, Gerrard insists he will make that decision based on merit rather than circumstance.
The absence of captain James Tavernier who is set to be sidelined for two weeks after minor surgery on his appendix, has created the vacancy in Gerrard’s side which could be filled by 18-year-old Patterson.
The former Liverpool youth boss is keen to promote academy players as soon as he can, especially homegrown Scottish prospects with whom the club’s supporters can identify.
While success and silverware in the short term is Gerrard’s priority, he rails against the suggestion that those demands inevitably limit the chances of first team progression for younger players.
“I hear that on a regular basis, that the pathway is blocked for academy players,” he said.
“That’s not the case at Rangers. If I find an academy kid who is better than someone I have bought, then the kid will play on a regular basis.
“There is no preference for players who have been here a long time or who came with a signing-on fee or big transfer fee around them.
“If the academy kid is consistently better, he will play – it’s as simple as that,” added Gerrard. “As well as bringing success back to Rangers, it is my responsibility to bring local players through as well.
“Our fans are very similar to Liverpool in that they like to see someone local represent them and the badge on the pitch, because you get that instant connection.
“But they have to be good enough. There can’t be any sentiment or just ticking an academy box, because when you are in my shoes, you have got to win football matches.”
Gerrard himself was a product of Liverpool’s academy, going on to become one of their most iconic players, but it is the example of his close friend and former team-mate Jamie Carragher he points to when laying out what is required to come through the ranks and then sustain a lengthy and successful professional career.
“Jamie got his opportunity as a teenager and proved he was better than the Liverpool defenders who were in the team at the time,” added Gerrard. “Yes, he had talent, but Jamie’s strength was his heart, head, desire and sacrifice on a daily basis to make sure he stayed in the team.
“He was probably the most mentally strong player I ever played with. If it was just about talent, Jamie would maybe have played a dozen games for Liverpool. But he put everything around his talent that you need to be a professional and stay at the top. He became one of the best defenders in Europe because he had the strongest heart and mentality.
“Talent only gets you so far, especially at a club like Rangers.
“Talent will earn you a career at some level but if you want to be at the top, playing European football, or in front of this Ibrox crowd, going to Celtic Park and performing, then you need to have more than talent in your locker.
“That’s the reason a lot of academy players don’t get there. I’m not sure they have the right people around them away from the game, telling them this from a young age.
“It’s not just about coming here and training for an hour and a half, showing your talent and going home, thinking you’re a player. It doesn’t work like that at the top.
“Nathan Patterson is one for the future. I wouldn’t say he is 100 per cent ready for the first team just yet but I gave him a taste of it in our friendly in Dubai last weekend and he did himself no harm.
“Talent and ability wise, I like what I see. If Nathan keeps progressing and developing the areas around that talent, then I predict a bright future for him.”
Patterson faces competition from Jon Flanagan and Matt Polster for the right-back berth against Stranraer, while Gerrard has indicated George Edmundson will be handed a rare start in central defence. But there is no notion of experimentation as Rangers look to hit the ground running after their winter break.
“We want to find our rhythm as quick as we can,” said Gerrard. “We won our last four games before the break, so we want to keep building on that run.
“We will treat Stranraer with respect. We are not going to go into this game and think ‘Oh, they are bottom of League 1’ or ‘this will be an easy night’. There will be none of that.
“We will treat them individually and collectively with the utmost respect. I want a strong performance from my team and a strong win.
“Yes, I’ll make changes to the starting eleven and the squad. But when you see the names I pick, you will realise how seriously we are taking the competition.”