Andrew Smith: Main course yet to come for Rangers fans

Rangers were attracted to Steven Gerrard by his football nous. Picture: Getty.
Rangers were attracted to Steven Gerrard by his football nous. Picture: Getty.
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The interval old-timer presented to the Ibrox crowd last night was Ally Dawson. The defender, who played at Rangers for 12 years from 1975, was asked to reflect on what it was like to perform on great European nights in the stadium – the clear implication being that another one was unfolding in Govan.

Dawson was far too modest to relate how he tasted the fine-dining delights of the continental game, playing in the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1979 against Cologne, rather than mere qualifying-phase aperitifs.

That had required John Greig’s Rangers team to dispose of Juventus and PSV Eindhoven. They did so with two wins across four home and away ties. Enough to take them into the last eight and mighty close to the ultimate footballing feast.

The huge enlargement of football’s two European competitions, and Scotland’s marginalisation, meant Steven Gerrard’s men were last night chasing far more modest aims. They were bidding to simply become one of 48 teams in the Europa League group stage. Yet, their path to what is now perceived as a promised land by their supporters amounted to four qualifying rounds. And last night Gerrard’s side inched closer to an achievement that appeared entirely fanciful when the 38-year-old first-time manager officially started work on 1 June.

To put it in context, during Dawson’s time Rangers never made it through three rounds of knockout European competition. Not since Walter Smith’s men hauled themselves into the final of the Uefa Cup in 2008 has such a feat being witnessed by Rangers followers.

Indeed, in the 62 years that Ibrox has played host to European football, only in 15 seasons have the punters had at least four home games to attend.

Already, this season Gerrard’s team became the first Scottish side to weave their way through three qualifying rounds of the Europa League. As a work in progress, they have confounded all expectations. And, for all that this is a new era that offers the first chance of European group stage football since 2010-11, the foundations on which it has been built would have former boss Smith purring.

Goal prevention has become a virtue of Gerrard’s side on the continent. Last night marked their fifth clean sheet in seven qualifiers. They imposed themselves on a Ufa side happy to let them do so but did not push for goals in any manner that would compromise their prospects of denying the Russians an away goal. With three of these clean sheets racked up in succession in foreign climes, a fourth next Thursday would bank Rangers the £10 million bounty that could make the Europa League group stages transformative to the club. Yet it would do more than that. No Ibrox side has ever achieved four successive shut-outs across a single season in Europe.

The Rangers board courted the former Liverpool captain because they felt his nous from playing in such domains would offset his lack of coaching experience. The fact he could be on the threshold of history is making their judgment appear inspired.