Lee McCulloch: Only a trophy can validate Steven Gerrard’s debut season

In raising standards at Rangers since his arrival at the club in June, Steven Gerrard has also heightened expectations among their support as to what his team can achieve in his first season in management.

Lee McCulloch says Rangers must get the better of both Aberdeen and Kilmarnock in the next few days. Picture: SNS.

If ever there was a week which appears defining on that front for Gerrard, it’s this one. Tomorrow night’s Premiership fixture at Aberdeen and Saturday’s Scottish Cup trip to Kilmarnock will go a long way to determining whether Rangers are capable of ending an eight-year wait for a major trophy.

Former Ibrox captain Lee McCulloch feels Gerrard can already be regarded as having successfully restored Rangers as a credible force in the top flight. But McCulloch insists only silverware can fully validate 
Gerrard’s debut campaign at the helm.

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“Steven is well ahead of schedule and he has, you could argue, been a bit of a victim of his own success with how he has changed the club around,” said McCulloch. “He was obviously not happy going out of the League Cup in the semi-final, because he has set standards sky high. But he has only had two transfer windows and look how he has changed the expectations around in the stands and on the park, and how he has changed the mentality.

“So I think he is ahead of schedule considering it is his first job and he is a young manager. What he has done really
is incredible but the nature of the beast is that Rangers is a club that has got to be challenging for every trophy that they go in for. Yes, the expectation is that he has got to be there or thereabouts for the league title and win a cup. They are only in one cup now, so he has to do everything to win that. Also, it is to stop 
Celtic getting the treble treble. So there is pressure there, but he will know that.

“For Rangers’ mentality, they have to be saying they are going up to Pittodrie to win, to lay down a marker, put Aberdeen to bed and stay in touch with Celtic at the top of the table. In the Scottish Cup game, they then have a chance to put right a wrong after losing the last league game at Rugby Park.

“Rangers started that game brilliantly with the diamond formation and two up front. That, for me, was his strongest team middle to front. You have Alfredo Morelos and Jermain Defoe, two very good players. Whether they can play together, it’s still very early days.

“Rangers have got to be challenging in the Scottish Cup and they have got to be challenging in the league. The manager knows that. He has come out and said so himself. So you need to go and win these next two games.”

Gerrard has seldom been slow to publicly call out his players when their performances have dipped below the levels he is seeking from them.

For McCulloch, speaking as he promoted Premier Sports’ coverage of the Kilmarnock-Rangers tie, there are echoes of his former Ibrox boss Walter Smith, pictured inset, in that approach.

“Walter was like that too and he picked his times to do it,” added McCulloch. “He’d catch you off guard, personally and as a group.

“I always go back to the games immediately before and after an Old Firm match. Walter would see those as being every bit important as the derby because it’s easy to be thinking about the Old Firm game the week before it while it’s also easy after it, particularly if you’ve won, to think you’re OK — and then suffer a dull one.

“A few folk would’ve been surprised about Steven’s criticism of the team after a 4-0 win over St Mirren on Saturday. But it would be too easy to paper over cracks and he’s just letting people and, especially players, know that he’s seeing it. It’s not panic stations, it’s just letting people know that they can always do better.

“Walter was the same, making sure he’d keep everyone on their toes, individuals on their toes. If the manager instead is coming out every week and just saying everything’s great, nothing has to be done, then it doesn’t look too good, does it? So I think there’s an element of honesty
with Steven’s post-match 
comments.

“He wants the same level of performance that he got in the Old Firm game at the end of December in every other
game. He is also realistic enough to know you will not get it every week.

“But Rangers have to be close to it if they want to challenge for the league. They have some big, big games coming up. He will be wanting to get to the final of the cup and go as far as possible in the league, take it right to the death and hopefully nick it. Time will tell how that works out.”