Barring a disastrous collapse in the final few games of the season and finishing third or worse, Steven Gerrard will be given the chance to reshape his Rangers side this summer as he looks to build on the positives of this campaign and properly challenge Celtic’s domestic dominance next season.
The top of his summer shopping list should say one thing and one thing only - a No.10.
Rangers haven’t had a proper attacking central midfield playmaker all season. Scott Arfield is the closest thing to one, but he lacks both the guile and finishing ability to help lead Rangers to the title. He’s a decent enough player, but compare him with Tom Rogic, Callum McGregor or the rejuvenated Ryan Christie and it’s not even close. Besides, he’s more of an industrial No.8 who just happens to be the best option behind the striker because of his tirelessness and off-ball movement.
They really need a proper creative spark at the position and therefore it was no surprise to see them linked with Aberdeen attacker Greg Stewart on Sunday morning.
Wait. No, that’s not right. It was a huge surprise too see Rangers are reportedly chasing after Stewart.
Let me explain. Stewart at the top of his game is one of the best players in the Scottish top flight. He was twice nominated for the Player of the Year award during his time with Dundee - despite the fact that neither of those sides finished above sixth in the league table - and was on course for a third nomination this season when he was tearing it up at Kilmarnock.
The problem is that Stewart has looked a shadow of himself since leaving Rugby Park and returning to Aberdeen for a second spell, a move which didn’t make much sense for the player at the time and looks even less so in hindsight.
Despite barely getting near the Birmingham City team after moving down south from Dens Park, Stewart’s stock in Scottish football was still high when he moved to Pittodrie at the start of last season. While a different attacker than the likes of Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn, whom Aberdeen had lost in the space of a couple of weeks after the 2016/17 season, he was supposed to be a like-for-like replacement in terms of quality, if not even better. Instead, Stewart suffered through one of the most disappointing campaigns of any quality footballer in the country. Often stuck out on the right, far from goal, he rarely impacted games and would only net three goals all season.
It therefore wasn’t a surprise to see the bigger clubs pass on the chance to sign him when he became available on loan again this summer, allowing Kilmarnock to snap him up as the transfer deadline drew to a close.
He was a revelation in Ayrshire. Granted freedom in an otherwise industrious team, he provided the weekly magic and had Killie challenging at the top of the table. To leave a manager who’d managed to get the best out of him to return to one who’d failed to do so was curious to say the least. Stewart himself said he felt he had “unfinished business” in the north east having failed to give a good account of himself last term. Make sense? Well, not when you consider that he left Kilmarnock in the middle of a once-in-a-generation title race. You cannot get any more “unfinished” than that.
Rangers fans trying to convince themselves this pursuit makes perfect sense already have another well-established narrative to milk: namely, that Derek McInnes isn’t any good as a manager and they dodged a bullet when he rejected their advances last season. (Last season?! That “concomitant” statement feels like a decade ago.) Regardless of whether that’s true or not, alarm bells should still ring that they’re wanting to sign a player who for 70 per cent of the past two seasons hasn’t been much use at the Scottish top flight level.
I was critical of McInnes’ use of Stewart on numerous occasions last season - mainly, he was played too deep on the right of midfield - but while the Dons manager has reverted to that in certain games since the player’s return, on the whole he’s played Stewart as a No.10 and his performances just haven’t been good enough. The nadir was Saturday’s loss at Tynecastle. Even in the first half where Aberdeen were the better of the two sides, and playing in his strongest position, Stewart still managed to be poor. In the second half, as Hearts turned up the pressure, you completely forgot he was playing until he was hauled off with around 10 minutes remaining.
Rangers supporters have routinely talked about signings in recent seasons where the jersey has hung “too heavy” on their shoulders. Michael O’Halloran was the best example; electric in a St Johnstone top but rarely looked like showing it once the pressure of 50,000 attendees was added to the equation. For Greg Stewart, even the all red of Aberdeen appears too heavy.
To cut this potential deal a little slack, Rangers probably need more than one No.10 if they’re going to be battling both domestically and on the continent next season. As a back-up, Stewart would represent a gamble worth taking if Gerrard is able to identify the differences in his game which allowed him to succeed at Kilmarnock and struggle with Aberdeen. He would also need to be assured that Stewart has the confidence to make the most of his chance at a bigger club, something which he’s yet to prove in his career to this point.