Maybe it had something to do with still being irked at the damage that Kilmarnock did to his club’s title prospects last season. Whatever, there was an unmistakable sense of Steven Gerrard taking out a big ladle and pot stirring when giving his thoughts on the post-Steve Clarke Rugby Park side that Rangers will open up their Premiership season against in Ayrshire tomorrow afternoon.
On the back of their Europa League humiliation to Welsh part-timers Connah’s Quay Nomads, a troubled camp is the only apt description of Kilmarnock – the solitary team Rangers failed to post a league win against in losing their two away encounters and drawing their two home meetings with them. Even new manager Angelo Alessio was forced to admit he was struggling to put his own stamp on the side in recruiting only two players to replace the nine he lost in the close season. Gerrard as good as suggested yesterday the Kilmarnock dressing room will ultimately stamp on the Italian’s attempts to do so.
“I know his [Alessio’s] way of playing – an open brand of exciting football – so it will be interesting to see whether he sticks to his principles and his way or whether he lets player power dictate how they move forward,” he said.
“[Will] they carry on trying to do what they did in pre-season: which was to play expansive football, building through the thirds? Or, having had the setback which they had in Europe, [will] they go back to more of a Steve Clarke way of playing: which is a lot of men behind the ball, organised, no space, try to slow the game down and hit us on the counter attack. That is what I predict.
“[Steve Clarke was a tough act to follow] because he always got every little
ounce of everything that group of players had inside them. He pushed them to the maximum and to deliver Europe was a good way for Steve to leave on. A good coach, good manager who did an incredible job. So big shoes to fill for the new manager but I wish him well – after tomorrow.”
Gerrard’s principle focus is a win to kick start a more concerted challenge to champions Celtic. In his first season, the Ibrox club failed to win 39 per cent of their league games, so there is ample room for improvement.
That is a necessity with the Ibrox faithful’s demand that his side stop Celtic from racking up a ninth straight title, and therefore putting themselves on the threshold of a record ten-in-a-row.
“I do hear it a lot, but it’s not every person I come in front of. But yeah from the moment I walked in the door I’ve heard a lot about it and I understand it, totally. The players are aware of it. They follow the media. They are all aware of the challenge of what they must try and do. But we’ve got to focus on what’s in front of us and take each game as it comes. There’s no point on us now focusing on games that are months and months away, we have to focus on what’s on front of us.”
Gerrard – who revealed 19-year-old winger Glenn Middleton is “very close” to completing a loan move to Dutch second-tier outfit NAC Breda – believes he has assembled a squad capable of being in contention for the league crown, and that he is far better placed to lead a charge than he was when starting out in senior management this time last year.
“From a personal point of view I’m more happy I feel more prepared, I feel I know more what’s coming my way. I’m happier in terms of the shape of the squad now.
“Twelve months ago there were a lot of new faces, a lot of information to get into the players. You think you have a good idea of this league from the outside but it’s certainly been a learning curve. We do feel more prepared but the challenge is exactly the same, it’s going to be tough. We’ll go and give it our best shot but I do
feel in a better place than 12 months ago.”
One other domain where Gerrard expects improvement is the newly-laid synthetic surface at Rugby Park. He couldn’t resist a barb over that, either. “It can’t be any worse [than the old one]. That’s what I’d say on that. Apparently they’ve brought it in from what they had in Europe, which is interesting to see who made that decision. Even with new Astrotruf they’ve certainly got the advantage when it comes to the surface but
it’s a game we have to go and try to win.”