There was justifiable cause for Steven Gerrard to quibble about the composure of his Rangers team in front of goal at Hamilton yesterday. Two goals from 25 attempts in a comfortable win was not a great return. Yet, it was equally justifiable for him to acknowledge that this could be forgiven when the Ibrox players’ composure in defending their own goal continues to have historians poring over archives.
With Rangers extending their run of clean sheets since the start of the season to six, they have set a new bar for this feat in the club’s annuals and equalled the Scottish best for it that was set by Willie Maley’s Celtic in 1906.
The frailties in defence that caused their nosedive in last season’s curtailed championship race – which included a 1-0 defeat at home by Hamilton the week of the Covid-19 shutdown in March – have well and truly been conquered.
Short of Hibernian beating Aberdeen by a barrel-load this afternoon, Gerrard’s men will be guaranteed to top the Premiership table going into this week’s international break and that can only represent a satisfying first month of the campaign for the former England captain.
His team remains up and down across games. But now, more than at various stages of his previous two years in charge, this seems no real impediment to sealing the deal in matches. A red card that resulted from a second booking for Scott McMann 16 minutes from the end put the mockers on any late rally from Brian Rice’s men following a more competitive second period, but in reality, Rangers were simply playing out time by then.
With Ryan Kent once more the team’s pivotal creative fulcrum, the Ibrox side set about with intent to ensure there would be no slip-up on a synthetic surface as occurred at Livingston the other week. And they displayed sufficient effervescence against a home side that sat off too often. It meant that the win was as good as bagged within 20 minutes.
Steven Davis driving down the left paved the way for the visitors’ opener, with the midfielder flipping over a cross that Kemar Roofe headed on to the underside of the bar. Keeper Ryan Fulton then got in a fankle attempting to claw the dropping ball away, which led to the ball bouncing around the area before Ianis Hagi smashed it away.
Five minutes later the Lanarkshire club must have been fearing a hiding when Kent let fly with a venomous shot from an angle on the left that Fulton did well to push across goal down to his left. The problem for the keeper and his team is that James Tavernier did equally well to follow up to tap in. With Brandon Barker again lively, the opportunities flowed as Hamilton were opened up consistently, only for Rangers to squander their sights with efforts slashed and shanked from both wingers, Roofe and Hagi.
Gerrard could live with the variable nature of his team’s display, with them almost appearing to switch off as Hamilton expended plentiful energy to find a way back in by switching from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 following the break.
“We’re happy with the performance,” said Gerrard, stating all his personnel deserved credit for their shut-out record he described as an “accolade”. “We’re happy with the clean sheet and we move on. We now go our separate ways without international players going out on duty. We hope they come back fit and healthy and ready for the next challenge. The other lads will get a well-deserved rest but so far so good. I think we’ve had one blip against Livingston but I’m really pleased with the lads’ efforts so far.
“I thought we were excellent to go one and two up but then I thought we became really wasteful. Our play up to a certain point was outstanding. But if you were a player in the top half of the pitch you should have got a goal or an assist. I thought Hamilton were there for a stronger score line. We just didn’t reward our good play with that last bit of quality.
“If you look at our results this season there has been three or four times that I’m going away thinking we should have got more goals. At some point that might come back to bite us. That tells me we still need to get better. We still need to improve, keep working on the training pitch and [look to see] if we can add that one or two bits of quality through the squad.”
His opposite number Rice lamented that his players gave Rangers too much respect in the first half but showed great respect to referee Willie Collum over the McMann dismissal he did not believe was warranted. It was difficult to see why, when the player simply barged Barker to the ground to prevent the winger charging into the final third. “He [McMann] was very unfortunate. It’s a nothing challenge from him,” said the Hamilton manager. “But Willie Collum is a fantastic referee. If he says it’s two yellow cards then it’s two yellow cards.”