There is little doubt that the current Rangers team are the strongest side to have played out of Ibrox in the past eight years. Steven Gerrard has been behind this revitalisation not simply by upping the standard of the personnel arriving at the club. In a couple of notable cases, he has improved the standard of the personnel he inherited.
Ryan Jack represents the most striking example of a player who has grown during Gerrard’s tenure.
When the former England captain arrived in Scotland to take on his first senior role in management 16 months ago, the combative former Aberdeen captain – signed for Rangers by Pedro Caixinha the previous summer – was pinpointed by some as a potential causality of the new era.
Instead, despite five central midfielders arriving in Gerrard’s makeover of his playing pool – there may be a sixth if, as expected, Andy King signs from Leicester City – Jack’s importance to the club has simply grown.
The 27-year-old will be the fulcrum tonight as Rangers look to set-up a Europa League play-off match against either Atromitos or Legia Warsaw by avoiding any major mishap at home to FC Midtjylland of Denmark.
Jack’s former Pittodrie mentor Willie Miller said this week that the player’s game had been taken to a new level through coming under the tutelage of such accomplished midfielders as Gerrard and his assistant manager, Gary McAllister. The Rangers boss, though, puts Jack’s development down to the player’s drive to extract from himself every ounce of his talent.
“I think he has definitely improved but I wouldn’t want to take credit for that. I’m not sure whether Gary wants to take all of it. You will have to ask him,” said Gerrard, who hinted at an improved contract for the midfielder following another commanding display in the 6-1 battering of Hibernian on Sunday.
“Ryan Jack has worked his socks off, on and off the pitch. He has listened to every single detail we have given him in terms of formations, philosophies, gameplans. He is asking questions about where he needs to be, what he needs to do.
“The main ingredient as to why Ryan Jack is where he is is because he has got something inside him. It’s called a big heart. And he empties that for you every time he plays football.
“When you’re a manager and you pick teams, forget talent. If you know someone is going to empty the tank for you, give you everything and put their body on the line, they are the ones you normally go with in every position. Ryan has given me every drop, everything inside his body. At the right time, I am sure he will be rewarded.”
As he proved at Aberdeen, Jack is captaincy material. The notion that he one day might wear the armband at Rangers isn’t something that Gerrard rules out. That said, he is quick to remind that James Tavernier is firmly ensconced in the role – and could not be more unequivocal in dismissing claims he is tracking Argentine right-back Leonel Di Placido as a replacement for a Tavernier who has been linked with a January move to Crystal Palace.
“We are really happy with James as our captain. I read that we were linked with a right back which is total rubbish,” Gerrard said.
“I’ve said on record before that James is a big part of what we are doing here and he has been one of my most consistent players as well. So while James is here, happy and performing, he will remain captain.
“Jacko is captain material [though]. But whether he is captain in my time here will depend on time and movement, I suppose, in the transfer window.”
The Rangers manager considers that across his squad he now has many more players than he can accommodate on any given matchday – which he confesses creates dilemmas but also offers the prospect that the bedrock of successful teams is being built at Ibrox.
“I’ve never had this feeling where there are four or five players outside the squad of 18 who are giving me daggers, never mind the seven who are not in the 11. But I welcome it,” he said.
“And the message to the players is the only way we can have a positive end to the season is if everyone contributes. We won’t do it with 11 or 13 or 14, 15.
“The only way we’ll do it is with a strong squad because if you analyse why Manchester City win leagues, analyse why Liverpool win Champions Leagues or why Celtic win trebles it’s a collective thing throughout the squad.
“If the players understand that we’ll be fine, but the headache is not going away. Certainly not in the short term because I have to name a squad for tomorrow and there are four or five who won’t be happy.”
Rangers go into the third qualifying round tie defending a 4-2 lead from the first leg in Jutland last Thursday.