The timing of Craig Levein’s sacking by Hearts proved something of “surprise” to Steven Gerrard. The Rangers manager, though, doesn’t believe that the Tynecastle club will have been left perplexed during their preparations for tomorrow’s Betfred Cup semi-final at Hampden.
With assistant Austin MacPhee stepping up to take charge of Hearts for the last-four encounter, and Levein still at the club despite being relieved of both his management and director of football roles, Gerrard won’t fall into the trap of thinking that the struggling capital club have been left in the lurch by events over the past 48 hours. Especially not when he has such regard for MacPhee’s game nous, at club level and in his position as assistant to Michael O’Neill for Northern Ireland.
“Our players should be well aware that Hearts come as a massive challenge, with good players,” said the Ibrox manager. “Austin knows his stuff, I have had some really detailed conversations with Austin about coaching and tactics. They have come after games and the treatment you get at Hearts is always superb. They invite you in after and we always go in for a chat and talk to the staff on football terms.
“Obviously Austin does Northern Ireland as well and he was always asking us how the lads were when we had Laff [Kyle Lafferty] here and asks about Davo [Steven Davis] and how he has been. You always get a fantastic welcome down at Hearts.
“I am sure Craig will still be in the background as someone for Austin to lean on. [So] nothing changes. We are fully expecting the best Hearts and the biggest threat that Hearts can pose. There is nobody in this building that thinks it is going to be a walk in the park, that is for sure.”
Rangers’ bitter experience of last year’s League Cup semi-final loss to an Aberdeen side that they dominated but could not break down with loanee Umar Sadiq their only available striker, coupled with their toils of being held to a draw at Tynecastle a fortnight ago, are all too fresh for that.
But with 18 victories, four draws and only two defeats in their 24 games this season, Gerrard believes he has built both a squad and consistency of performance which puts his team in the ideal fettle to move within a final of a first major trophy arriving at Ibrox since 2011.
“There is no-one on this planet that wants to see these players be successful more than me. I will be really proud if they manage to get the job done and get into a final,” he said. “That’s what we’re going for, that’s what we’re preparing for. We felt the feeling of not achieving that last season and the players need to tap into those feelings of how it felt getting on that bus at Hampden when we were knocked out by Aberdeen.
“It wasn’t so much our performance but our game management, and maybe a lack of quality in the final third. I want the players to tap into that but focus on the job in hand.
“We are in a much better place now. We have two centre forwards [in Alfredo Morelos, pictured below, and Jermain Defoe] who are happy and enjoying their football.
“Both are looking incredibly sharp and a massive goal threat [with 31 goals between them]. That is a much better place to be in, as far I’m concerned.”
Hampden is a surface that Rangers should also enjoy playing on. “Tynecastle is very tight, it’s a lot smaller than Ibrox from the sides and length, so you could maybe say there’s an advantage in terms of the [Hampden] pitch size,” added Gerrard.
“We need to make it as big as we can. I’m sure the pitch will be nice and wet and greasy for us. There are certainly no excuses as far as we’re concerned.”