By his own admission Steven Gerrard is not a Rangers fan. But that has not stopped the Ibrox manager from sharing the same vision, and the same dream, as the Ibrox support.
“I’ve thought about winning the title here from the moment I was offered the job at certain times,” said Gerrard. “But I don’t think about it every minute of every day. I try just to focus game to game. If you’re in a title race just before or during the split then it would dominate my thoughts. But at the moment the only thing doing that is our next game and the next challenge we face.
“If we ever come across that day at Rangers and we become champions, there won’t be a happier person in this city than me, let me tell you.”
In isolation it is difficult to overplay the significance of any Rangers title win for the first time since the club were liquidated in 2012. But when added to a season in which Celtic are set on reaching the history-equalling nine and with one eye on broaching the virgin territory of ten, there has been weight added to the burden of embarking on a Championship-winning season.
And the reality is that games like this afternoon’s at Celtic Park are where titles are won and lost. And never more so than this season. The consistency of both teams has been notable, with both recording significantly higher points tallies than where they were 12 months ago. Rangers’ focus has yielded a dozen extra league points while Celtic’s ruthlessness has them boasting ten more than at the same stage.
If that has lent a belief to the Ibrox dressing room then the next step has to be in showing that they can compete with Celtic on their own turf. The Parkhead side have got to ten successive trophies – all claimed when Rangers were in the top flight – on the back of single-mindedness and an ability to grind out results even when the performance has not been there.
“They need to have something inside themselves, that they want to become winners,” said Gerrard. “That they want to be successful for themselves.”
A win this afternoon for Celtic would give Neil Lennon’s side the considerable breathing space of an eight-point lead going into the winter break, albeit that they have played one game more than Rangers. If they are to prevail today, however, Gerrard is insistent that the life will not have been squeezed out of Rangers’ ambitions, with the Ibrox manager pointing to a more measured assessment of his side over the opening half of the season rather than reducing it to a 90-minute examination.
And he believes he has seen enough to give credibility to his belief that Rangers can take the title race to the wire and put Celtic under pressure all the way.
“I’m the manager of Rangers and I see the players every day,” he said. “We’ve been playing non-stop football since the middle of July, so that’s a better gauge to see if my players have progressed rather than going on one result or the outcome of one game.
“I don’t have to wait for a result on Sunday to know that. To qualify for the last 32 in Europe, reach a major cup final and play as we did and the consistency we’ve shown so far in the league, I already know there’s been huge progress. I won’t gauge how far we’ve come as a team on 90 minutes.”
Gerrard is also confident that he has witnessed the growing maturation of his side since he took over a year-and-a-half ago at Ibrox. That will be borne out this afternoon in the hostility of Celtic Park in a game that will reveal just how far Rangers have come under his tutelage this term. Recalling the derbies against Everton that he enjoyed as a player – he preferred playing Everton at Goodison to Anfield – Gerrard appreciates that relishing the rancour of such an environment is crucial to success in the fixture.
“I was hated there [at Goodison], abused there. It felt different winning there. At Anfield, we never knew we were going to win but we were expected to, so the win didn’t feel as big. Going to Goodison and outplaying Everton in front of their crowd and atmosphere and then to enjoy it with your supporters was more special. We had a group of players that had, excuse me, balls, character and it didn’t really matter the environment or the occasion, we backed ourselves.
“I suppose it would feel very similar [winning at Celtic Park], but I would like my players to have that attitude because it would be fantastic for them.
“Our performance in the cup final should give players the belief and confidence that we can more than match them and believe in ourselves we can go there and win.”
Such a result would shore up the confidence he has in his side.