The big question Steven Gerrard asked himself when he accepted the Rangers job last summer was whether he could make a difference.
The club’s well-documented fall from grace and on-going rehabilitation meant that Celtic had the upper hand both on the pitch and off it; in a country historically renowned for its two-horse footballing race, only one of them was in anything like top racing form.
The aim was to narrow the performance gap as quickly as possible and prove the team could be competitive again. Last season was the groundwork but this term, in Europe and on the home front, his side have undoubtedly shown improvement. Yet Gerrard knows that it is on days like today, with the first major silverware of the season at stake, that he will be judged.
When Rangers faced up to Celtic earlier in the league campaign, they came up short. While the Govan side had clearly improved, Neil Lennon’s men showed they had also raised their levels, and last-gasp winners in recent matches underline the treble treble winners’ stubborn refusal to simply accede their power.
But having got themselves in a position to have a shot at silverware, in this afternoon’s Betfred Cup final, Gerrard says he is not burdened by a feeling of inferiority and wants his players to defy the odds.
“You don’t have a lot of time, but I have to accept that. That’s the pressure that I am under. I need to win as quickly as I can,” he said. “I am not going to be a manager that sits here and plays the victim because their wage bill is bigger than ours and... look, I am very much a manager that wants to focus on what happens on the pitch. My job and challenge here was: ‘Could I build a team to compete?’ I think, on certain occasions, we have done that against this opposition and we’ve also been very competitive when big challenges have faced us from a European point of view.
“Are we there? Are we the finished article? Is it where I wanted it? No. I still want to keep trying to fine-tune it, to improve it, grow it and make us even more competitive than we are now, but I have still got to try to deliver now. That’s life being the Rangers manager and I accept that. I am not a manager who has come in and asked for a project or a certain amount of years. I have accepted the fact you are under that pressure to win and I will be judged on days like Sunday.”
It’s been eight years since they last lifted top tier silverware but, at Hampden this afternoon, they have another chance to prove themselves worthy competitors. “I don’t want to be known as a manager who keeps crying, feeling like the victim and complaining,” added Gerrard. “It is what it is. I knew what I was signing up for. For me it’s very much about what happens on the pitch and trying to build a team that’s capable of winning. We haven’t proved that yet and that’s the next step. We’ve proved we can compete, we’ve proved we can get pride back. The fans are smiling again but Rangers is built on winning and that’s what we’ve all got to strive for.”
While pundits and fans will debate the relative pros and cons of the two Glasgow sides, Gerrard brushes aside the criticisms of his star striker, Alfredo Morelos. Showing a maturity that has finally allowed his goalscoring and attacking abilities to outshine his erstwhile displays of petulance, he has been a major factor in Rangers’ season thus far and, while he has not always started in the high-octane Glasgow derbies under Gerrard, and has failed to deliver as many goals as some detractors might have expected, the mellowing of character means the Colombian could be a more obvious asset for the Ibrox side in today’s head-to-head.
“The proof’s in the pudding, isn’t it? Last season he was getting dismissed too many times. He was letting the team down,” said his manager. “There’s a fine line between being aggressive, channelling it in the right way and letting it overspill, playing with too much emotion and making mistakes. That’s what was happening last year but this time his behaviour has been a lot different. That’s credit to himself.”
And with the chance to prove people wrong, Gerrard is backing his striker: “He hasn’t delivered in that one fixture but Sunday is the opportunity to put that right. He will be doing everything he can – it’s certainly not through lack of trying. He relies on service as well so I’m not going to be one to criticise him for that because we have to have people around him to provide the service. We have done that a lot this season and if that service is there, I wouldn’t back against him turning it round.”