When Steven Gerrard took charge of his first Old Firm fixture 12 months ago, he didn’t much care for the mood he sensed within his squad.
Many of his players had suffered under the yoke of Celtic’s ruthless dominance of the fixture in the previous two seasons. The trepidation it had instilled in Rangers remained apparent at Celtic Park as Gerrard experienced the occasion for the first time, his team convincingly beaten despite the narrow 1-0 scoreline.
Since then, the Rangers manager has sought to improve both the quality and mentality of the Ibrox squad. His progress on that front can be measured by the positivity Rangers take into tomorrow’s opening showdown with their ancient rivals.
They are the bookies’ favourites, an unaccustomed status in this fixture for many years, and buoyant after an unbeaten start to the season which has taken them into the Europa League group stage and currently sees them level on points with eight-in-a-row champions Celtic at the top of the Premiership.
Gerrard, who will seek a repeat of the vibrancy which brought Rangers two dominant home wins over Celtic in the league last season, feels the new mindset among his players can be pivotal.
“It’s not really important to me what the bookmakers or pundits think, whether we are favourites or not,” said Gerrard. “What is important to me is the belief and confidence in the dressing room and what shape we’re in. We have virtually got a full squad to pick from in terms of injuries. We should be confident, should be bouncing into Ibrox and the crowd should be right behind us from the first whistle. It should be a game we go into with no fear and confidence and belief that we can go and win the football match. That is how I want the players to feel.
“Before my first Old Firm game last season at Celtic Park, and even a bit before the first one at Ibrox, I could still feel a bit of anxiety among the players. There was maybe a lack of belief and a bit of fear hanging about them because Celtic were coming.
“Some of the players had taken some real serious knocks in previous games against Celtic. It was all about finding a performance and a collective effort to get our first Old Firm win and when we got that at Ibrox in December, I feel it gave us a lot of confidence and belief because there was a big improvement when we returned to Celtic Park, even though we lost there again.
“Then we managed to beat them at Ibrox again and we all believe we have closed the gap. We have still got a lot of respect for Celtic, they are still the team to beat and catch. But we believe that if we find our level and our best at Ibrox then anyone, not just Celtic, coming to visit is going to find it very difficult to beat us.
“I think it’s only normal for any footballer, if you have played against a team many times and consistently been beaten, it’s been a bit of a mismatch, then you are not looking forward to playing them.
“But things have changed. We are a better team, a better squad, the confidence and belief is back. We have shown on enough occasions that we are a better team and better squad. We still want to get better, and we will. But anyone coming to Ibrox now, if we can find our level, then they will have to play well to beat us.”
While many will view tomorrow as a litmus test of Rangers’ title-winning credentials, Gerrard unsurprisingly attempted to play that element down.
“It won’t say much about the title race,” he insisted. “I can only look at ourselves and where we are at. We’ve done fantastically well to qualify for the Europa League. We are four points better off than this block of fixtures last season, regardless of what happens this weekend.
“It’s an opportunity for us to take maximum points from our first four games and go top of the league. That’s all it is about. There are many twists and turns to be made.
“Celtic beat us in the first one last season and opened up a gap, but we clawed it back and went level at the New Year. A lot will happen between now and the end of the season but it’s an opportunity to make a statement. That’s all that’s at stake.”
Gerrard anticipates a familiar approach to the contest from Celtic, despite the new faces Neil Lennon has added to his squad this summer.
“Personnel wise, they have changed, similar to ourselves,” added Gerrard. “They’ve spent a lot, certainly in the defensive positions, to try to strengthen.
“They’ve made a positive start to the season. I don’t think much will change in terms of how they approach the game or that their team will look majorly different.
“We expect a fierce, tough match. It’s mouthwatering but this is the one we all signed up for and can’t wait to be part of it.”