For Steven Gerrard the road to Rangers becoming Scottish champions for the first time in a decade began in the bleak aftermath of the curtailed 2019-20 season.
As the country entered lockdown and Scottish football was suspended amid the emerging coronavirus crisis in March last year, Rangers were in a stuttering spell of form which had seen them lose three and win just half of their 10 Premiership fixtures after the winter break.
While the Scottish game entered a period of civil war in the boardrooms over the processes used in determining the outcome of a shortened campaign, Gerrard’s focus switched to controlling the controllables.
Rising to the challenge
Ahead of what would be a season like no other, played almost entirely behind closed doors, Gerrard and his staff were quick to embrace ‘the new normal’ as the Rangers squad was rebooted.
Zoom calls with his players set the tone before they were eventually able to return to training as the parameters were set for arguably the most momentous title tussle in the history of the Old Firm rivalry.
While Celtic would ultimately crumble under the pressure of delivering a 10-in-a-row sequence their supporters had long regarded as their destiny, Rangers rose to the challenge of claiming their club’s 55th title when their fans craved it more than ever before.
Gerrard himself was under intense scrutiny going into his third season as Rangers manager, the first two having delivered clear signs of progress - most notably in Europe - but without any silverware to show for it.
The manner in which his team have surged to the Premiership crown with six games to spare has been a total vindication of both Gerrard’s methods and the faith placed in him by former Rangers chairman Dave King and his fellow investors at the club.
Starting on the front foot
The renewed focus and intensity which Gerrard sought to instil among his players during football’s hiatus last year was evident from the opening day of what has been an almost flawless league campaign.
The 1-0 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie in August was achieved with a performance which combined defensive discipline, midfield control and attacking poise. They would become familiar traits as Rangers settled into a generally reliable rhythm of racking up clean sheets and ticking off victories.
Blips were few and far between. When they drew 0-0 at Livingston in the fourth game of the season, some observers suspected they would be vulnerable to the same inconsistencies which plagued them when they found themselves 13 points behind Celtic when time was called on the previous season.
A 2-2 draw against Hibs at Easter Road in September, ending a record-breaking run of seven straight shut-outs at the start of a league campaign, posed another question of Gerrard’s squad. The response was spectacular.
From there, they reeled off 15 Premiership victories on the bounce to make the outcome of the title race appear a formality. That sequence included two Old Firm victories, the first of them a comfortable 2-0 success at Celtic Park in October which suggested the balance of power was well and truly being tilted in Rangers’ favour for the first time since their financial meltdown in 2012.
Since Rangers’ 1-0 win over their ancient foes at Ibrox on January 2, it has been a case of when and not if they would prevail this season. To do so on March 7, the earliest a top flight Scottish title has been clinched since 1902-03, speaks volumes about the relentless consistency of Gerrard’s team.
It has been built on the solidity of a defence which notched up a 24th clean sheet in 32 Premiership games as St Mirren were beaten 3-0 at Ibrox on Saturday, putting Rangers within touching distance of the triumph which was formally confirmed by Celtic’s 0-0 draw at Dundee United on Sunday.
A host of heroes
Gerrard has been well served by the robustness of Connor Goldson, a towering ever-present at the heart of his back four and just one of several Player of the Year contenders in the Rangers squad.
Until suffering the knee injury last month which currently sees him sidelined, captain James Tavernier was equally influential and remains his team’s leading scorer so far with 17 goals.
But the marauding right-back’s tally may soon be overtaken by the man Rangers would expect to top their scoring charts, striker Alfredo Morelos.
The Colombian international had a subdued and indifferent start to the season, clearly distracted by French club Lille’s failed summer pursuit of him. Gerrard was backed significantly in the transfer market once more as he recruited Kemar Roofe and Cedric Itten in a bid to ensure Rangers were not as reliant on Morelos as they had previously been.
But while Roofe and Itten have both contributed over the course of the campaign, 15-goal Morelos has regained the form which makes him the most effective focal point of the attack in the 4-3-3 system Gerrard deploys.
From back to front, Rangers have been a well-oiled machine. The ageless Steven Davis, along with goalkeeper Allan McGregor a survivor of the club’s last title success back in 2011, has exuded a calm authority in midfield where Glen Kamara has also excelled.
There is also no lack of flair in this Rangers side. At times, they have been as pleasing on the eye as any team witnessed in Scottish football in recent years with Joe Aribo, Ianis Hagi and Ryan Kent all possessing technical skills of a high quality.
It’s a pity that only 300 paying punters have been able to watch them at first hand this season, the crowd which was granted access to a 4-0 win at Ross County in December.
But for the Rangers supporters restricted to an armchair view, nothing can diminish the joy they are now experiencing over a title win like none before.