Rangers: What does next season have in store for army of young Scots?
If Steven Gerrard has his way, Rangers starting eleven when the 2021-22 season commences will look pretty much the same as the one which featured throughout most of the dominant Premiership title-winning campaign.
Gerrard has made clear his determination to retain the services of those players who saw three years of his work as Rangers manager come to triumphant fruition with the collection of his first piece of silverware in May.
Whether Gerrard gets his wish will depend on what offers Rangers receive for any of their prize assets this summer as they move towards the kind of player trading model needed to implement the medium to longer term financial sustainability targeted by the club’s board of directors.
It also remains to be seen what opportunities there will be for the fringe members of Gerrard’s squad and those emerging from the club’s academy system.
The standard for the younger players has been set by Nathan Patterson after the 19-year-old right-back’s impressive first team breakthrough in the second half of last season which culminated in his call-up to Scotland’s Euro 2020 finals squad.
But while Patterson is sure to be pushing hard for inclusion in Gerrard’s starting line-up when they begin the defence of their title next month, how many others on the club’s books have a realistic prospect of joining him?
Allan McGregor’s decision to extend his playing career for at least one more year, taking him beyond his 40th birthday, means there’s no doubt about who will be Rangers’ number one next season.
With high quality back-up already in place in the shape of Scotland squad ‘keeper Jon McLaughlin, opportunities will again be scarce for third-choice Andy Firth who has made just one appearance since signing from Barrow two years ago.
For 23-year-old Robby McCrorie, under contract until 2023, yet another loan spell could be in the offing.
While Patterson now provides genuine competition for captain James Tavernier at right-back, replacing Borna Barisic at left-back wouldn’t be so straightforward if the Croatian international was tempted away.
Calvin Bassey has yet to fully convince since joining from Leicester City last year, although the 21-year-old’s potential is clear. Rangers also have high hopes for 19-year-old left-back James Maxwell who shone on loan at Queen of the South last season.
Maxwell recently spoke of the encouragement he has taken from his close friend Patterson’s rapid rise to prominence.
“He is an inspiration to everyone at the academy and we all want to follow in his footsteps,” said Maxwell. “The pathway is there as Nathan has shown and he has worked hard to get himself into that position. You need to be ready to take any opportunity you get and Nathan did that so well.
“It’s a tough challenge to displace someone like Tav but it’s the same for all positions as you are probably up against an international player for a place. It’s the same for me with Borna (Barisic) on the left. But you have to keep working hard and be ready to take your chance and Nathan certainly did that.”
Leon King, the 17-year-old central defender who made two substitute appearances last season, is another pushing hard for further recognition.
Stephen Kelly helped Ross County stay in the Premiership during his loan spell at the Dingwall club last season and the 21-year-old will be keen to secure regular football again to maintain his development.
The same applies to highly-regarded Ben Williamson, the 19-year-old who spent the second half of last season on loan to Arbroath and earned a call-up to the Scotland under-21 squad. Williamson has been linked with another loan switch next season with Livingston.
It’s a big season for four wide players at Rangers who all experienced loan spells of mixed success in 2020-21.
Glenn Middleton, who made his Rangers debut at the age of 18 under Gerrard, was a Scottish Cup winner with St Johnstone and retains ambitions to fully make the grade at Ibrox.
Jake Hastie was less conspicuous during his loan at Motherwell, the club he joined Rangers from in 2019. The 22-year-old still has two years left on his contract but he has struggled to make any impact at Ibrox.
Josh McPake, an FA Trophy winner at Wembley with Harrogate Town last season, and his fellow 19-year-old Kai Kennedy, who impressed at Raith Rovers, will look to catch Gerrard’s eye during pre-season.
A hard road ahead
But while Patterson’s progress shows what is possible, the road to first team football at Rangers remains a tough one to negotiate for younger players.
At the end of last season, 10 academy players were released, among them 19-year-old midfielder Ciaran Dickson who only last November was warmly praised by Gerrard after making his first team debut in a League Cup tie at Falkirk.
There will be a fresh perspective on Rangers’ development of players in the new season, of course, with their B team having been admitted to the Lowland League along with their Celtic counterparts. It’s a one-year trial in the first instance but could perhaps open the door to B teams playing even further up the league pyramid in future, something both Old Firm clubs have been strongly campaigning for.
Regular competitive football in the fifth tier of Scottish football should help avoid stagnation for many of the younger players and provides an alternative to the hit-and-miss nature of loaning them out far and wide.
It means many of them can look forward to wearing a Rangers jersey on a weekly basis next season. Whether that is on first team duty, however, is another matter entirely.
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