Among the many positives Steven Gerrard could take from a winning start to the Premiership campaign on Saturday, the sight of Ryan Kent hitting the ground running might have been the most satisfying of them all for the Rangers manager.
Clean sheets and defensive resilience can certainly underpin Gerrard’s hopes of denying Celtic a tenth consecutive league title and the template for that was set in the 1-0 victory over Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
But if Rangers are to dethrone their Old Firm rivals this season, they will also require greater consistency and productivity from the flair players in their squad. Of those, perhaps no-one is more crucial to Gerrard’s ambitions than the winger he moved heaven and earth to secure on a permanent deal last year.
The hefty £7 million fee sanctioned by the Rangers board for Kent was a barometer of how convinced Gerrard, pictured inset, was that the player who had impressed while on loan from Liverpool in the 2018-19 campaign could help his team to the next level.
It didn’t quite work out that way for Kent last season. After the protracted on-off saga of Rangers’ attempt to bring him back to Ibrox was only successfully concluded in the final hours of the transfer window, he suffered a hamstring injury on his second ‘debut’ for the club against Livingston in September.
It sidelined the 23-year-old for seven matches and he had to wait until late November before claiming his first goals of the season, a double in a 3-1 win at Hamilton Accies.
Although there were other flashes of the dynamism and cutting edge Kent can bring to Rangers’ play, most notably when he scored the opener in the 2-1 win at Celtic Park in December, he generally found it difficult to live up to the expectations which come with his price tag.
Kent was also a slow burner in his loan season at Rangers, taking 11 games before he scored his first goal for the club in a 4-0 win over Dundee at Ibrox.
But his flying start to the new campaign, displaying pace and poise when he scored the only goal of the game against Aberdeen, suggests Kent is going to feel the benefit of what has been his first full pre-season as a Rangers player.
“I have struggled probably in the last two pre-seasons to get regular game time to make sure my muscles are prepared for the demands of the season, especially when you play 50-plus games and it is very physically demanding,” said Kent.
“That is an area I need to work on this year, making sure I am looking after myself and my recovery.
“I always set myself personal targets going into a new season, a set amount of goals and what I would like to achieve as individual accolades. Obviously, coming away with trophies is the main one as a team.”
Kent’s preparations for the campaign were almost undermined by a moment of rashness during Rangers’ impressive 2-0 victory over Lyon in France as they won the Veolia Cup four-team tournament last month.
Having lit up the contest with some scintillating wing play as Rangers took command, Kent was shown a straight red card six minutes before half-time for a retaliatory slap in the face of Lyon captain Marcelo.
It carried echoes of the indiscipline he showed when lashing out at Celtic captain Scott Brown when Rangers lost 2-1 at Parkhead in March 2019, an incident missed by the match officials but which earned him a retrospective two-match ban.
Fortunately for Kent, his dismissal in Lyon did not have any further repercussions as he was spared a possible domestic suspension when French officials decided not to report the incident to the Scottish FA.
Rangers will hope Kent, who is always likely to be the target of robust challenges from defenders, can develop a greater degree of maturity in those situations and avoid any needless absences over the coming months.
“I’m always looking to improve physically, mentally and technically,” he told Rangers Matchday Programme. “I am always striving to better myself as a person and as a footballer and I think I’m coming along with that.
“We have got a really good squad behind us with good coaches who have been to the top level in football and know what it takes to become a footballer at the highest level. I’ve got the best people around me.”
Kent’s goal on Saturday was his 15th in 76 appearances for Rangers and he will be a key figure again as they attempt to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit against Bayer Leverkusen in Germany on Thursday night in their rescheduled Europa League last-16 tie.
It was Kent who struck on foreign soil to seal Rangers’ round-of-32 triumph over Braga in Portugal back in February. As the 2019-20 European club competitions re-emerge from their Covid-19 suspension to finally reach a conclusion this month, Kent looks sharp and ready for the challenge.
“I always keep myself fit, whether in-season or off-season,” he said. “I know it has been difficult this time around with such a lengthy layoff but we have had a solid off-season programme with good games against top teams which will stand us in good stead for the upcoming games.”
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.