Why Nikola Katic may have to take a step away from Ibrox in order to revive his Rangers career

The warmth of the reception afforded to Nikola Katic when he appeared as a half-time substitute in Rangers’ friendly against Brighton at Ibrox last month was an indication of the high regard and affection the club’s supporters still have for the big central defender.

The high point of Nikola Katic's Rangers career so far as he towers above the Celtic defence to score the winner in the Old Firm match at Parkhead on December 29, 2019. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)
The high point of Nikola Katic's Rangers career so far as he towers above the Celtic defence to score the winner in the Old Firm match at Parkhead on December 29, 2019. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

But if his protracted absence from action had made their hearts grow fonder, it seems they may have even longer to wait before they might see him make a sustained contribution for Steven Gerrard’s team again.

Katic’s recovery from a career-threatening anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injury suffered during pre-season training in the summer of 2020 has happily reached the stage where he can step onto a pitch again.

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Frustratingly for the 24-year-old and his many admirers among the Rangers fanbase, however, he is clearly not yet deemed ready for regular first team involvement with the Scottish champions.

Nikola Katic pictured during his appearance for Rangers B team in their SPFL Trust Trophy first round win over Dumbarton on August 11. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)
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It now seems likely that Katic will be loaned out before the transfer window closes in a fortnight in order to afford him the game time he requires. Aside from that 45 minutes against Brighton, his only other outing was for Rangers B team against Dumbarton last week.

One of Gerrard’s first signings as Rangers manager in the summer of 2018, the £2million fee paid to Slaven Belupo for the Croatian international quickly looked like an absolute steal.

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Katic was an instant hit with a series of assured and passionately committed displays. Gerrard was as enthusiastic as anyone about Katic’s rich potential, while also warning that he was ‘still a baby’ in terms of his development at the top level.

He had to battle for his place alongside the ubiquitous figure of Connor Goldson in the heart of Gerrard’s back four. In that first season, he faced competition from Joe Worrall and Gareth McAuley, then in 2019-20 faced fresh challengers in the shape of Filip Helander and George Edmundson.

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But his performance levels saw him awarded an extended contract in October 2019, while his approval rating among the Ibrox support went through the roof two months later when he scored the winning goal in Rangers’ first Old Firm victory at Celtic Park for nine years.

Katic’s form shaded after the winter break that season and he had lost his place in Gerrard’s starting line-up by the time football was suspended due to the coronavirus crisis in March 2020.

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The ACL injury he sustained three months later was a cruel twist of fate for Katic as he remained sidelined for all of Rangers’ historic 2020-21 Premiership title-winning campaign.

He still has two years remaining in his contract with the club and has signalled his fierce determination to force his way back into Gerrard’s side.

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Katic still has time on his side. But he now finds himself fifth in the pecking order of Rangers’ central defenders behind Goldson, Helander, Leon Balogun and Jack Simpson, the latter being of a similar age profile who was signed from Bournemouth in January.

So far, Simpson’s appearances for Rangers haven’t suggested he is an upgrade on Katic at his best.

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But until he can convince both the coaching and medical staff at the club that he is again ready for the rigorous demands of Rangers’ schedule, Katic’s hopes of reviving his Ibrox career may now be best served by a temporary departure.

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