'Writ large all over this title race' - Why Rangers veteran is key factor in Celtic power shift

During his unsparing post-match condemnation of Rangers’ performance at Hamilton Accies last Sunday, Allan McGregor was asked if he took any consolation from his own outstanding display.

Allan McGregor has kept 13 clean sheets in his 19 Premiership appearances for Rangers so far this season. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Allan McGregor has kept 13 clean sheets in his 19 Premiership appearances for Rangers so far this season. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

His withering response provided a sharp insight into a mentality which has made the veteran goalkeeper such a major factor in the relentless consistency of a team poised to bring the league title to Ibrox for the first time in a decade.

“No, I’d rather be rubbish [personally] and win the game,” said McGregor after Rangers had dropped points for only the fourth time in the Premiership this season. As an on-field lieutenant driving the standards Steven Gerrard has sought to instil at Rangers, McGregor’s attitude is as valuable as his ability.

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The 39-year-old’s exceptional performance in the 1-1 draw simply underlined that he remains the best goalkeeper in the country by a distance and why Rangers will be so hopeful he can be persuaded to extend his playing career for at least one more season beyond the end of his current contract this summer.

Allan McGregor greets Celtic goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas during the first Old Firm game of the season at Parkhead in October which Rangers won 2-0. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

McGregor’s reliability and influence has been crucial in establishing a defensive solidity which has seen Rangers concede just eight goals in 28 league games so far.

While there are many reasons why the Old Firm balance of power has tilted so dramatically in this most momentous of seasons, the significance of having a dependable goalkeeper cannot be overstated.

Where Celtic could previously enjoy that sense of assurance over the position when it was occupied by Craig Gordon or Fraser Forster, their failure to hold onto either of those two course and distance title winners last summer has proved to be a major misjudgement.

When he returned to Celtic on loan for a second spell at the club last season, Forster brought with him a presence and confidence which helped see off Rangers’ challenge and secure a ninth consecutive title for the champions.

The big Englishman kept 14 clean sheets in his 28 league appearances, although his impact was most sharply felt in the League Cup Final when his almost single-handed defiance of a dominant Rangers side as a 10-man Celtic triumphed 1-0 at Hampden struck a telling psychological blow on the Ibrox men.

Like McGregor, Forster had an ability to make big saves at crucial moments of matches. It is a quality Celtic have badly missed this season.

Vasilis Barkas, a much hyped £4.5 million capture from AEK Athens, has kept just six clean sheets and conceded 10 goals in his 13 Premiership appearances, struggling to impress.

Scott Bain has fared little better with just two clean sheets and 10 goals conceded in eight Premiership appearances. Conor Hazard’s numbers are better, albeit across a smaller sample with four clean sheets and just one goal conceded in his five Premiership outings but Celtic are clearly not yet ready to place their faith in the young Northern Ireland international.

By contrast, Rangers not only have a firmly established number one in McGregor but also have full confidence in his deputy Jon McLaughlin. The former Hearts and Sunderland man has kept eight clean sheets in his nine Premiership appearances this season, most of them when McGregor was injured at the start of the campaign.

The merit of a trustworthy last line of defence is writ large all over this title race.

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