As a parting gift, Rangers interim Jimmy Nicholl has the potential to provide incoming Ibrox manager Steven Gerrard with a not insignificant one, assuming Celtic can also help out.
Nicholl will look to guide his team to victory away to Hibernian this afternoon as the Premiership reaches its conclusion. If that victory is achieved and Celtic do not lose to Aberdeen, then Rangers will have salvaged a runners-up berth from a tortuous season. It is a placing that would allow them to enter the Europa League in the second qualifying round on 26 July – provided Brendan Rodgers’ men defeat Motherwell in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final.
As it stands, Rangers are third. If they remain there, or Motherwell win the cup, they will be pitched into the first qualifying phase of the Europa League. This would mean their season starting with a first tie on 12 July. With Gerrard only taking office on 1 June, two weeks more preparation time could be crucial as Rangers look to avoid the nightmare that was their Europa League first round qualifying loss to Luxembourg part-timers Progres Niederkorn last year.
“It is a big thing as it gives the manager extra time to get players in and train a bit longer with them,” Nicholl said. “How we have kept things together to possibly be second in the league… People talk about achievement. Why are you going on about second and Europe being a great achievement? Because I know what it has been like at times. To keep that together, and what it took from Graeme [Murty] to keep that together, it has been an achievement, I tell you.”
The season in statistics tells a sorry story of the Ibrox club. In the past ten-and-a-bit months they have had three managers, seven captains and 11 central defensive partnerships. Gerrard has little to work with and Nicholl doesn’t shirk when it comes to the possibility of making any kind of impression in continental competition.
“If you look at what they did last year they are a million miles away,” he said. “But you can’t think like that. Sometimes a run in Europe just lifts the place. You would like to think what happened last year won’t happen again. The manager will be wanting to achieve as much as he can. If he gets a run in Europe then he is off to a flyer right away.
“When I arrived at Rangers as a player [for the second time] the place was rocking because it was the summer of 1986 when Graeme Souness arrived.
“I hope the same things happen with the new manager and the place is bouncing. But, you have to have the players on the park who can do a job for you. He is going to bring a lot of attention to the league, Stevie Gerrard, I hope it is going to be for the best.”
That this afternoon could bring twists and turns in the shoot-out between Rangers and Aberdeen in the quest for second place is something that no-one need explain to Jak Alnwick.
His brother Ben is Bolton Wanderers’ goalkeeper and was part of what is being described as the “great escape” last weekend. when they retained their place in the Championship by coming from 2-1 down to beat Nottingham Forest.