If Steven Gerrard hopes to emulate Graeme Souness by winning the league title at the first attempt in his first managerial job at Rangers, then addressing the issue of their chronic away form in the Premiership so far this season is clearly a priority.
Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Livingston left Gerrard’s squad still chasing their first league win on the road after four attempts – their worst such run since a similar start to the 1989-90 campaign.
Mark Walters was a member of that Rangers side under Souness 29 years ago who had to wait until their fifth away fixture at St Mirren to take maximum points on their travels. They went on to win the title – the first of three Walters claimed during his time at Ibrox – and the former winger believes Gerrard’s team can follow suit.
Walters, back in town yesterday for the launch of his autobiography, sees strong similarities between Gerrard and his fellow former Liverpool midfield icon and skipper Souness.
“They were both fantastic players, both played in a similar position and are strong characters,” said Walters. “Obviously Graeme had greater finances to buy players, he was buying internationals all the time. Steven doesn’t have that luxury.
“Without a doubt one of the reasons I joined Rangers was because Graeme was manager. I was a big admirer of him as a player, I played against him a few times, and the fact he was getting all these big English players, internationals to Rangers definitely was one of the big reasons why I signed.
“I’m sure it’s the same for players now with Steven. I’ve heard a few of them say he was a big influence in their decision to join the club this season.
“Steven wouldn’t have come to Rangers if they were happy with being second or also-rans. He’s not happy with being a second-rate manager because that’s not in his make-up. So all the players that have signed will think ‘well, if Steven Gerrard’s coming here then there must be a good reason’ and that will be, without a doubt, one of the big reasons why the players are coming at the moment.
“I would say Steven has already made a big difference to Rangers. The games I have watched so far, they are more expansive, more attacking and tactically they seem better.
“They have had a little hiccup here and there, which is normal as he’s young in his career as a manager. But they are definitely going in the right direction and if they can win the big games when they come along, such as Hearts at Ibrox on Sunday, then it’s possible they could even win the league.
“I felt second place was realistically what he could have hoped for in his first season but the romantic Rangers fan in me says if they can win the big games, do well against the smaller teams, then they could win the league.
“Looking back to that run of away games we had in ’89, I think Graeme hardly spoke to us. Whenever we didn’t win, he’d go very quiet in the dressing room but then be effing and blinding and going in over the top on us at training!
“It can become a psychological problem when you have a run of results like that away from home. Maybe, for Rangers, it’s just the pressure of being away that they can’t get over at the moment. Invariably, these things will turn round over the course of a season but your home record is usually better than your away record anyway.
“However, while it’s unusual for them not to have won away from home for that length of time, I can’t see it lasting for long with the players and the attacking mentality they have under Steven. It will get better for them – there’s no doubt in my mind about that. It’s better to have a sequence of results like that now than at the business end of a season when all the games really matter – and the clubs with bigger squads tend to deal with that better anyway.”
Walters says writing his book, Wingin’ It, has been a “cathartic” experience as he reflected on a life and career in which he overcame racism to play at the top level of the game in England and Scotland. His experiences while at Rangers, when he was pelted with bananas and subjected to monkey chants at Celtic Park and Tynecastle in two of his early games at the club, became so well documented he admits he grew weary of recounting them at one stage.
But the 54-year-old, now a prominent anti-racism campaigner, is encouraged by the overall improvement in behaviour towards black players from the stands.
“After I left Rangers, whenever a black player came to Scotland, I always got a call from journalists up here to talk about it – after ten years of it, it got a bit boring, to be honest!” he says.
“So I avoided speaking about it for about 15 years. Doing the book was really good for me. There are things I haven’t spoken about before in there. Players don’t have to worry about racism so much now. My peers at the start of my career, some of them at clubs like Coventry or West Brom, just couldn’t handle the abuse.
“It affected them on the pitch, they got into fights with other players or skirmishes with refs. As a coach, you can’t have players who are problematic in their team, so a lot of the black players went out of the game unfortunately.
“I don’t hear so much about racist incidents in football now. It has come on leaps and bounds.
“I reflect on Scottish football as a fantastic time in my career. My debut at Celtic wasn’t memorable for good reasons, of course. I’m human and when you are just 23 years old and have 60,000 people abusing you, it’s hard to take and understand.
“But the bigger picture was good. My first goal always sticks out for me. I always scored around one in three down in England, maybe because I took penalties, but I went seven games without scoring when I joined Rangers.
“Scoring was important for me so my first goal against Raith Rovers was really memorable. I thought, ‘I can always say I scored a goal for Glasgow Rangers’. So those two memories stick out for me, the second one on a more positive note.”
l Wingin’ It – The Mark Walters Story. By Mark Walters with Jeff Holmes, Pitch Publishing, £18.99