Rangers captain James Tavernier ‘not a kick in the backside away from being a top player’

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The captain’s armband can weigh heavily on some players but there is little doubt James Tavernier has flourished since it was handed to him on a permanent basis by Rangers manager Steven Gerrard.

Right-back Tavernier has led by example in a campaign which will see the Ibrox club attempt to extend their unbeaten Europa League run to 11 games when they host Spartak Moscow tomorrow night.

James Tavernier celebrates scoring for Rangers. Picture: Getty Images

James Tavernier celebrates scoring for Rangers. Picture: Getty Images

The 26-year-old’s contribution has included eight goals so far, seven of them from the penalty spot – including crucial and nerveless conversions during that unbeaten European sequence against Shkupi, Maribor and Rapid Vienna.

Tavernier still attracts criticism for the defensive side of his game, with former Hibs boss Alan Stubbs this week recalling he specifically targeted the former Newcastle and Wigan player when plotting the Easter Road club’s 2016 Scottish Cup final win over Rangers.

But according to Jimmy Nicholl, whose spell as assistant and then caretaker manager at Ibrox last season saw him work closely with Tavernier, there are clear signs of improvement in that regard.

Nicholl can safely be regarded as an authority on what is required to become a top class operator in the position and feels Tavernier has all the necessary tools.

Tavernier and Connor Goldson visit Robin House to meet with young Rangers fan Kenzie. Picture: Stuart Wallace

Tavernier and Connor Goldson visit Robin House to meet with young Rangers fan Kenzie. Picture: Stuart Wallace

“When I look at Tav, I just think about my own career and wish I’d had the same ability he has in the final third of the pitch,” Nicholl told The Scotsman.

“The way he takes people on, the way he arrives in the box, the way he crosses the ball – everything about that is top quality from him. You can’t get right to the top unless you can also defend and that’s the part of his game which has always been questioned. I’m not going to say anything different from anyone else on that.

“I read the comments from Alan Stubbs about him and it reminded me of a time in my own Rangers career, before a game against Dundee United. The manager Graeme Souness and his assistant Walter Smith told me United had been talking about me as being Rangers’ weakness. They were going to target me, get in behind me and exploit what they felt was my weakness in the air.

“I said ‘Is that right?’ That’s when your personal pride comes into it and I remember getting the bit between my teeth and making sure it didn’t happen.

“It’s the same with Tav, I remember pointing out articles to him where people had been saying he was Rangers’ weakness defensively. He has to use that as a spur and I think he does.

“Has he been better defensively this season? Yes. Has he still got a bit to go? Yes. But he can get there.

“With a completely new defence alongside him this season, he has extra responsibility to make sure they settle down together. So I think that’s probably helped him improve his own defensive qualities already – because you can’t be laying down the law to the rest of the defenders if you are not doing your job properly yourself.

“If the only thing he was bothered about was ‘attack, attack, attack’, not bothering with his duties at the back, he’d have no standing in the eyes of the other defenders.”

Nicholl is dismissive of the notion Tavernier’s obvious abilities would be better utilised by deploying him in a more advanced position.

“No chance,” said the Northern Ireland assistant manager. “If you put him wide right, he would be easier to mark because the opposition left-back would be tight against him. He’d have his back to the opposition goal too often and the game wouldn’t open up for him the way it does when he’s playing right-back.

“He’s definitely better at right-back and for me he isn’t a kick in the backside away from being a really top player in that position. There’s no doubt about it.

“You can talk to Tav about it and he takes it on board. I found him very open to it and honest about it. 
“No-one really needs to tell him he’s still a wee bit short defensively, he knows it himself and is prepared to work hard at addressing it.

“I’ve always said to any full-back, and I said it to Tav when I was there, that you can always go in and join an attack from a good defensive position.

“Don’t be standing up the park, waiting for a switch of play so you can go and attack in the final third. You can do that from a good defensive position.

“But sometimes the positive aspects of his game override anything else. He scores goals, he creates chances. If Rangers win games because of his crossing, his assists or his goals, then it’s alright.

“He’s doing fine. He has just signed a new contract at Rangers. He’s captain of Rangers. That’s not to be sniffed at.

“He’s said he wants to win trophies at Rangers first and that’s good to hear. I’ve really enjoyed watching them in Europe this season. Over the piece, I think things are going great for them under Gerrard. They are shaping up nicely.”

• Tavernier was joined by defensive colleague Connor Goldson as the pair visited the Robin House Children’s Hospice in Balloch to meet four-year-old Rangers fan, Kenzie, along with other families receiving support.

The Gers skipper said: “We were really pleased to come and see the children today, as well as meet their families and show our support.”

Kenzie lives with a very rare condition classified as Hoyeraal-Hreidarsson Syndrome, which severely impacts his immune and neurological systems.

The Ibrox duo spent time playing football, taking selfies and signing items for the group, after Kenzie’s father Kevin wrote to the Rangers Charity Foundation.

Kevin said: “Today has been incredible. It makes me happy to see Kenzie happy, and he’s been smiling from the minute James and Connor came in – the way they interacted with him was amazing.

Tavernier added: “Kenzie was amazing – he beat us at everything we played and took some great penalties! It’s been great spending time with him and everyone at Robin House today.”