Ryan Kent’s finish to put Rangers in command against Dundee on Saturday was impressively sure-footed considering he hadn’t scored since April last year.
The 21-year-old winger was not signed on loan from Liverpool for his goals. He is someone Steven Gerrard expects will create openings for others. But clearly it’s hoped he will contribute to the Rangers goals-for column.
After failing to get off the mark in his opening ten appearances, Kent’s anxiety betrayed him. Gerrard called the player into his office before the Dundee clash and reassured him. He told him to stop worrying so much about what others were saying and concentrate on enjoying his football. Kent was allowing comments relating to his lack of goals to get under his skin.
After all, the winger is only 21 and is still regarded as a project by Liverpool, who have allowed him to go out on loan previously to places like Coventry City and Barnsley, where he had scored his previous senior goal 17 months ago in a defeat against Wigan Athletic.
Rangers are quite clearly a different proposition. Older, more experienced players have crumpled under the weight of expectation at the Ibrox club. Saturday’s clash against bottom-of-the-table Dundee was not among the most attractive of Rangers’ assignments right now but a huge crowd of over 50,000 still watched them bounce back from the defeat by Celtic earlier this month.
Kent was careful to note it isn’t supporters who were getting him down. “It’s people on the outside that I mean are focused on those things,” he explained, with reference to his perceived lack of goals – just four in over 80 senior appearances before Saturday.
“The fans have been really good to me here, I can’t fault them, they have always been supportive of me,” he added. “But I am talking about last season and the season before that as well. I know myself that I need to add goals to my game. But the gaffer has told me not to worry about it. He said I just need to focus on my own performances and that my performances have been good up to now.”
Scoring, he accepts, will mean he is more likely to register on Liverpool’s radar. Fans of the Anfield club who wonder how he’s doing at Rangers will have noted a failure to get on the scoresheet in his opening ten appearances and assume he’s struggling, which, Kent cautions, is a mistake. He is comforted that Gerrard is more interested in performance levels and industry. Kent was a constant thorn in Dundee’s side.
“It was reassuring to speak with him,” said Kent. “When you have a manager willing to put you in the team when you are not putting numbers forward in terms of goals and assists then it is a big boost when he still backs you.
“Behind the scenes at the club they will look at distance covered and other things. But a lot of fans and people outside football are obsessed with goals. Sometimes that doesn’t do justice to your performance if people are not watching the games.
“They just see who has scored the goals. But I’ve got one now and hopefully I can keep making people happy.”
Kent, as with many of his teammates, failed to shine at Celtic Park just over a fortnight ago. But he was in the thick of things on Saturday. It helped that the Dens Park side were next on the list of Rangers’ opponents. If Dundee are good for anything right now it’s giving others confidence. They helped newly-promoted St Mirren off to a flyer on the opening day and haven’t stopped lending others assistance in the time since. They’ve now lost their first five league games on the bounce. It isn’t looking good for Dundee, nor manager Neil McCann, who saw Kenny Miller given a straight red card after 78 minutes for a late challenge on Borna Barisic.
Rangers wished for a game where they could hone their attacking instincts and be comfortable enough to permit changes with Thursday’s opening Europa League group game against Villarreal in mind. Dundee proved worryingly compliant. The visitors were three down by half-time.
Kent was replaced after 65 minutes, while Lassana Coulibaly, on his return from injury, was given a very productive 55-minute run-out. He swept in Rangers’ opener after just four minutes. Kent’s personally significant strike followed soon afterwards and was the goal of the match. He exchanged one-twos with Alfredos Morelos and Scott Arfield while cutting through the statuesque Dundee defence before keeping his cool to tuck the ball beyond Elliot Parish.
James Tavernier scored a penalty on the stroke of half-time and teenager Glenn Middleton got his first goal for the club seven minutes from the end.
Kent was resting his weary limbs by then. He was heartened to hear Gerrard explain that he was taken off so early in the game in order to keep him fresh for Thursday’s clash with Villarreal. It’s further proof he has become an established starter under Gerrard, his main aim when heading north.
“The way the gaffer treats everyone means everyone wants to go out and give 110 per cent for him,” he said. “Both individually and collectively.”
Kent is now relishing the prospect of playing against Villarreal. The challenge, while a step up, should hold fewer fears after the way Rangers negotiated four ties en route to qualifying for the group stage.
“As a young player, Europe is the biggest stage you want to be playing on,” he said.
“The biggest thing about the Dundee match was to bounce back from the last game and get the result. I think we will go over there with confidence and enjoy the game.
“After full-time on Saturday, everyone agreed that we could have been better. Going into Thursday’s game, our performances have proved that we deserve a place in the group stage so we will go there with full confidence.”