World class. The two words Rangers boss Steven Gerrard used to describe Allan McGregor after his side’s 0-0 draw with Maribor as the team progressed to the play-off round of the Europa League.
Since returning to Ibrox this summer the experienced Scotland international has proven his worth with an array of steady displays as Rangers’ defensive solidity has improved greatly under Gerrard.
They are the only team left in the Europa League from the first qualifying round yet to concede a goal away from home, as per Dougie Wright, while their record of three goals conceded in eight games is a substantially better ratio than last season’s Rangers side who shipped 61 goals in 47 games in all competitions under Pedro Caixinha and Graeme Murty. In the league they had the worst defensive record out of the top seven teams. It proved to be a big factor in determining who finished second as Aberdeen pipped them to the runners-up spot.
Yet, two of the back five were earmarked as players who had a future under incoming manager Gerrard. For one, James Tavernier, that has been the case as he was handed the club captaincy. The other? Goalkeeper Wes Foderingham.
The Englishman has been one of the club’s most consistent players since arriving in 2015, albeit that feat is not as impressive as it should be. Still, when analysing the areas which required improvement the goalkeeping situation was one that appeared to be in place already and efforts could be focused elsewhere, especially as Foderingham continued to dismiss reports linking him with a move away.
He may have unnerved fans on arrival with his distribution from feet and has a tendency to be beaten from long-range shots but he proved himself to be one of the best goalkeepers in the division. With so much work to be undertaken on the squad it really did not seem a pressing issue.
So when Allan McGregor was confirmed as a Rangers player as early as the middle of May it was seen by some as an unnecessary use of a likely sizeable wage, certainly from the outside looking in.
Three months later it is very much a case of ‘Wes who?’
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McGregor’s performance in Slovenia was so assured on Thursday night that Rangers fans took to social media to wax lyrical about their No.1. So much so that at one point he was trending on Twitter. Meanwhile, centre-back Connor Goldson shared an image on his Instagram account declaring his love for his goalkeeper.
It is easy to understand Goldson’s admiration for the 36-year-old. He is a comforting and reliable presence behind a new look back four. Gerrard’s signings in defence have all had a positive impact but even he couldn’t have imagined them gelling so quickly. The defensive unit, especially away from home in Europe, looks like it has been together for more than 100 games.
It is testament to Gerrard’s work on the training ground and on the field he has been aided by McGregor’s experience.
Gerrard said: “It’s just a shame he’s almost the same age as me because we love him, the Rangers fans love him, I just wish he was ten years younger.”
A trustworthy presence between the sticks is difficult to quantify. But having played nearly 600 games at club level and for Scotland, including in the top-flights of England, Scotland and Turkey, is of massive benefit, especially when such a player can produce at key moments. And that is what he has done, especially in the home and away ties with Croatian side Nk Osijek.
It is hard to argue the case that McGregor is a substantial upgrade on Foderingham? But he is an upgrade with subtle differences making a difference.
McGregor is a more decisive and confident goalkeeper and, as mentioned previously, highly experienced. He has been there and done it at the club. He knows what it takes to play with the pressure which comes with Rangers. And he knows what it is like to win trophies.
In terms of your bog standard goalkeeping, there is a one aspect which, on closer inspection, is already noticeable. McGregor has a more proactive starting position when facing shots. Foderingham can find himself three or four yards off his line and retreating, whereas McGregor is on the front foot more, positioned closer to the edge of the six yard box, offering opponents a smaller target to aim for. It is a very small difference but a difference all the same.
Rangers have had a very promising start to life under Steven Gerrard and a key role has been played by McGregor. Fans will be delighted to have such a talented goalkeeper and personality back at the club and also comfortable knowing they have the best goalkeeping option in terms of No.2 as well.