Rangers boss Steven Gerrard demands focus on both Europe and league

Even before UEFA ensured this week that the continental arena would not be a safe zone for Rangers supporters to express any racist/sectarian sentiments, many among the Ibrox faithful were ambivalent about Europa League group participation by their club.

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard has European progress for his charges as his first priority. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard has European progress for his charges as his first priority. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

The campaign, for so many of them, is all about stopping Celtic reaching nine-in-a-row, and by extension setting themselves up at a crack for a record run of ten straight titles. In that sense, a win today at St Mirren would be valued more by this band than capitalising on their scoreless draw against Legia Warsaw in the Polish capital the other night. Steven Gerrard’s men will be looking to do that by sealing a place in the Europa League group stages on Thursday at an Ibrox with part of a stand closed because of a punishment for “racist behaviour (sectarian chants)” meted out by the governing body.

The former England and Liverpool captain appreciates that the Thursday-Sunday schedule brought on by continued European involvement would place exacting demands on a squad he has upholstered precisely in order to cope with this eventuality. He understands, too, that, for some among the club’s followers, such a programme has the potential to distract from, and dilute, a title tilt they cannot countenance failing in. He gets all this, but he can’t go along with it. Not least when there are pounds to be earned to the tune of £10 million, and prestige to be earned that could be priceless.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“I totally understand their opinions but I don’t think they’re giving a thought to being in my shoes when you’ve got a board and a chairman who want European football and a fan base desperate to follow the team around Europe,” the Rangers manager said. “I want to coach in Europe. The players want to play in Europe in front of a full Ibrox and play in environments such as Legia. So, everybody wants it. Would it be an advantage to have only one game a week? I’m sure it would but at big clubs you can’t prioritise. You have to have a squad that’s capable of competing on all fronts.

“This club needs European football; it’s a simple message. We are not in a position to quit on Europe and prioritise domestic competition. Because if we want to keep growing, and keeping bringing players and attracting players to make the 11 and the squad stronger, we need to be in a better financial situation. And that’s what Europe gives you so it’s pretty simple. This club can only compete in the transfer market and keep strengthening with the finances of Europe. It certainly makes everything a lot healthier.

“I think all I’d say to those people who are really strong on wanting to focus on one competition is: imagine I put an understrength team out in Warsaw and we were sitting here after a two or three-nil defeat, imagine what would be coming in my direction.”

In essence, what would suit Rangers best is that both they and nine-in-a-row chasing Celtic make it through to the Europa League group stages. Then they would be even-steven both in terms of the number of games they require to negotiate over the next four months, and requirement to play Thursday-Sunday on the six European match weeks. He can’t, though, say he is rooting for Celtic to get the job done away to AIK Stockholm this week.

“I think I basically answered that question in saying that any team that doesn’t have the Thursday-Sunday situation and just have one game a week there is an advantage there. I think I’ve seen tonnes and tonnes of managers say that in the Premier League over the years.

“The year we [Liverpool] went really close to winning the Premier League we didn’t have Europe. We just had one game to focus on and prepare for and it does give you an advantage. From a physical point of view but also from a mental point of view as well.

“If you’re playing a top four opponent and they are playing four hours away in Russia they’re not getting back to four or five in the morning and have one day to prepare and you have four or five days to prepare, there’s your advantage straight away.”