Rangers on course to give Steven Gerrard a European welcome gift

David Bates scores the decisive goal against Kilmarnock at Ibrox on Saturday. Picture: PA.David Bates scores the decisive goal against Kilmarnock at Ibrox on Saturday. Picture: PA.
David Bates scores the decisive goal against Kilmarnock at Ibrox on Saturday. Picture: PA.
A campaign which can't end quickly enough as far as Rangers supporters are concerned still has some crucial miles left to cover.

The trips to Pittodrie and Easter Road over the next seven days will determine whether – and when – Steven Gerrard makes his debut as manager of the Ibrox club in European football next season.

On an afternoon when both the man himself and the Gerrard-mania which had gripped Govan for his appointment the day before were conspicuous by their absence from the stadium, a goal five minutes from time by a player who will not feature in the new era at Rangers ensured their bid for a Europa League place remains in their own hands.

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David Bates, the central defender whose contract was curiously allowed to run down and who will join Hamburg on a free transfer next month, marked his final appearance for the club at Ibrox with a potentially crucial contribution when he headed home a fine Sean Goss cross to finally break the deadlock against an obdurate Kilmarnock.

The goalless draw between Aberdeen and Hibernian, their rivals in the race for second place in the Premiership, leaves Rangers a point behind the Dons and two ahead of Neil Lennon’s men.

With a superior goal difference to both, it means two draws for Rangers at Pittodrie tomorrow night and Easter Road on Sunday would be enough for at least a third-place finish and entry to the Europa League first qualifying round on 12 July. If Rangers finish second in the league, and Celtic beat Motherwell in the Scottish Cup final, then Gerrard’s managerial reign will begin in the second qualifying round of the Europa League on 26 July.

In the meantime, the former Liverpool and England captain is perhaps wisely keeping his distance before his four-year contract as Rangers manager formally begins on 1 June. Any association between Gerrard and a season which began with European humiliation in Luxembourg and has recently suffered record-breaking Old Firm defeats is best avoided from his perspective.

But before Gerrard comes in with a clean slate next month, there is work left for caretaker boss Jimmy Nicholl to do. On what he admitted was a stressful afternoon, the veteran Ulsterman could at least be gratified by the doggedness and grim determination of the Rangers players to dredge up some kind of positive response to the 5-0 drubbing at Celtic Park the previous weekend which brought Graeme Murty’s time in charge to a wretched end.

Kilmarnock, with nothing meaningful to play for in the post-split fixtures, were comfortable and competitive in a largely dreary first half. While Jamie Murphy clipped the top of the bar with a header for Rangers, the visitors came closest to a goal before the interval when Jak Alnwick made a terrific double save from Kris Boyd’s stinging free-kick and Aaron Tshibola’s close-range follow-up effort.

“I’m gutted at missing the chance,” said on-loan Aston Villa midfielder Tshibola. “Before the game, I actually dreamed of scoring at Ibrox. My eyes lit up at that chance and it was a fantastic save from the keeper. It sums up our day. On another occasion, that goes in.”

Rangers, with Ross McCrorie excelling in a central midfield role after replacing the ill Jason Cummings in a reshaped line-up, dominated the second half but struggled to turn any of their possession into clear-cut chances.

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The introduction of Goss for Jason Holt with 16 minutes remaining made the difference. The on-loan QPR man has been a peripheral figure since being dropped by Murty following Rangers’ 1-0 defeat by Killie back in March but he came up trumps here with the perfect cross which Bates buried from close range.

“It has been frustrating not being in the team,” reflected Goss, pictured. “You just have to be patient and wait for a chance. I have come on today and hopefully showed again what I can do.

“We needed a bit of freshen up in the team and a few of us had to miss out recently. It was tough for me having to watch the last two Old Firm games from the bench. Whether you are in the team or not, it is hard to take defeats like those.

“Now I just want to stay in the team for the last two games against Aberdeen and Hibs. They are going to be tough games but I want to play my part in getting us where we want to be, which is second place in the league and into Europe.”

Rangers were fortunate to end the afternoon with 11 men on the pitch, striker Alfredo Morelos escaping a second yellow card for a petulant stoppage-time swipe at defender Stuart Findlay after being booked for a foul on the same player moments earlier, prompting Killie manager Steve Clarke was to question the “fairness” of referee Alan Muir.

“There were a couple of decisions which should have been looked at closely,” agreed Tshibola. “He [Findlay] was hit by a late challenge from Morelos. I saw him whack his lower body. I don’t know if the ref saw it, but we don’t blame the result on that. We matched Rangers but it came down to a set piece and a lack of concentration from us late on.”