Now that the final ball has been kicked and the dust has settled on the 2020/21 season, it is time to reflect and celebrate an incredible season for Rangers. The season where the long awaited 55th league title was delivered and we were returned to our rightful place as kings of Scotland.
In this three part series, we will dissect and discuss this past season. Part one will look at all domestic matters from the first game of the season until the end of December. Part two will focus on our European campaign and part three will look at the remainder of the domestic season after the New Year.
In the words of title winning Rangers manager Steven Gerrard: “Let’s Go!”
Part 1 – Empty stands full of hope
After five months without a ball being kicked in anger, Rangers restarted top flight football in Scotland with a trip to Pittodrie on the first day of August. It was an eerie sight seeing Rangers play in a stadium with no fans, something that we have sadly become accustomed to.
The team that lined up that day was familiar and apart from new signing Leon Balogun, it was the same team that had fallen at the start of 2020 and allowed Celtic to be handed the Premiership trophy by the authorities.
You could forgive the fans then for maybe not being too enthused for the start of the new season and it wasn’t exactly a performance to excite either. However, in hindsight it was an incredibly important result. Ryan Kent scored the only goal of the game to seal all three points in a match where Aberdeen rarely looked interested in attacking and instead looked to frustrate Rangers and wait for a mistake.
Although Celtic’s 5-1 victory over Hamilton may have been more eye-catching and enough for some pundits to tell us the league was a foregone conclusion. Rangers showed the steel, resilience and relentlessness that would see 55 delivered and an undefeated league season come May.
Routine home wins over St.Mirren and St.Johnstone would come next as Rangers scored nine goals in our first three games without conceding any. New signings Jon McLaughlin, Kemar Roofe and Cedric Itten were also starting to be introduced as Rangers looked like they were falling into a nice early groove.
That looked like it could come unstuck when Rangers would drop their first points of the season with a 0-0 draw away at Livingston. A tepid performance where Rangers failed to break down the stubborn low block. It looked like an all too familiar performance for some and the first mumblings of worry could be heard as the support speculated if we were in for more of the same from Gerrard’s Rangers team. Would this be a team that flatters to deceive and be unable to get it over the line when it matters?
We were given a small helping hand by our neighbours across the city. Celtic left back, Boli Bolingoli, decided to leave the country and fly to Spain before playing in his team’s 1-1 draw with Kilmarnock, during the second weekend of the season. This, of course, broke COVID-19 protocols and Celtic were made to sit out for two weeks. This allowed Rangers to open a six point lead before Celtic next kicked a ball, a lead which we would never give up.
Rangers bounced back after the Livingston draw with wins over Kilmarnock and Hamilton to close out the month. September started with an impressive hammering of Dundee United at Ibrox and Rangers again looked to have found their rhythm.
There was to be another bump in the road the next week when Rangers dropped points in Edinburgh after a 2-2 draw with Hibs, this ended Rangers seven game streak without losing a goal in the league. A disappointing result as Rangers worked hard to take the lead after a poor first half performance. But an offside equaliser from Christian Doidge and an incredible double chance missed by Scott Arfield meant Rangers had to settle for a share of the points.
Again, questions were asked, perhaps unfairly in hindsight. Giving up points from winning positions was something that had sunk Rangers title hopes the past two seasons. Was this to be a feature of Rangers 2020/21. Considering this would be the last time we would drop points until the middle January, you would have to say no.
Rangers finished up September with a delightful performance away at Firk Park as Motherwell were brushed aside 5-1 and October started with a 2-0 win over Ross County at Ibrox. This led into the first Old Firm game of the season.
Celtic, for their part, had come back from their unexpected break and looked fairly unimpressive but they were getting the results. They had to come from behind to beat St.Mirren and Livingston and relied on two goals in injury time to beat St.Johnstone. Was this a sign of champions grinding out the results when needed or were cracks starting to show in the 10-in-a-row dream?
This all meant that Rangers travelled to Parkhead on the 17th October a point ahead but had played a game more. This was where the marker was going to be set, who would lay down the challenge for the other to chase? What followed was one of the most comfortable Old Firm wins in memory.
Rangers took the lead early on thanks to probably the two biggest performers in the squad throughout the season. A James Tavernier free kick was met by the head of Connor Goldson and Rangers were off to the races. Rangers were ahead inside 10 minutes and the response from Celtic, quite frankly, never came.
A second goal after half time from Goldson, as he scored through the legs of the much lauded Shane Duffy, sealed the victory for Rangers in a game where Celtic never managed a single shot on target. Allan McGregor may as well have been in any club in the city centre, if they were open, for all he was needed.
This was not a hammering, it won’t get the songs like the 5-1 in 1988 and it might not even get as many rewatches on YouTube in the years to come as the 4-1 later in the season. However, this was the perfect Old Firm performance as it was the manner of the victory that was most important. Rangers treated Celtic that day not as defending champions, not as our nearest challengers but as if they were any other team in the league.
We could have been playing Motherwell, St.Mirren, Aberdeen or Forfar Athletic that day and we would have handled it the same way and the result would have been the same. Celtic just happened to be the team in our way that day and they were treated with the ease and contempt that a team that finishes 25 points behind you deserves.
The task for Rangers now was to prove that they could handle being leaders and not falter like they had done the two previous seasons after impressive wins against Celtic. There would be many tests and boxes to be ticked along way if Rangers were to become champions, the first one came in the very next fixture as Rangers travelled to Rugby Park to play Kilmarnock.
Playing a team at a ground where we had frustratingly struggled the last few seasons, a win here would be a big indicator that this team had turned the corner. A Tavernier penalty in the 19th minute was enough to get the win. It wasn’t pretty but it was what was needed and once again Rangers showed they had a little something about them to win in difficult places.
Rangers then went through the whole of November without losing a goal domestically with an incredible 8-0 win over Hamilton at Ibrox. An equally pleasing 4-0 humbling of Aberdeen and another 4-0 win over Falkirk in the second round of the League Cup.
Things were looking good, very good. Everyone knew however that December and the festive period would be huge for Rangers. We had to travel to Dingwall, Dundee and Perth during December before playing Hibs at Ibrox on Boxing Day. Tricky, but if we could got through this period unscathed or in a good position, we could really start to dream.
As for Celtic, well all their hopes seemed to rely on Rangers falling away. They followed up the Old Firm defeat by drawing three out of their next four games. They finished November with a 2-0 defeat at home to Ross County in the League Cup. Falling behind Rangers in the league, out of Europe and now embarrassed by Ross County proved to be too much for some Celtic fans as they headed to the car park to demand the removal of Neil Lennon as manager.
The emotions and the sharks were really flying at Parkhead. Things were truly mental as anything over in the east end as Rangers continued to live it up!
Rangers had no such trouble with Ross County as December started with a comfortable 4-0 win away in Dingwall. Celtic’s 1-1 draw at home to St.Johnstone later that day left Rangers 13 points clear at the top of the table.
Captain Tavernier really came into his own during this period and his performances were outstanding. I don’t think there was a player in the squad more determined to make sure the league title came home to Ibrox. This was optimized by his beautiful, mind boggling free kick at Tannadice a week later as Rangers dug deep to see off Dundee United. That was one big test passed.
December did bring about one of the biggest disappointments of the season as Rangers were knocked out of the League Cup following a 3-2 defeat away to St.Mirren. A combination of a really poor performance and a St.Mirren team right up for the tie (and the cursed retro top of course) saw the hosts progress. The disappointment was heightened by the fact that Celtic had already been knocked out and many saw it as Rangers cup to lose.
The next game against Motherwell then became all important. In the past two seasons under Gerrard, the team had failed to win the next game after being knocked out of cup competition. Now was not the time to give a Celtic on the ropes a glimmer of hope that there was a way back into this title race.
I don’t know many Rangers fans who can say they weren’t a little concerned when Motherwell took the lead after only five minutes. Oh dear, here we go! Things were going too well, is this where it starts to fall apart?
For a lot of the game, it looked like it could. After scoring, Motherwell deployed a 5-5-0 formation deliberately done to kill the game and frustrate Rangers. Say what you want about it aesthetically or what it says for the spirit of the game etc. but for large parts of the game, it bloody worked!
That was until the 73rd minute when Roofe fired home from the edge of the six yard box to put Rangers back on level terms. Then, in the 82nd minute, Itten had got free at the back post and a Tavernier corner finally found its way to the big stiker who nodded the ball into the net and roars of relief and celebration were let loose in Rangers supporting households across the nation.
Roofe got a second in injury time to make the scoreline a little more comfortable but we got the result we needed. This was when many truly started to believe that this was our title and we would not be denied.
It was much more comfortable in Perth four days later as Rangers ran out 3-0 winners. The last big test of the year was handled fairly comfortably too as Hibs were beaten 1-0 at Ibrox on Boxing Day, thanks to a tremendous finish from Iannis Hagi. Rangers then wrapped up 2020 avenging the League Cup exit with a 2-0 win over St.Mirren in Paisley.
On New Year’s Day, Rangers sat top of the table 16 points ahead of Celtic but had played three games more. Rangers had come through December unscathed in the league and now had the chance to kill of Celtic hopes in the next game.
The 2nd January 2021, the first game of the year saw Celtic travel to Ibrox for the second Old Firm encounter of the season. This was it, this was our chance to kill off their hopes of a tainted 10-in-a-row once and for all and make sure that the focus was on the only number that mattered. 55.