The 2018/19 season returned no trophies to Ibrox but a lot of pride to the fans and a team that had been lacking any for so long. In many ways this season started before the previous one had even ended; when Steven Gerrard was announced as the new Rangers manager on the 4th May 2018.
I stood beside James Forrest, Stevie Hannigan, Alex Staff, Stuart McColl (and son George) outside the front door of Ibrox and we stood beside thousands of other Rangers supporters in anticipation. Until it was made official, no one knew for sure that Gerrard was being announced, I don’t quite know if the shine would have been taken off slightly if Derek McInnes or Steve Clarke walked out on to the pitch at Ibrox that day.
However, as the fans started to pack both enclosures and Gerrard finally made his way to greet his new adoring public, there was a feeling of unlimited optimism. There was that lingering niggle in the back of my head that this could be as good as it gets for Gerrard.
Let’s be frank, Gerrard was taking over a joke of a side. A team where there wasn’t much left to salvage and those who were worth keeping around had massive scars from the previous couple of seasons. There were many tests standing in the way of Gerrard and the first he had to navigate was Europe.
Twelve months prior, we had been embarrassed and humiliated by the previously never heard of Progres Niederkorn. We had to do better; it was as simple as that. But making the group stages of the Europa League still seemed like too difficult a task. The teams that we could potentially get in the third or fourth round of qualifying would be too much for us, surely?
We could worry about that later, first things first, get past our initial opponents FK Shkupi of Macedonia. A Jamie Murphy goal in the first half and a late penalty from James Tavernier was enough to make everyone leaving Ibrox that night feel like we were in a very comfortable position going over to Macedonia.
The second leg could be generously described as a professional performance. Truth be told, it was a dull match with a Rangers side that was still very much trying to find their feet with a new manager. The 0-0 draw was more than enough to get through in a tie where we were rarely threatened. It was on to round two were Osijek of Croatia awaited.
It was well believed that Osijek would be a step up from Shkupi and travelling to Croatia for the first leg was going to be a difficult task. Rangers, wearing a red Hummell training kit, took a massive advantage early in the tie when Alfredo Morelos headed home a Tavernier cross to put Rangers 1-0 up after only 18 minutes. This is how the game would remain and Rangers went back to Ibrox in control and knowing that they would have a packed stadium behind them in the second leg.
Osijek came to Glasgow looking for a win, their fans came decked out in MMA gear looking for a fight. Both would leave very much defeated. The atmosphere at Ibrox was tense but loud. “To Baku, we’re on our way” the Rangers support dared to dream.
It was a night were Allan McGregor more than showed his worth with a series of tremendous saves. If there were any doubts, he still had it to be the Rangers number one, they were long gone by now. When Nikola Katic scored in the 53rd minute it looked like Rangers had done enough and Ibrox could relax a little. However, a Connor Goldson own goal in the 89th minute made for a nervy finish.
Thankfully, the final whistle blew, and Rangers were through. From their manager to their fans, Osijek were a horrible little team and it felt satisfying to put them out and send them back to obscurity. But before you go, we’ll take your captain and your winger.
On to the third round and it was a familiar foe in Maribor of Slovenia. Once again, it was accepted that this was going to be another step up in class from the previous round. By this point though, there was a feeling of optimism going around the support that we might just do this. We had been lucky to avoid some of the bigger names in the draw and we felt like a team playing without fear, so why not?
The optimism inside Ibrox only intensified when Morelos put Rangers ahead inside five minutes. There was to be a stark reminder of the task we still faced when Gregor Badje beat McGregor with one of the most perfectly struck shots I have ever seen at Ibrox or anywhere else.
The second half was to prove a massive test of character for this Rangers side. It was the first time we had been behind in our European campaign and we were going to find out if this team had the stomach for a fight. Thankfully, they passed with flying colours.
It took Rangers only five minutes of the second half to respond. Morelos was fouled in the box and Tavernier, as he always does, stepped up to coolly convert the penalty. Taking any lead over to Slovenia would be to our obvious advantage but the game still hung on a knife edge. Heart and Hand’s own Lassana Coulibaly settled the nerves on the 86th minute when he headed in Rangers third.
It was off to Slovenia with a two-goal lead. Although it wasn’t job done, many people left Ibrox feeling that it would be enough. And so, it turned out to be. An inspired McGregor, highlighted by his penalty save in the in the dying embers of the game, saw Rangers leave Slovenia with a 0-0 draw and progression into the play-off round.
Incredibly, we were just one tie away from the group stages and, even more incredibly, were almost paired off with last season’s foe Progres. However, Progres would be knocked out by Ufa of Russia and it would be they who stood in our way of the group stage.
Once again, Ufa was by no means an easy game, but it didn’t feel like a massive step up from Maribor. The hardest part of this tie would be the trip into deepest, darkest Russia. Ufa came to Ibrox with the intention of frustrating Rangers and taking back a clean sheet. Goldson spoiled that on the 41st minute when he scored the game’s only goal.
It was very much a night full of frustration. This wasn’t a great side and we could, and probably should, have got more from the first leg. However, we would take the lead over to the Russia and that Goldson goal would prove to be vital.
East the team would travel, and a band of supports would follow with them. Rangers night in Russia looked like it might be an easy affair when Ovie Ejaria scored with a beautiful curling effort after only nine minutes.
In my experience, Rangers have never been a club to do anything easy and we weren’t about to start tonight. The defence switching off allowed Dmitri Sysuyev in to get a goal back for his side. We were still two goals to the good however and just needed to keep the head, step forward Morelos.
The booking that Alfie picked up for kicking the ball away can only be described as idiotic. The second booking he received was, well, the type of booking only Morelos could get. Into the second half and with 25 minutes still to play Jon Flannagan would receive his marching orders for a second booking.
From such a comfortable position, it now felt like we were hanging on with nine men. Thankfully, we had a not so secret weapon in McGregor who once again proved his worth to this team and got us over the line.
The final whistle blew, Rangers had done it. We had held out in Russia with nine men and qualified for the group stages of the Europa League. We had done all this with our “quietly terrified” rookie manager and new team that had precious little time to gel. It was an incredible accomplishment by Gerrard.
No one thought we would get this far, however, we are Rangers and we didn’t come to make up the numbers. The question was now how we would fair going up against Rapid Vienna, Spartak Moscow and Villareal.