The Road to Rangers – 55

folder_openH&H Articles, Road to Rangers

This is something a bit different to the norm, but let’s be honest, what about this season has been normal? Playing football in empty stadiums is not normal. Going 32 league games and only conceding just 9 goals is not normal. And indeed, winning the title in the first weekend of March Is not normal. It is the earliest the destination of the trophy has been confirmed since 1902 – 119 years.

This Rangers team aren’t normal either. Having cemented their immediate places in Rangers folklore by securing 55 while conquering the league in an unprecedented fashion unlike almost anything in our clubs 149-year long history, they now have an opportunity to kick on and dominate on a domestic scale for a prolonged period of time while stamping their authority on the European stage. That’s not normal – that’s extraordinary.

In the spirit of such abnormality, this will be no normal Road to Rangers. It will not focus on players and their careers before they arrive at Ibrox, but instead will focus on the key games this season that have returned the league trophy to its rightful location – the hands of a Rangers captain come May.

1st August 2020: Aberdeen 0-1 Rangers

If I had told you back then, on day one, how this season would pan out, you would have laughed me out the socially distanced room. The season of a lifetime began up at Pittodrie as we all waited to see if Steven Gerrard had managed to transform Rangers during the Covid-19 shutdown. 150 days had passed since Rangers had been beaten 1-0 at Ibrox against Hamilton and Steven Gerrard was a manager teetering on the edge of an abyss. The stoppage of football caused by the pandemic afforded Gerrard and the management team the rare gift of being able to take a step back from the spotlight and reassess the side – this fixture was to be the first test of Rangers following an encouraging pre-season campaign both in France and at Ibrox.

A slow start as the sides found their feet in the new surroundings was ended as a cute Rangers move found Ryan Kent clean through on goal as he coolly slotted past Joe Lewis for the only goal of the game on 21 minutes. This game was to be the first of many Rangers would play this season where they would limit the opposition shots on target to zero and barring a heroic block from debutant Leon Balogun, Rangers were never in any trouble during this game. Andrew Considine was sent off in the 86th minute for a two footed challenge on Scott Arfield and Rangers managed to see the game out.

In steven Gerrard’s own words, a “marker” had been set.

16th August 2020: Livingston 0-0 Rangers

I can hear you screaming at the screen already so please hear me out. I think we can all be forgiven for the explosive reaction to this result. This was one of the games immediately following the Boli Bolingoli fiasco at Celtic, leading to their games being postponed for two weeks as their squad was forced to isolate. It presented a real opportunity for Rangers to apply serious scoreboard pressure at the top of the table.

At the time, this felt like the same old Steven Gerrard’s Rangers we had seen for the previous two seasons and that’s because it was. Immense amounts of possession with very little penetration against the low block lead to a frustrating Sunday afternoon. The best effort came from a Borna Barisic free kick which was met by an outstanding save late on but that aside we never properly looked like scoring and at the time it felt like we had once again let Celtic off the hook

However (and admittedly this is from an outside perspective) this is the game that the penny really seemed to drop for Gerrard and the coaching staff that the hand break needed removed when playing these teams. It seems like it was a blessing in a really good disguise, but it may well have been a vital turning point in the season.

17th October 2020: Celtic 0-2 Rangers

This is where the fun begins. Rangers had enjoyed a wonderful start to the month as we beat Galatasaray 2-1 to qualify for the Europa League for the third successive season and followed it up with a victory against Ross County before the International break. Celtic had actually turned up to this game on what was on paper a good run of form having won nine on the bounce in all competitions but the results had masked glaring deficiencies that Rangers would identify and expose ruthlessly throughout the 90 minutes.

The first Old Firm to be played behind closed doors was a purely footballing contest – no noise, no influences from the stands, no hysteria – just a straight test of the better side. Rangers would pass that test with flying colours. We all know the story of this game with Connor Goldson grabbing a brace which comfortably saw off a Celtic side that couldn’t even muster a shot on target throughout the entire game. This was to be the fork in the road moment for both sides, as Rangers would put the foot down from this point, not dropping a single point in the league between then and mid-January, while Celtic would win just 3 of their next 12 games in all competitions – a collapse caused by Rangers.

This win put us four points ahead of Celtic having albeit played a game more, however the gauntlet had been thrown down early and it felt like a massive moment. The message was clear:

We welcomed the chase.

1st November 2020: Kilmarnock 0-1 Rangers

“Acid Test”. That was the phrase used to describe this game that took place just 15 days after the Old Firm victory as Rangers took to Ayrshire. The Livingston game was mentioned previously as a potential watershed moment for the management and the line-up for the game at Rugby Park (a ground Rangers under Gerrard had seriously struggled at over the years) would point to lessons learned. It was clear for all to see that the handbrake had been taken off the side as Rangers looked to take the game to Kilmarnock.

A penalty converted from James Tavernier after a blatant handball by Ross Millen gave Rangers the lead after 19 minutes. We had seen this movie before however, going 1-0 up and eventually throwing away points especially at this ground, but Rangers showed maturity and solidity in defence as they battled to keep the back door shut as the second goal failed to materialise. A Man of the Match performance from potential Player of the Year Connor Goldson ensured that Rangers left with all three points and moved 11 clear of our city rivals at the top of the table.

A massive hurdle had been cleared by Rangers and some ghosts of the past vanquished. They had found a way to win ugly – an invaluable asset to have in a title charge. We dared to dream now.

19th December 2020: Rangers 3-1 Motherwell

This is arguably the most obvious game to make the list but undoubtedly one of the most important. Rangers run of 27 games unbeaten had come to a shuddering halt in Paisley 3 days prior as we somehow contrived to lose 3-2 away to St Mirren in the League Cup. Responding to adversity had been something Rangers had shown in flashes previously (the immediate response to the 2019 League Cup Final defeat for example) but the character of Rangers had never been under such a spotlight as it was when Callum Lang put Motherwell ahead at Ibrox after just 6 minutes.

A goal down and playing awfully, you could be forgiven for thinking that the bottle had crashed in the side. But, as with everything this season, this was to prove to be different. A Kemar Roofe double either side of a smart Cedric Itten header saw Rangers turn the game around in the final 17 minutes. This win cannot be overstated in its size. It sent the message not just to our challengers but also to ourselves that this season was different. The confidence we took from this game was massive while it deflated our rivals who for so long could count on Rangers dropping points when it mattered. No longer.

2nd January 2021: Rangers 1-0 Celtic

It was an emotional day as we marked the 50th anniversary of the Ibrox Disaster under difficult circumstances due to the Covid-19 restrictions. However, the club done a remarkably dignified job of remembering the 66 and their memory.

A difficult day to move from such emotions to on-pitch drama but Rangers took on Celtic in what felt like a pivotal day in the title race. Celtic started the game the better of the two sides as Rangers struggled to properly get going in the early encounters, forcing two good saves out of Allan McGregor. However, Celtics best effort came from a curling shot from Leigh Griffiths that was met by an already iconic save from McGregor who tipped it on to the post and wide – don’t ask him about it though, as he hilariously complained to referee Bobby Madden that he never touched it in an effort to not concede the corner.

Celtic ended the first half having dominated the game but as the song says “the second half sure it started well and the Rangers they turned the tide”. The inclusion of Ianis Hagi for an injured Kemar Roofe seemed to spark some life into Rangers as we looked more composed in the second half. The game turned completely as Nir Bitton hauled down Alfredo Morelos as he was in on goal and a red card was shown. Eight minutes later, Callum McGregor would deflect the ball into his own net from a Rangers corner for the only goal of the game and it would be Rangers who would stretch their lead to 19 points despite not registering a shot on target.

If you were wondering if it would happen before this game, you were really believing now.

27th January 2021: Hibernian 0-1 Rangers

All doubts about the direction of the title had just about ebbed away at this point. January was far and away the toughest month of fixtures in the calendar on paper but Rangers navigated them with little serious trouble (the exception being a frustrating 1-1 draw at Fir Park). This was another game that Rangers maturity from challengers to champions shone through. On an awful pitch in one of the few stadiums that we had failed to win at this season – Rangers managed to find the one moment of quality that the game had been desperately lacking as some quick interplay unlocked the Hibs defence allowing Morelos to smash home past Marciano in the Hibs goal.

It was another test passed as Rangers closed off the month having taken 13/15 points while Celtics trip to Dubai in the middle of a pandemic resulted in totally unforeseeable disaster meaning they slipped 23 points behind the champions elect.

It would be a procession from here on out.

6th March 2021: Rangers 3-0 St Mirren

The game freshest in the memory leading to possibly some less than fresh heads the resulting morning. Steven Gerrard called It the most important three points he’ll ever have at the club as it took us 99.9% of the way to 55. On 88 points and with a superior goal difference of 26, the league was all but done at full time as the players made their way to the gates to celebrate with the fans who welcomed them to the stadium earlier in the day. The celebrations continued into the dressing room as videos of the team letting loose emerged. Everyone knew it was virtually done now.

It would be actually done less than 24 hours later as Celtic surrendered to a 0-0 draw at Tannadice leading to an explosion of emotion unlike anything we have felt before and anything we will feel again.

If we are being honest, the story of the title’s return to Ibrox didn’t start at Pittodrie in August, it started at away at Peterhead in the first Division 3 game of the 2012/13 season. We have been through a lot of pain on the journey and over the coming months and years we may be able to look back on that time with a level of detachment and objectivity that would be impossible to do now. That is an article, a podcast, a book and ultimately a story for another day, however. For now, we bask In the reflective glory of the season and the title of our lifetimes.

And the best part is – it’s not done yet.

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