Football

Is There a Way Back For Rangers?

“You fool, as if it matters how a man falls down!?”.

“When the fall’s all that’s left, it matters a great deal”.

It’s a pity no one reminded Rangers of this truism from The Lion in Winter before their calamitous visit to Parkhead on Sunday — or even before their trip to Hampden two Sundays ago. In their last three meetings with Celtic, the under-funded and under-managed Ibrox side have conceded 12 goals, and scored only two. Sunday’s gutless capitulation to their Old Firm rivals – which has left Celtic just one win away from an unprecedented back-to-back treble – has capped off a miserable six-week spell that can be most fittingly described as humiliating.

Rangers now sit in third in the Scottish Premiership, 13 points behind runaway champions, Celtic, and with a fight on their hands to finish in second ahead of Aberdeen and Hibernian. Of course, after the ignominy of rolling-over to Celtic on Sunday, the season cannot be saved. It is irrevocable. But a second-place finish, and its attendant first-round Europa League bye, just might save the following season.

Red, White, but Mostly Blue

That Rangers fans are now uniting behind the “We Deserve Better” banner is not only long overdue, but also an understated approach. For nearly seven years, the blue half of Glasgow (and its global diaspora) have stuck behind the most chaotically-ran club in British football. Frequently, the Ibrox faithful have given the board the benefit of doubt in times when other fan-bases might not have been quite so trusting. Compare this to what we’ve seen at, say, Arsenal this season, and one must acknowledge, and perhaps laud, the patience of the fans. It should, though, come as no surprise that such composure and restraint is starting to wear thin. Not after Sunday.

While Rangers are preparing for another period of damaging instability, crosstown rivals, Celtic, are contemplating yet another foray into Europe’s marquee club tournament — for which they have qualified in both of the last two seasons under Brendan Rodgers. Meanwhile in Ibrox, attention will turn to a shoe-string summertime rebuild only after the conclusion of Rangers’ street-fight with Aberdeen and Hibs for runners-up honours. (I use the word “honours” loosely here). 

The short-term outlooks for the two clubs could thus scarcely be more contrasting. Now devoid of any meaningful equilibrium, Glasgow’s rivalry is presently more Liverpudlian than Mancunian in nature. In both a commercial and a sporting sense, there’s no real element of competition between the clubs. Indeed, Celtic could even be thought of as inhabitants of a post Old Firm world. Where Rangers will continue to be (unfavourably) compared to Celtic, the latter are almost never likened to the former. To do so would be entirely unfair. For now, at least, Celtic exist in an entirely different tier in the hierarchy of European football.

Reasons for Optimism?

Although nothing outlined above is factually contestable, it doesn’t tell the entire story. On this, the week after an historic Old Firm trouncing, it’s easy to exaggerate and sensationalise the gap between Rangers and this season’s champions, while forgetting that the narrative in Glasgow was very different only a handful of games ago.

Rangers’ season, if you remember, only entered into a tailspin as recently as March 11, following a 3-2 loss to ten-man Celtic at Ibrox. It was a highly-anticipated game that threatened to throw the title-race wide open, and many league observers fancied Rangers to take the points. The game itself was a thriller. A throw-back to the derbies of the 90s and 00s when meetings between the clubs would settle title-races, and be settled by a uniquely Glaswegian combination of red cards and breakaway screamers.

While Rangers failed to capitalise on their leads in the encounter, the outcome of the match isn’t what’s important here. Instead, what’s crucial is the very fact that the Scottish title-race was alive as late as mid-March. The same could not have been said in England, Germany, or France at the same time. 

Moreover, during the period between Pedro Caixinha’s sacking and the 3-2 loss to Celtic, Rangers were the best team in Scotland. From 19 games, the Gers won 14 and drew one (away to Celtic), racking up a total of 43 points in the league. During the same stretch, the eventual champions took 11 wins and five draws from 18 games, amounting to a total of 38 points. Had the league began on October 26 — the date of Caixinha’s dismissal — Celtic would currently be just three points clear of Rangers.

The Door is Open for Rangers

Although this is largely hypothetical, it nonetheless betrays an important point: Rangers are not as far behind Celtic as many would have you think. While recent contests between the two have been alarmingly lopsided, Rangers have nonetheless demonstrated that, over long stretches of the season, they are a club capable remaining within Celtic’s vicinity. 

This fact alone should be a significant cause of concern for Celtic and Brendan Rodgers. Since 2012 — the year of Rangers’ demotion to the bottom tier of Scottish football — Celtic have qualified for the Champions League group stages no less than four times, making the Last 16 once, and the knock-out stages of the Europa League twice. With such a level of cash investment – plus six years unchallenged atop the Scottish Premiership – Celtic should be well out of sight. Perhaps permanently. 

Instead, however, Celtic are dominant at home, but nothing like as domestically-dominant as, say, Bayern Munich — the German Champions who currently sit 24 points clear at the summit of the Bundesliga. In this sense, Rangers are lucky. The gap might be wide, but it isn’t the chasm it could, or should, have been. There is, then, a way back for Rangers. Celtic have held the door open for them.

Scouting Savvy under Steven Gerrard

The short-term priority for Rangers is to gain qualification to the Europa League group stage this autumn. Never before in the club’s history has European qualification been so important. The Ibrox outfit is desperately cash-strapped, and every additional revenue stream is crucial. But perhaps more importantly, European competition will be an added weapon in the next manager’s fight to attract young talent to the club (whether that manager is Steven Gerrard or someone else).

This is, after all, a club that is currently reliant on interest-free loans from shareholders just to stay afloat. Since re-joining the Premiership last year, expenses have soared while revenues have risen only modestly. Alarmingly, Rangers is one of the only clubs in Scotland that actually loses money. The way back will have to run through Mark Allen’s newly-created scouting network — assisted perhaps by the presence of a figure like Gerrard capable of enticing young talent. Rangers will not outspend Celtic. Attempting to do so would place the club’s future in jeopardy. Instead, they must be savvy in the loan market and hope that they have the scouting infrastructure in place to pick up under-the-radar talent from England and overseas.

The good news for Rangers is that the gap between the Light Blues and Bhoys could be gargantuan. It isn’t — no matter what the scoreboard said on Sunday. This current Rangers team went toe-to-toe with Celtic for five months this season, and kept the title-race alive. For a team that was in the fourth tier of Scottish football just five years ago, that is a remarkable feat. Rangers will have to be smart if they are to navigate the road back to the summit of Scottish football. But crucially, the road is passable.

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