By Lee Clarke
Gary McAllister spoke of his pride today at ‘people coming together’ as Rangers, deservedly defeated Celtic in the first Old Firm Match of the season. Whilst keen to downplay the importance of today’s result, from a Title point of view, he was gushing in his praise of everyone, from Training Centre Staff to the capacity Ibrox crowd, who were sent into raptures by Fil Helander’s 66th minute winner from the much improved Borna Barasic’s in-swinging corner.
‘We are only four games in, there are 34 still to go but, I’ve told the player’s, THAT’S the level we want, THAT’S the level you’ve set’ said a delighted McAllister, standing in for Manager Steven Gerrard, following Rangers much publicised COVID disruption, ahead of today’s game.
McAllister was, of course, alluding to Rangers’ less than impressive start to the season, in terms of performances but, he was quick to point out that this was a week The Champions simply ‘had to get through’ and spoke passionately of reaching the Europa League Group stages for a fourth consecutive year. Many though, will see today as the moment Rangers really kick-started their season. A dominant second half display against a rejuvenated Celtic side, will go a long way to silencing the recent critics, as Rangers edged three points head of their old rivals and tucked in behind early pace setters Hearts and Hibs in the Scottish Premiership table. It’s a slender lead and, Celtic had their moments within the game however, Rangers looked composed and played with the sort of urgency the Ibrox crowd have become accustomed to under Steven Gerrard, stretching their unbeaten run in this fixture to SEVEN games.
Special praise must go to Leon Balogun, as he gave a rock-solid performance at full-back and deservedly picked up the Man of the Match Award, marshalling Celtic’s biggest threat in Kyogo for large parts of the game. Indeed the only time Kyogo DID escape the clutches of the versatile centre back, it looked a certain goal for the visitors, as Odsonne Edouard inexplicably fluffed his lines from six yards out when it looked easier to score, after Kyogo’s pass. That is testament to Balogun’s contribution and the strength in depth within the Rangers squad, a claim made often by Steven Gerrard and whilst Balogun, by his own admission, doesn’t fancy switching there ‘full time’ he is a more than capable back up. So too, can be said of Robby McRorie, making only his second appearance for the Club, following his debut on Thursday night and like Balogun, he stepped up, making two vital saves from a more central Kyogo, in the second half.
All that being said, it was still a strong (and familiar) looking Rangers starting line-up. The missing Tavernier and Patterson meant, Rangers’ usual game plan of marauding full-backs and crosses being whipped into the box weren’t possible but, the questions asked of the players picked to do the job were answered fully and there has been a real professionalism in the way Rangers have gone about their business the past week, which has yielded three crucial victories.
As Gary McAllister stated, it’s ‘early days’ in the season and ‘caution’, in getting carried away, is absolutely correct but, today certainly feels like a turning point and it looked much more like a Steven Gerrard Rangers team than we have seen so far this season. Every single player in a blue jersey emptied the tank (the minimum you expect from a Rangers player) and when you consider the players still to come back into the fold, competition for places will be fierce.
The team now break for International Matches and for some, it will mean a well-deserved rest. For others, not least the management team, you get the sense that the hard work will continue full throttle. The sluggish start to the season, contrasted with days like today are a timely reminder to everyone at Rangers, where the bar is set and whilst it’s important to enjoy these occasions, Steven Gerrard and Gary McAllister will already be looking at the next run of vital games, starting with St Johnstone on 11th September before another mouth-watering European Night at Ibrox, against French giants Lyon. It promises to be another fantastic night and, given the air of confidence around the team today, it’s something that every Rangers fan should be looking forward to.