It is the unfortunate nature of Scottish football and the current lowly ranking of the country’s coefficient that the most important games of the whole year, at least for the bigger clubs, come right at the start of the season. Indeed, the 2018/19 season has barely finished, with certain international tournaments concluding just days ago, but Rangers (and Celtic, for that matter) face their first European qualifiers this week.
This time last year, Steven Gerrard was just getting his feet under the Ibrox table. His appointment had caught many by surprise. Nobody knew what to expect of a manager with no senior management experience. And yet Gerrard seemed to find his way quickly, leading Rangers to the group stages of the Europa League.
That gave him and Rangers a platform for the whole season. Europe was where the Govan outfit earned many of their best results last term, going through the whole qualification process unbeaten, also drawing home and away to Villarreal and beating Spartak Moscow in the group stage. In the end, they only missed out on a last 16 place by one goal.
Domestically, the lines of success and failure were slightly more blurred for Gerrard. Rangers secured second place in the Scottish Premiership, but still allowed Celtic to canter to the title. They also failed to mount much of a challenge in the cup competitions, crashing out to Aberdeen on both occasions.
The run to the Europa League group stage countered much of this, though. This season will be different. There is a certain expectation that Rangers will at least match last season’s success in qualifying for the competition. Anything less than a group stage appearance will be considered regression.
It’s been a busy summer for Rangers so far. Gerrard made clear towards the end of the 2018/19 campaign that there would be another overhaul of the squad. That hasn’t quite materialised just yet, but additions have been made. Jordan Jones has joined up with the squad after signing a pre-contract and there has also been the signing of George Edmundson, Greg Stewart and Joe Aribo.
Tuesday’s trip to Gibraltar to take on St Joseph’s should pose little trouble to Rangers, but beyond that is when things could get tougher. That’s where Rangers’ season could be defined before it has even started. A shock defeat could do to Gerrard what the infamous loss to Progres Niederkorn did to Pedro Caixinha.
The precedent of Ronny Deila also serves a warning to Gerrard, and all other managers of Scottish clubs who face European qualifiers so early in the season. The Norwegian won back-to-back titles at Celtic, but he struggled to leave behind his failure to take the club to the Champions League. In the end, it cost him his job.
Gerrard is a long, long way from such a fate. His first season at Rangers was successful enough, achieving many of the objectives set for him upon his appointment. But Scottish football can change the standing and reputation of a manager at breakneck speed. Take Mark Warburton, for instance. There was just a few months between Rangers fans wearing hats fashioned from bread wrappers in honour of their manager and his departure.
Rangers are still a work-in-progress at this stage. Gerrard has reiterated his desire to make more signings with his squad still somewhat unbalanced. Just like last season, these European qualifiers are merely an exercise in box ticking. Not much can be drawn from them in terms of manner of performance. All that matters is the result. Unlike last season, though, there isn’t much for Gerrard to gain and a lot to lose.