Steven Gerrard has been forced to deal with the pressure of expectation pretty much since the first time he pulled on a Liverpool shirt as an 18-year-old back in 1998. Since then, he has learned to live his life in a goldfish bowl and deal with the demands that have weighed down upon his shoulders.
But despite all those years wearing the captain’s armband at Anfield, or with England, when success on the pitch was frustratingly rare, Gerrard goes into the 2020-21 season as manager of Scottish giants Rangers under greater pressure to deliver than ever before. His career as a manager is likely to be defined by the outcome of this season. If he ends it as a winner, he can pretty much choose his own path, but if it all goes wrong, it will be back to the drawing board for the 40-year-old.
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Just last September, after he had been named Best FIFA Men’s Coach, Jurgen Klopp claimed that Gerrard would be his pick as his successor at Anfield “if Liverpool were to sack me tomorrow,” but that was perhaps a sentimental statement by the German in honour of Gerrard’s connection to the club.
Gerrard may tick all of the romantic boxes to become Liverpool manager someday — 710 appearances and winners’ medals in every competition except the Premier League — but if he fails to guide Rangers to the Scottish title this season, the Liverpool job will suddenly seem a million miles away. When he left his role as Liverpool’s under-19s coach in May 2018 to take charge of Rangers, it was a bold step by Gerrard, but one he had to take if he was to eventually fulfil his ambition of managing Liverpool.
Rangers are a huge club. In terms of domestic trophies won, they are the most successful club in European football and second only to Egypt’s Al Ahly on a global scale, having won 54 league titles, 33 Scottish Cups and the Scottish League Cup 27 times. Rangers have achieved a domestic Treble on seven occasions. But they have also spent the past decade living in the shadow of Glasgow neighbours Celtic, having been demoted to the fourth tier of Scottish football in 2012 following financial problems, which led to liquidation.
Although Rangers regained their place in the top tier in 2016 after three promotions in four years, they have since been unable to halt the Celtic juggernaut and Gerrard’s team goes into the season, which starts with a trip to Aberdeen on Saturday, with one simple task — to stop Celtic winning a record 10th successive league title.
Both clubs have done nine in a row before, with Celtic managing the feat in the 1970s and Rangers the 1990s, before Neil Lennon’s Celtic equalled that tally last season. But this season is all about No. 10 — Celtic are desperate to do it, but Rangers are equally driven in their bid to deny their bitter rivals, which is why the pressure on Gerrard has become so intense.
Failure simply doesn’t bear thinking about. He has guided Rangers to a runners-up finish in his two seasons in charge and, in December, led the club to their first league win at Celtic since 2010, but he has failed to deliver a trophy, and sources have told ESPN that the Scottish League Cup final defeat against Celtic last season hit Gerrard hard because of the sense of it being a huge missed opportunity.
Celtic manager Lennon has said he would not have survived in his job had he gone two seasons without a trophy, but when Gerrard was reported to be considering his future after a Scottish Cup defeat against Hearts in February, Rangers fans held a minutes’ applause in support of him during the following game against Hamilton.
Gerrard has this week distanced himself from speculation linking him with the managerial vacancy at EFL Championship club Bristol City, and sources have told ESPN that he will not walk away from Rangers as they embark on what will be a historic season for the club, for good or bad.
Having spent £24.5 million on new players since his arrival at Ibrox in 2018, Gerrard has been given substantial financial backing to restore Rangers to former glories. The only problem is that, during the same period, Celtic have spent £31m, so they have always been able to stay at least one step ahead of Gerrard’s team.
For Gerrard and for Rangers, there can be no more second-place finishes this season, and they must somehow find a way to overhaul Celtic. Gerrard could never quite get his hands on the Premier League trophy during his time at Liverpool, and he cannot afford for his managerial career to start the same way in Scotland with Rangers.