Rangers brought an end to a decade of despair in March as Steven Gerrard’s side secured their 55th top-flight Scottish title – but where do Rangers and their boss go next?
Since their demotion to the third division in 2012, it has been a long and, at most times, arduous return to the top of Scottish football for Rangers and their supporters.
However, following two false starts since his appointment in 2018, Gerrard has delivered what Rangers fans have been waiting for, stopping Celtic winning 10-in-a-row in the process.
Saturday’s 4-0 win over Aberdeen meant Gerrard’s side sealed an invincible league campaign, set a new Scottish top-flight record for clean sheets of 26 and broke the 100-point barrier cap a remarkable season.
But what comes next? Delicate contract talks, potential big-name sales and getting it right in domestic cups will all be part of Gerrard’s and Rangers’ thinking now.
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Here, Sky Sports News looks at what new challenges may immediately present themselves, what needs to be done over the summer and what fans can expect from the title-winning manager and his Rangers team as they now aim to stay at the top of Scottish football.
Improving in domestic cup competitions
Failure in both the League and Scottish Cup competitions under Gerrard has been a major point of criticism for the Rangers manager. Defeats to Aberdeen in both tournaments in year one was followed by a League Cup final loss to Celtic which served only to galvanise his side after they deserved more from the day.
However, defeat to Hearts in the Scottish Cup quarter-final at Tynecastle in February 2020 left Gerrard scratching his head and looking for answers that did not appear to be forthcoming as Rangers’ season cracked before the coronavirus curtailment.
Only his side’s league and European form kept the noise at a minimum following a shock 3-2 defeat to St Mirren in the Betfred Cup in December this time around. Celtic had already been knocked out and Rangers were expected to take advantage but the Paisley side deserved to progress after an injury-time winner.
When Rangers overcame Celtic in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup this year it was expected that Gerrard’s side would go on to win a double, especially given their league performances.
However, a surprise penalty shootout loss to St Johnstone in the quarter-finals in Govan ensured that there would be no cup success for Rangers yet again.
Title celebrations will mean all that is forgotten for now but Gerrard is expected to provide those fans with memorable days out at Hampden as well as Premiership success and forays deep into Europe. Silverware at the national stadium is a logical next step for the club and their manager.
More contract renewals?
Rangers officials were able to turn to planning for next season once the title win had been confirmed. Chief among those priorities was the issue of contract negotiations.
Allan McGregor, James Tavernier and Steven Davis were all been included on the shortlist for both the PFA Player of the Year award, as well as the Scottish Football Writers’ Association (SWFA) Player of the Year. All three have enjoyed remarkable seasons.
It was no surprise then to see Davis sign a new one-year deal in March, with SPFL Premiership player of the year McGregor following suit on April 1. Both were out of contract at the end of the current campaign. The following week Rangers announced that captain Tavernier had signed a two-year extension, keeping him at the club until 2024.
Both McGregor and Davis returned to the club under Gerrard as seasoned professionals who had already won plenty of titles in Scotland before playing in the Premier League.
That experience has been vital this season, their influence branching out through the whole squad. But their individual performances on the pitch have belied their years. Davis may have dropped a little deeper but still has just as much impact on games at home and in Europe at the age of 36.
Jon McLaughlin has proven a very able deputy for McGregor this season, keeping nine clean sheets in 11 league matches, but will turn 34 in September and Robby McCrorie has struggled for game time on loan at Livingston. It is a position Rangers may have to start thinking about for the long term but Gerrard has no desire to see McGregor leave just yet.
Tavernier has scored 12 league goals and provided nine assists from right-back. He has been the very definition of a modern full-back since arriving at the club under Mark Warburton. He will turn 30 in October and there had been questions among Rangers fans as to whether he would be keen on a move to the Premier League, with just one year remaining on his deal.
Those questions have been answered but what about Connor Goldson? The centre-half, 29 in December, is entering the final year of his contract this summer.
Goldson has been one of the standout performers for Steven Gerrard since his arrival at the club. Gerrard depends on Tavernier and vice-captain Goldson like few others in his squad.
Goldson’s level of consistency since moving to Glasgow from Brighton has been astounding considering he feared he may have to retire after needing to undergo open-heart surgery in February 2017.
He has played in every minute of Rangers’ campaign, becoming the quickest player to reach 150 competitive appearances for the club in just 965 days in the process in his side’s 1-0 win over Livingston in March.
He has made 56 appearances this season, scoring eight goals, and has been the bedrock of a defence which has conceded just 13 league goals and kept 26 clean sheets. He has also been shortlisted for the SFWA Player of the Year award alongside Tavernier, Davis and McGregor.
However, while Tavernier has signed his contract extension, there has been no announcement from the club on Goldson’s future.
Reports in Scotland have suggested that an announcement on an extension may not be far away but Rangers fans will be desperate to see the Englishman commit his future to the club. The thought of a Rangers central defensive pairing without Goldson seems strange now.
Players entering the last year of their contracts always provide food for thought for club officials but the idea of any uncertainty over the future of one of Gerrard’s main men lingering past the summer will not be one anyone wishes to contemplate.
Jermain Defoe’s future is probably more uncertain. His impact on the training ground has been praised by Gerrard and his fellow players, especially youth members training with the first-team squad.
Injury has limited his game time this season, while Gerrard made the decision to leave him out of the Europa League squad but the 38-year-old has still managed seven goals in 20 appearances this term, including a brilliant first-time strike against Livingston in October and a vintage Defoe finish in the 4-1 win over Celtic.
Defoe is out of contract this summer but wants to play for the Scottish Premiership champions for one more season, with Gerrard saying earlier this month that the club are in talks with him over his future.
But Rangers may look to strengthen their forward line again for a tilt at the Champions League group stages and Defoe may decide to look elsewhere for more game time in a bid to carry on playing.
A number of Gerrard’s squad have been linked with moves away over the past 18 months, particularly as the club continued to rebuild their reputation on the European stage.
Glen Kamara and Borna Barisic have excelled in Europe and will both be monitored closely by others this summer when Finland and Croatia compete at the European Championships.
The 28-year-old Barisic was linked with moves to Serie A and the Premier League last summer, leading Gerrard to insist that he was not for sale, adding: “If someone did come, they would have to bring an awful lot of money with them”.
A stellar summer tournament would surely see that interest revived but the club would be keen to keep a player who has offered so much to the team’s style of play.
Likewise Kamara, signed for £50,000 from Dundee, has developed rapidly under Gerrard and his coaching staff. Gerrard is keen to tie him down to a new contract. But big performances against the likes of Benfica in the Europa League led to talk of a move abroad which would only be intensified should he continue to impress at Euro 2020.
This would present Gerrard with a conundrum. Kamara’s midfield partner Davis is 36, and, while the manager is keen for him to stay next season, it is in the club’s best interests to plan for the future. Ryan Jack has struggled recently to register a consistent run of games, with Gerrard admitting he will need to be managed due to injury concerns. Jack will miss the Euros after undergoing surgery on a calf problem but Gerrard believes Rangers have finally gotten to the bottom of the issue.
The club have already secured the signing of Nnamdi Ofoborh on a pre-contract from Bournemouth but sporting director Ross Wilson and Gerrard may feel it important to assess midfield targets again come the summer to prepare for another big season packed with fixtures.
Up front Ryan Kent was the subject of a bid from Leeds last summer and has enjoyed a productive season under Gerrard’s tutelage – he may attract more interest on the back of an impressive domestic campaign and eye-catching performances in Europe. He has been included on an all-Rangers PFA Scotland shortlist for the Player of the Year award.
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Then there is Alfredo Morelos – seemingly on the verge of leaving the club for the past two summer windows. Rangers rejected a £16m bid from Lille last time around and it seemed to take the Colombian a while to settle following a summer of speculation but he has found a rich vein of form since the turn of the year.
Will he be so keen to look abroad again with the prospect of Champions League football on the horizon?
Rangers have already confirmed the signing of Fashion Sakala from Belgian side KV Oostende for next season but, with the potential for the departure of at least one or two key names in the summer, Gerrard and Wilson will be determined to add even more quality to the squad as they aim to return the club to European football’s top table.
Can Rangers impress in the Champions League?
The sound of the Champions League anthem has not been heard in Govan for nearly a decade – Gerrard will be desperate to lead his team out against the best in Europe.
They have impressed in the Europa League over the past three seasons. Reaching the group stages in Gerrard’s first campaign was an achievement in itself given their continental standing when he took over but the club have now reached the last-16 on two occasions. This term they remained unbeaten in the competition until March, topping a group which contained Benfica. They eventually exited to Slavia Prague.
The Champions League group stages are the next step – but first Rangers must navigate a third-round qualifier and a play-off tie. Reaching that stage would secure an important financial boost for the club.
Rangers’ run on the continent over the past three years has helped the club financially. Board members recognise that the books still need to be balanced either by their buy low-sell high player transfer model or European prize money. Investors continue to back the club but Rangers are looking to move away from that going forward.
A guarantee of around £30m for a Champions League group stage appearance would go a long way to keeping a host of stars while easing short and long term dependency on investors, especially amid the fallout of a global pandemic and empty stadiums.
Give youth a chance?
Much has been made in Scotland of the progress of Rangers’ development teams in recent years, which has seen the youngsters win overseas tournaments, including the Alkass Cup.
A modern youth setup is in place at Auchenhowie, with Billy Gilmour’s move to Chelsea in 2017 a sign of the talent in the Rangers academy.
Nathan Patterson made the step up to first-team football this season and, despite his covid lockdown indiscretion, enjoyed playing time this term due to Tavernier’s injury and impressed domestically and in Europe.
He recently signed a new contract, as did Kai Kennedy and Leon King, two more very highly-rated youngsters who had been linked with the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich. Despite having only just turned 17 in January, King has been integrated into the first-team picture this season, making his debut in the Betfred Cup against Falkirk in November and his first start in the league against Livingston on Wednesday.
Stephen Kelly may also be ready to push for more playing time under Gerrard next season. The 21-year-old midfielder spent time at Ayr in the Championship last term and has made 28 appearances for Ross County in the top flight this season, impressing boss John Hughes.
“He has a massive career in front of him. He is a lovely kid and he trains so well, I can’t get him off the training pitch. He is in the indoor hall when we are finished; he is always the last one out,” he told the Press and Journal.
“He is pinging balls with both feet, he works on his free-kicks. Stephen tries to get other guys involved as well, to try and improve himself. You have to just stand back and admire that. It shows in his game the way he passes the ball, his technique of passing. Everyone thinks these things just happen but trust me that’s not the case.”
Kennedy has impressed in loan spells at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Raith Rovers and may push for a stay at Ibrox next term although Gerrard and the club could decide it is best for him and King to get temporary moves elsewhere for regular starts.
Others, including Ciaran Dickson and Josh McPake, have also enjoyed some playing time under Gerrard, who may feel more comfortable relying on youth in certain instances now that the pressure of chasing down Celtic has been eased.
Meet the Celtic challenge
Rangers’ title win cannot and should not be put down to Celtic’s faltering campaign, but there is no denying the Parkhead side dropped points this term where they have previously looked infallible.
Defeats to Ross County in league and cup, as well as a home loss to St Mirren for the first time since 1990 helped to put the brakes on their quest for 10-in-a-row, which ultimately saw Neil Lennon leave the club in February.
Perhaps even more striking was the announcement that Peter Lawwell, who has been CEO of Celtic since 2003, will be retiring at the end of the season, to be replaced by Dominic McKay from the Scottish Rugby Union.
It will signal a summer of change at Celtic after Lawwell had overseen nearly a decade of dominance in Scotland.
Changes are not only expected at the top of the club and in the dugout, but on the pitch as well with the likes of Odsonne Edouard, Kristoffer Ajer and Ryan Christie all linked with moves away, while captain Scott Brown will depart after 14 years to join Aberdeen.
Rangers should expect a renewed challenge from a wounded Celtic, but it remains to be seen how many members of a squad which enjoyed so much success will remain to take part.