Steven Gerrard hasn’t been short on important Old Firm wins during more than three years in charge. They have been among the hallmarks of his tenure.
Victory in December 2018 ended Celtic’s 12-game unbeaten run in the fixture. A year later, Gerrard oversaw a first league derby success at Parkhead since 2010.
Last season was one, long happy story on these intense occasions. Three Premiership wins and one draw were significant factors in pushing Rangers towards an unbeaten title.
Steven Gerrard hasn’t been short on important Old Firm wins during over three years in charge
Sunday was a little different. While Gerrard wasn’t at Ibrox due to his isolation, there is an argument to say it might actually prove to be one of his biggest derby victories so far.
Why? Because Rangers really needed it. The significance was huge from the perspective of the manager and his players. It could be the launchpad for their whole season.
An indifferent start meant a lot of questions were being asked. Celtic were the team who arrived at Ibrox with a sense of momentum.
You didn’t know quite what to expect from Rangers, especially with the Covid-related absences, but they found a way.
That’s what champions tend to do. Gerrard’s team didn’t produce a top performance in terms of style — that’s still awaited — but they showed the mentality, the desire and the organisation to get over the line.
Crucially, they again proved they have the capacity to win ugly in these games. For all the flowing attacking football seen from Celtic recently, that is something Ange Postecoglou’s team must be able to match if they want to wrestle the crown away from their rivals. The jury remains out.
Psychologically for Rangers, this was bigger than three points. A lot bigger. You could see as much at the end with the reaction of the players, the staff and the crowd. Collectively, everyone felt what it meant. Not in terms of the title race, not yet anyway, but in terms of this squad and perhaps how it views itself.
There had been accusations about not being able to play in front of crowds, about not being able to handle the expectation, about not dealing with adversity.
Rangers’ Filip Helander scored the only goal of the Old Firm derby on Sunday afternoon
I’ve never bought into those arguments, particularly about the crowds. But if the same questions keep arising week after week after week, then, at some point, it becomes the truth.
Rangers provided all the answers on Sunday. You can put those theories away now.
Elements of the weekend reminded me of my own period at Ibrox. As we closed in on nine in a row, there were times when we had to patch up teams for the Old Firm games and look towards unlikely heroes. On Sunday, Rangers found a couple. Robby McCrorie played with a real coolness for a young keeper making his Old Firm debut.
Then there was Leon Balogun, asked to fill in at right back. It was a phenomenal effort from the 33-year-old, who was a study in concentration throughout.
Filip Helander might have headed the only goal —but Balogun could be considered every bit as much the matchwinner through his performance.
His one v one against Kyogo Furuhashi always looked like having a real influence on the outcome. Balogun timed his challenges to perfection and limited the Japanese forward’s involvement.
Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic were the team who arrived at Ibrox with a sense of momentum
Furuhashi is a top-quality player and you could see more of his threat when he moved to the central position. Postecoglou admitted he should have started him there. It was a mistake not to. Certainly, Rangers would have been relieved to see him operate in that wider zone where his movement felt more limited.
In truth, Celtic might have regarded the Rangers attack in a similarly benign manner. While there was a depth of character to the performance of Gerrard’s team in the second half, they didn’t pose much danger through their own invention.
Ryan Kent is so often effective in the derbies but, right now, he doesn’t look like a player who really believes he can take the defender on or score a goal — even if he was a bit unlucky with one shot that clipped the post. You would hope his confidence benefits from the final result.
Rangers are still not firing on all cylinders. Sometimes, you just have to accept you go through difficult spells. As a team, the balance doesn’t look right.
But if you can get through phases like that without incurring too much damage, then you tend to emerge stronger for the experience. Getting that win on Sunday leaves Rangers in quite a good place overall.
While Gerrard wasn’t at Ibrox, it might actually prove to be one of his biggest derby victories
Doubts would have grown had it gone the other way but they can look to work through the international break to find that spark. Gerrard will feel they have taken a tremendous step forward. I’m sure he will welcome the transfer window closing tonight and the certainty that provides.
The same goes for Postecoglou, of course. Celtic still need to add to their squad because their bench wasn’t the strongest.
No one should suggest that result was some kind of disaster given how early it is in Postecoglou’s reign.
Nevertheless, it does bring a little more scrutiny of his approach. Playing relentlessly on the front foot, with inverted full backs and the all rest, is really attractive. But when you lose matches — first at Tynecastle, then Ibrox — people will ask whether more facets are needed to win a title over 38 games.
I’d think that’s the case. Celtic will need to show a different side — a Plan B, if you like.
An Old Firm game in the first month of the season decides nothing but it does dictate the mood of each club.
Rangers will look ahead feeling bolder about their prospects. For Celtic, Sunday was a reminder of how much work remains to be done.