THERE was a period during the Scottish Premiership season just passed where you got the sense Rangers had, after the failed Michael Beale and Giovanni van Bronckhorst experiments, finally clicked into gear under Philippe Clement.

The Belgian, a former Club Brugge and AS Monaco manager with experience of winning titles and leading teams in the Champions League group stage, had steadied the rocking ship Beale had been cast overboard from.

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Having been appointed in mid-October with Rangers lagging eight points behind rivals Celtic in the table with an unsettled side failing to hit their straps after Beale’s summer overhaul, Clement got off to a winning start with a 4-0 win over Hibs, embarked on a 16-match unbeaten run in all competitions, and led the Ibrox side to topping their Europa League group to progress to the knockout rounds and overtake Celtic at the Premiership summit.

It felt like a new era was being ushered in, one spearheaded by a ruthless manager capable of bringing former glories back to the Govan club craving, magpie-like, the shiny trinkets accompanying league and cup feats the club’s historical foundations have been built upon.

But, just as a successful team must perform for the 90 minutes plus, a season is not two and a half months long. And to prevail when both Old Firm horses are in the race, the derbies become the dealbreakers. Clement’s first defeat as Rangers manager came against their city rivals on December 30 when his side were outplayed by Brendan Rodgers’ outfit, who had been beset by injury problems for the entire first half of the season, at Celtic Park as Rangers lost 2-1 to surrender their lead at the top.

The Herald: Daizen Maeda is cleared out by Leon BalogunDaizen Maeda is cleared out by Leon Balogun (Image: SNS)

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Celtic continued to show their challengers plenty of leg in the second half of the season to allow for another barrage on the silverware. Going into the final five-match split it was neck and neck at the top.

But those derbies were to prove the difference in the end. Entering the new year, Rangers went on another winning streak under Clement, progressing in the Scottish Cup while closing in on Celtic at the top. But a Premiership defeat at home to Motherwell at the beginning of March marked the unravelling of their entire season as they were subsequently dumped out by Benfica in Europe, failed to defeat their rivals in the third derby of the season at Ibrox, followed that poor result with a shocking 3-2 defeat at Ross County closely followed by a dispiriting 0-0 draw at Dens Park when that fixture was finally fulfilled the following midweek.

It was proof positive that this side did not possess a champions’ mentality. Celtic, besieged by injuries in the New Year derby, found a way to win; Rangers, under Clement, found excuses in injuries and fixture pile-ups, of better-team-not-winning and the bizarre spectacle of the “moral victory”.

The scenes of celebration after securing a late equaliser at home to Celtic in the 3-3 draw underlined this fraying within the fabric of the club. While the relief of avoiding another defeat and remaining in the fight in the Premiership was understandable, this reaction was manna from heaven for Rodgers and his backroom team: “Look at them, they’re celebrating like they’ve won the league...”

It was highly reminiscent of Rodgers’ final season at Parkhead during his previous reign, when his former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard roared down the lens of a TV camera after defeating Celtic at Parkhead in the festive fixture that season. While Rodgers left a couple of months later, predecessor-come-successor Neil Lennon closed out a third treble in a row. Suddenly that reaction from rookie manager Gerrard appeared an error of judgement.

The Herald: Steven Gerrard celebrates his first Old Firm win as Rangers manager at Celtic ParkSteven Gerrard celebrates his first Old Firm win as Rangers manager at Celtic Park (Image: SNS)

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From the 3-3 draw until the season finale at Hampden last weekend, Rangers’ record in their final 10 matches was abysmal: Four wins, three draws, including that costly one at home to Celtic, and three defeats. Two of those defeats were to, you guessed it, Celtic.

The Scottish Cup final last week was not a classic. Any neutral watching on, however, would recognise instantly that Celtic were the Goliath in this equation. Sure, they were uncharacteristically leggy, lethargic, laboured in their movement. But Rodgers’ side controlled proceedings throughout the match.

Rangers put up a better fight than in the 2-1 defeat at Celtic Park earlier in the month and had patches of the game where they were in the ascendency, but that happens in every match. It has got to the stage now where those spells of dominance are alighted upon as proof that Rangers were unfortunate not to win. But while they had a goal disallowed which seemed a harsh decision, the evidence of the previous encounters this season would suggest Celtic would have every chance of clawing back the deficit had the goal stood. A record of three defeats and a draw in Clement’s derbies spread over five months to date is not down to bad luck, injuries, or anything else. Celtic won the double this season because they are a better side than Rangers.

So where does this all leave the Ibrox club? Well, let’s return to that man Gerrard. After two seasons of failure to relinquish Celtic’s iron grip on the domestic scene, perseverance paid off when, albeit under strange, Covid-impacted circumstances, he led Rangers to an undefeated league title-winning season in 2021.

During the Covid period, Gerrard proved to be a leader and galvanising figure for a squad which had suffered innumerable setbacks in previous seasons. Having the history in the game Gerrard has undoubtedly helped with that. Who could fail to be inspired by a figure who, wearing the No.8 for Liverpool during his illustrious playing days, had dragged an otherwise ordinary side by the scruff of its collective neck to Champions League glory in 2005?

Clement, on the other hand, when questioned about his credentials in dealing with the pressures of leading one of Glasgow’s giants, often defers to his time in the Belgian top-flight with two of its biggest sides, Brugge and Standard Liege. The fact that naming the third of the league’s “big three” would make for a relatively tricky pub quiz question tells its own story in that regard. It’s one thing leaning on an illustrious career as a world-class midfielder wearing the armband for Liverpool and England, but stories of reaching the Champions League group stage as a marker for triumph are hardly likely to inspire an Instabul-like resurrection.

Rangers need to give Clement time, however. Even if the rebuild he is promising this summer is slow off the ground. The result of the faith shown in Gerrard is proof positive in this regard.

While many supporters will conclude that Clement has been an improvement on Beale after Gerrard’s former No.2’s sticky start to the campaign, the stats after an identical number of matches, 43, give Beale the edge with 31 wins (72 per cent win rate) against Clement’s 30 (70 per cent) for the Ibrox club. But those stats don’t mean anything in isolation.

Again, albeit after more than four times as many matches, Gerrard left Ibrox with a 65-per-cent win rate. Why did he leave the the club with his stock flying high in the minds of supporters? He won the title. If Clement is to be considered a success story at Ibrox, it won't be because he lifted the Viaplay Cup, reached the knockout rounds in Europe, secured group-stage football, or played better in a given match than any other side. Title success is everything at Rangers, however it is reached.