THE fans reckoned they weren’t fit to wear the shirt. Steven Gerrard believes Rangers just weren’t in the right physical shape to compete.
The Liverpool legend sat in the stand at Ibrox in March and watched the Old Firm action unfold. One thing was stuck in his mind.
It wasn’t the frantic pace or the atmosphere, the red card to Jozo Simunovic, the quality of the goals or the shock miss from Alfredo Morelos.
The 38-year-old had no inkling that afternoon that he would one day be the man in charge of Rangers. Now that he is, Gerrard will make his players shape up, or ship out.
“The fitness is the thing that struck me most when watching them last season,” he said.
“If you want to play at the top end and fight for trophies, be in the running when the big prizes are given out, compete against the best, the first thing you have to do as a footballer is be fit.
“You need to be ready for the challenges at the top level. If the fitness is not there where do you go?
“You look at the group and areas where you can improve it and fitness is one of those areas. You don’t look at one run or one individual but the group as a whole.
“I watched Rangers with my own eyes close up in the Old Firm game against Celtic and it was glaringly obvious to me that Celtic were fitter and stronger on that occasion.”
There was a sense of what might have been for Graeme Murty’s side and the Ibrox crowd that day as they missed the chance to close the gap on their Old Firm rivals.
Despite twice taking the lead through Josh Windass and Daniel Candeias, Rangers were left with nothing to show for their efforts as Odsonne Eduaord netted the winner for ten-man Celtic. Gerrard believes it wasn’t a hard luck tale for the Gers, however.
And, alongside new Head of Performance Jordan Milsom and the rest of his staff – Gary McAllister, Michael Beale, Tom Culshaw and Colin Stewart – Gerrard will ensure his side are in peak condition for the new campaign.
He said: “It’s the easy thing to say ‘we didn’t get the luck’. But when you go into it in a bit more detail, if you’re a man up with that amount of time on the clock then I’d expect my team to run all over the opposition physically.
“I could also see signs of it in the last four or five games when I watched them as well. It’s probably a good reason why Celtic have been quite successful.
“It would certainly have helped them if they’re fitter, stronger, in good shape, finely tuned and ready for the demands of football at the top level.
“If you’ve got all your squad finely tuned and in that shape then it will certainly help you.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Jordan who is an expert in that field. You can’t get any more qualified than Jordan.
“Not just the qualifications but the way he goes about it, his mannerisms in the one-on-ones with the player and the dynamics he has in the gym and outside on the pitch. His delivery is spot on and he’s an expert in his field.”
After meeting his players for the first time at the Hummel Training Centre on Friday, Gerrard has now taken his squad to Spain to continue the build-up to the new campaign.
The Light Blues will spend the next ten days on the continent as Rangers prepare for their Europa League first qualifying round clash next month and the start of the Premiership a couple of weeks later.
Half a dozen players have arrived at Ibrox already this summer and there will be more business done, in and out, in the coming weeks as Gerrard reshapes his ranks.
Rangers have underperformed and underachieved in the last two top flight terms but the new boss will demand high standards to meet the lofty expectations at Ibrox.
Gerrard said: “We all have to carry the burden of working for Rangers. I do, my staff do and the players have been told that’s the reality of it.
“If you can’t carry the burden of playing for Rangers then you’ll be found out pretty quickly and not just by the fans but everyone looking in.
“You’ll be found out. You have to take that responsibility and the weight the badge brings.
“Nobody can escape that. This is Rangers Football Club.
“What’s important for me is that there’s a blank piece of paper right now. I’ve looked in from afar in the last six games and previously, before the Rangers situation came about for me.
“But I’ll judge everyone with a blank piece of paper. There’s places there up for grabs and I’ll know pretty soon who wants them.
“You have to earn them. It won’t just be given to them anymore. Reputations and names, it’s not about that. It’s about the best players who are going to get results for this football club.”