RANGERS supporters have seen this movie before. Time will tell if the ending is to be different – and happier – on this occasion than it was twice previously.
In Steven Gerrard’s first two seasons at Ibrox, the collapses after the winter break were as unfathomable as they were costly for Rangers. If the unwanted hat-trick is completed this term, the ramifications will be even more severe on and off the park.
The deficit to Celtic may only stand at three points right now, but the direction of travel and momentum swing should be of more concern to Giovanni van Bronckhorst than the Premiership table.
It is right to say that – especially with two Old Firm games remaining this season – there is plenty of time for Rangers to find their form, overhaul their title rivals and successfully defend the silverware that was won so emphatically last May.
It would be foolish to safely and soundly predict that Celtic will go on and convert their lead into the league flag, but Rangers find themselves in a familiar position as they attempt to put together the kind of run that only champions produce.
The draw with Dundee United on Sunday means that five points have now been dropped at Tannadice alone this term. Four more have been squandered to an under-performing Aberdeen and the manner in which Ross County earned a share of the spoils last month was farcical.
It wasn’t quite as embarrassing as the Old Firm defeat at Parkhead. On the night the champions lost their lead, they were fortunate not to suffer even more psychological damage as Celtic’s margin of victory was somehow kept to just three goals.
The target for Van Bronckhorst was to pick up where Rangers left off when they returned to action after the winter break. Instead, his side have faltered more often than not on league duty.
From seven Premiership fixtures since the turn of the year, Rangers have collected just 12 points. Alongside the draws with Aberdeen, County and United and that derby defeat, Livingston, Hearts and Hibernian have been seen off at Ibrox.
The winter break caused more controversies and quarrels than was necessary this term but the fall-out is meaningless in the bigger picture. Rangers had a job to do on the park and Van Bronckhorst’s side have so far failed in their objectives as a lead has been turned into a deficit through their own failings.
It is all too uncomfortably familiar for supporters. There is a sense of déjà vu for Rangers and the warning signs over what can happen next should all be worryingly real in minds right now.
In the three seasons out of the last four where the Premiership has shut down at New Year, Rangers have collected 16, 13 and 12 points respectively from their first seven fixtures. On each occasion, Celtic have picked up 21 points.
Gerrard’s first title challenge was undermined at Rugby Park as Rangers followed up their Old Firm win at Ibrox with a 2-1 defeat to Kilmarnock. Just two more points – at home to St Johnstone – were dropped in the immediate aftermath and it was a March collapse that resulted in Rangers’ Premiership and Scottish Cup campaigns come to premature ends.
Second time around, Rangers were again on a high in the aftermath of a win over Celtic but they would lose to Hearts and draw with Aberdeen before again coming unstuck in Ayrshire as Neil Lennon’s side kept their foot to the floor whilst Rangers floundered.
The high of the Europa League victory over Braga would offer brief respite, but Rangers were swimming against the tide in the weeks before Covid brought a halt to the season.
That situation can act as a warning that singular results – like the one Van Bronckhorst’s side achieved last Thursday – don’t always become the catalyst that is hoped. Events in Dortmund and Dundee are a case in point.
Those failings during Gerrard’s first two years will weigh on the minds of supporters right now but the Ibrox squad cannot afford to be burdened by their previous collapses as they seek to avoid making the same mistake for a third time.
When Gerrard’s side romped to 55 last term, they were ruthless and relentless throughout the campaign and the lack of a winter shutdown ensured there was no impediment to their momentum building and building week on week.
It may be a coincidence that Rangers are struggling after a break once again but the situation and the schedule is outwith their control. Whatever the reason for their form, a solution must be found as a matter of urgency.
The self-inflicted damage that was sustained at the start of their title defence was unforgivable, especially given the situation that Ange Postecoglou found himself in as he sought to rebuild the squad he inherited at Parkhead and make his mark in Scotland.
As Rangers have wobbled every so often, Celtic have played themselves firmly into title contention. If they have the bottle for the battle, they will be difficult to stop.
Right now, it is Postecoglou’s side that are earning the results at the right moments. For the pessimistic elements of the Rangers support, it feels like this season is just going against them and the manner of the draw on Sunday feeds into that negative narrative.
From late wins against the likes of Ross County, Dundee United and Dundee to hard-fought successes at Tynecastle and Pittodrie, Celtic are in the winning groove.
History has shown what can happen to Rangers when they fall out of it. Once the slide starts, it can be hard to stop the snowball effect and the champions must find a way of regaining their form – especially away from home right now – before it is too late.
Fixtures against Motherwell, St Johnstone, Aberdeen and Dundee await before the next Old Firm clash in early April and the concession of further ground would see Van Bronckhorst’s side come under huge pressure heading into the third derby of the season.
All is certainly not lost and a three point deficit can quickly be turned around but the run must begin sooner rather than later if comparisons with previous collapses are to be quashed.
Fans have witnessed the horror shows. Rangers need to have a fairy tale ending this time around.