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Gerrard ended Rangers’ title drought. Can he end their Champions League exile?

Steven Gerrard is a winner again, and he is determined to make up for lost time by winning over and over as Rangers manager. And he wants the pressure and expectancy that comes with it, too.

Having ended the Glasgow club’s 10-year wait for the Scottish title last season by delivering a record 55th domestic championship, the former Liverpool and England captain admits he had almost forgotten the sensation of lifting a major trophy, having last done so as a player in the 2011-12 EFL Cup final with Liverpool.

But as Rangers prepare to begin the defence of their Scottish Premiership crown with a 2021-22 season opener against Livingston at Ibrox on Saturday, in an exclusive interview with ESPN, Gerrard says that last season’s success served as a personal reminder of the rewards of winning and reinforced his desire to ensure that he and Rangers become serial winners again.

“I hadn’t won for a long time,” Gerrard told ESPN. “For the majority of my career, I had always competed at the back end of seasons to try to win trophies, but it has been well documented that I never won the Premier League as a player and then I went off to LA (Galaxy) and started doing my coaching badges at Liverpool’s youth team, so a lot of time had passed by without the opportunity to compete. I took this job just over three years ago now and it gave me the opportunity again to try to compete and get that winning feeling back from a personal point of view.

“And the wait was certainly worth it because it felt ever so good [to win the title]. It was a big relief, obviously, to get that first big trophy in the bag, but just reminiscing and thinking back over my playing career, to feel that winning feeling again and get a winners’ medal over your neck, it was absolutely top class.

“But if you look at previous managers here, like Graeme Souness, Walter Smith and the guys that have gone before me, one trophy is never enough. The demand and responsibility is always to add to the success.”

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Gerrard’s achievement with Rangers last season went beyond merely guiding the club to the top of the pile in Scotland. In doing so, Rangers not only drew a line under the most turbulent decade in the club’s history, when they were demoted to the fourth and bottom tier of Scottish football in 2012 and forced to fight back to the top as punishment for the financial mismanagement of previous owners, but they also prevented bitter rivals Celtic from creating history by winning 10 consecutive titles.

The pressure on Gerrard and his players was intense at the start of last season, but despite the potential ignominy of failing to stop Celtic from achieving 10 in a row, Rangers would emerge as champions without suffering a single league defeat, amassing 102 points in the process. They finished 25 points clear of runners-up Celtic and ensured that the balance of power in Glasgow swung firmly back to Ibrox from Celtic Park.

But for Gerrard, the only value of last season is its use as a launchpad for more success rather than an opportunity to wallow in the past.

“I think at Rangers you are always trying to reset the remit,” he said. “Since I first came here (in summer 2018), we have completed a lot of the challenges that were set for me, my staff and the players, but the goalposts always move at a club that has experienced the kind of success that Rangers have.

“We’ve had incredible success, we made history last year, but it’s about parking that up now and looking to build on that.

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Rangers manager Steven Gerrard says he would never take the Everton job, but wasn’t surprised former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez did.

“I think this job comes with huge pressure every single season, no matter whether it is a success. There are always things to improve on, you always reset and get ready to go again. The pressure never changes, I don’t feel under any other pressure than I did on day one really.

“My job every day comes with that responsibility to try to make this club better, and keep striving for success. We’ve got targets now set for the end of the season and that is to try to be as dominant as we can and get as much silverware we can to add to last year.”

At 41, Gerrard is clearly at the outset of a career in management that many believe will ultimately see him take charge of Liverpool or England. His success with Rangers last season has done little to diminish the perception within the game that Gerrard will become a leading manager at the very highest level.

“I can’t control any media speculation about my position,” he said. “I don’t welcome it, I don’t add to it. All I do is focus on the job I have here and I’m very flattered and grateful for the position.

“I’m very happy here, I’ve said it on numerous occasions, it’s a huge club, I’m settled, I’m happy and I can continue to develop and keep trying to push this team forward.”

There is no sense with Gerrard that he is remotely interested in cutting short his time in Scotland. He told ESPN that succeeding Carlo Ancelotti at Everton was “never a possibility,” while there were no moves by his friends or representatives to connect him with the vacancy at Tottenham Hotspur this summer.

Contracted to Rangers until the end of the 2023-24 season, it appears that Gerrard believes he has unfinished business at Ibrox and is in no rush to look elsewhere. He enjoys the pressure of the job and admits he actually relishes the challenge that comes with being a central figure at a huge club.

“It depends how you look at that pressure,” he said. “You can either shrink by the thought of it and let it weigh you down, or you can see it as a challenge, put your shoulders back and try and embrace it.

“It is something that you want and demand for yourself. For me, I would always want to be in a position where the pressure and responsibility is big because it means you are in a top job and that, if you are good enough to win in that position, the feeling and the experience can be up there with the best things that ever happen to you.

“We have become the team that everybody wants to knock off the top, so we will have to try to defend that with our lives and also attack the next one with everything we’ve got.”

This season, the challenge facing Gerrard is simple: keep winning. But on top of the expectation of domestic success, Gerrard must also restore Rangers to the Champions League.

The club hasn’t played in the competition since losing a third-qualifying-round tie against Malmo in August 2011, but they renew acquaintances with the Swedish champions at the same stage of the tournament next month, aiming to win that tie and seal a place in the playoff round, which is the gateway to the group stages. On paper, Rangers are two steps away from the group stages, but Gerrard, a Champions League winner with Liverpool in 2005, insists that his team must clear two big obstacles before contemplating the prospect of glamour ties against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and his old club, Liverpool.

“Very big obstacles,” Gerrard said. “The Champions League is obviously a level up from the Europa League, so we have to be ready for that. It’s going to be a tough challenge to get into that final round of qualifying, but for me, with experience you always worry about what is front of you, so the focus is very much on trying to overcome Malmo.

“It’s been a case of us trying to grow as a group from a European point of view. Obviously, there was a major setback here before I joined the club in terms of qualification (Rangers lost to Luxembourg-based minnows Progres Niederkorn in 2017), but the club needs Europe financially and the fans also expect the team to deliver in Europe. We’ve had three really exciting journeys in Europe over the last three seasons, twice reaching the Europa League last 16, but it’s all about raising the bar and trying to go that one or two steps further.”

For now, however, the focus is on the start of the new Premiership season. Celtic, under new coach Ange Postecoglou, will be the biggest threat to Rangers’ hopes of defending their title — no team outside of Glasgow’s big two has won the Scottish championship since Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in 1985.

But having ended Rangers’ long title drought in front of empty stadiums last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerrard admits that one way to make this season better than the last is by winning the title again with supporters able to watch every kick along the way.

“The only tinge of sadness and frustration I had (last season) was that we couldn’t celebrate in front of a full house at Ibrox, but obviously the scenes and experience of doing it was very much enjoyable,” he said. “But life is how it is at the moment and we have to respect the virus and the situation that everyone is in, abide by all the rules that are put in front of us and try to do what we need to do.

“It just makes you that extra bit determined to go and do it again when things are hopefully back to normal and the crowds are in the stadium, when the experience will be even more enjoyable.”

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