Steven Gerrard views the fevered anticipation of his first season as Rangers manager as a challenge to his players.
The scale of the excitement will again be visible on Thursday, when a capacity 50,000 crowd attends his first competitive match. The fact it is a Europa League qualifying tie against little-known FK Shkupi of Macedonia does not seem to matter.
Gerrard has called on his squad to walk the walk. “We’re happy that there is an expectation and that there is a positivity but the players have to handle that responsibility and that pressure that is part of this club,” the former Liverpool captain said.
“Every player who comes into this club does an interview and says it’s great to be part of Rangers, one of the most successful clubs in the world and [that] they are at a big club now, but now you have got to go and perform and accept that.
“You have to play under pressure and enjoy that pressure and thrive on it. We can’t have players who are going to sink because that’s when the problems happen.”
Rangers do not need to look far for further warnings. A year ago, aggregate defeat by Progrès Niederkorn of Luxembourg represented arguably the most embarrassing result in history for a Scottish club in European competition.
“I remember it coming across the yellow bar on Sky Sports News,” Gerrard said. “I was like: ‘Woah, that’s not going to go down well.’ I certainly don’t want to have that surprise on Thursday night, certainly not.
“I have got every confidence and belief in the players and the team that they can go out and do the job. The team talk is already done – someone did that for me 12 months ago. I am not nervous or scared, I can’t wait to walk out there and get the game going and the lads are really ready for it.
“I hope it [last year’s result] is in the back of their mind and I hope they are determined, they have to be. A club this size shouldn’t lose games like that. We have to show this team respect and show the competition respect. There are no gimmies, no walkovers. We will approach the game right and show the level of intensity and desire that we have done in the friendly games. If we do, I am sure we won’t have a problem.”
The recurring message from Gerrard’s players relates to the intensity and demands placed on them by the new manager. Rangers’ recruitment suggests a robust approach in the coming season, something Gerrard makes no apology for. “I said at the beginning I was hoping to bring in players that would make us tougher and stronger and more aggressive,” he said. Millwall’s centre-back Jake Cooper is believed to be his next target, with Gerrard full of praise for a Rangers board not short on critics.
“They have been superb,” he said. “They have done exactly what they said they would when we spoke before I got the job. So I’m really happy with the support. We are very close to completing what we want. We feel the squad has improved an awful lot.”
Gerrard’s overwhelming emotion is of excitement. “I can’t wait,” he said. “I am very proud and very humble to be the Rangers manager and go out in front of a full house for a Europa League qualifier. I think it shows the level of support and how big this football club is. These fans are incredible. There will be no prouder man than me tomorrow.”