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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Christopher Jack

Rangers manager Michael Beale must use 2018 lesson to overcome Celtic mental hurdle

MICHAEL BEALE didn’t succeed at first and he has now tried and tried again. He has just two more chances remaining this season.

Rangers have shown under Beale that they can beat the rest but overcoming the best continues to prove a far more difficult endeavour. Ultimately, it is against Celtic that Beale will be judged and the Englishman will need no reminding about the situation his side find themselves in ahead of the Scottish Cup semi-final in a fortnight and the last derby of another failed Premiership campaign.

The damage was done in that regard while Beale was in the Championship with Queens Park Rangers. He inherited a situation that was a lost cause when he returned to Ibrox in December and he cannot be held completely responsible for how the title race has panned out, although the five points dropped and two missed opportunities to apply pressure to Celtic certainly fall on his shoulders.

He will, though, have questions to answer should Celtic go on and win another Treble. Rangers blew their chance to stop any talk of the clean sweep in the League Cup final and now have just 90 minutes to salvage their own season.

A Rangers manager that cannot beat Celtic will not last long at Ibrox, but Beale finds himself in a grace period at present and more definitive judgements will not be made until he is attempting to beat Ange Postecoglou's side with his own team. He will feel that he should have achieved that ambition first time out earlier this year, and there will be a sense of frustration that a more positive result was not earned on Saturday.

The outcome is all that matters in these fixtures. Once again, this squad and this side were not good enough when it counted and that is why Beale is ticking off the days until the window opens and he can start the rebuilding job that has become long overdue at Ibrox.

The situation that Beale faces is not as stark as the one he found himself in when he was working under Steven Gerrard five years ago. The gap between the respective squads is not as ominous as it was in the summer of 2018 and balance is not weighted so heavily in Celtic’s favour when it comes to the Old Firm fixtures.

But Beale can ill-afford to be winless from his first five meetings with Celtic and those that will survive the close season cull do not need more scar tissue to accumulate after suffering too many defeats during their respective Ibrox careers. Whatever technical and tactical alterations are made by Beale, there is a psychological impact of such a barren record against Celtic that cannot be overlooked.

When Ryan Jack netted the winner in Gerrard’s second Old Firm outing, it secured a first victory in 13 matches against Celtic. A first Parkhead win came the following year but it wasn’t until the third term that Rangers were able to dominate these fixtures as four wins and a draw were earned.

There was a mental hurdle that Gerrard’s side had to overcome against Celtic. Even when the first one was cleared, it took time for the pendulum to swing from green to blue and for players and punters to have full confidence heading into the most significant games on the calendar.

Right now, Rangers don’t have that look or feel about them. That is not to say that the semi-final is a lost cause and cannot be won, but Beale’s side are 90 minute hopefuls against Celtic rather than a team that be expected to rise to the Old Firm occasion time after time.

Comments, criticisms and concerns over refereeing decisions or the luck on the day are all valid, but the mistakes that individuals made at Parkhead are what ultimately cost Rangers as Postecoglou’s side extended their advantage at the top of the table to 12 points.

As they did so, they prolonged an unbeaten Old Firm run that now stretches back almost a year to the day and to the afternoon at Hampden that Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side emerged victorious in the Scottish Cup. Since that celebrated achievement, Rangers have had little to cheer against Celtic.

Rangers are now winless in the last six Premiership derbies and have collected just two points since Filip Helander's winner in August 2021. The last win at Parkhead came the previous October as Connor Goldson netted twice to lay down a marker of what Gerrard’s side were all about that term.

Trips across the city have been bruising for Rangers. The 3-0 defeat last February was the turning point in the title race, while the 4-0 hammering that Van Bronckhorst suffered in September was a blow from which the Dutchman was never going to recover.

Saturday was nowhere near as extreme in terms of the manner of the loss or the scoreline. In that regard, Beale can take heart and he has something to build on heading into the final two must-win meetings this season.

Little was learned at the weekend in terms of where Rangers are and where the balance of power lies in Glasgow. The reasons for that position have been well documented and discussed and the admission from Goldson that Rangers have failed to press on from their 55th title win – and as a result are now back to ‘square one’ – confirmed a well-established stance amongst the supporters.

That relates to the Old Firm snapshot as much as the bigger picture. Rangers are far from the dominant figure in Glasgow right now and the first step on the road to recovery is to prove that they are capable of beating Celtic on a regular basis once again.

The respective records since Beale’s appointment, added to the chasm between the big two and the best of the rest in the Premiership, highlights the importance of Old Firm superiority. Rangers will enter next season confident that they can rack up the points week after week against most of the Premiership but they will not be challengers, never mind champions, if their record against Celtic does not improve.

The win at Hampden last April proved to be a false dawn in that respect for Van Bronckhorst. Beale can worry about the longer-term record in the fullness of time and his priority now must be to see off Celtic at the fourth attempt, both for his own sake and for Rangers’.

The big game defeats will always blacken Beale’s record and dent his standing. He has, though, proven that he can produce a team capable of doing what Van Bronckhorst’s were not as encouraging victories away to Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibernian have been earned and run of the mill matches have been taken care of.

Those wins give Beale a platform in the Premiership. If Rangers are to scale the heights, Celtic must be overcome more often than not once again.

That process – like it did with Gerrard – must start somewhere and there would be no better time or place for it to happen than Hampden. For a variety of reasons, Beale must succeed at the fourth attempt.

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