Steven Gerrard, manager of Rangers. (Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images)
Football is a fickle beast, changeable and unforgiving in equal measure.
Ask people to come up with a list of cutthroat industries and they might instinctively mention professions in show business or career politics. But as far as job volatility and public image go, not even ageing matinee idols with deepening crow’s feet or elected officials victimised by Machiavellian reshuffles come close to the insecurity of football managers.
We’re all familiar with the phrase “zero to hero”, but nowhere does the inverse ring with more relevancy than in the dugout. The distance between zenith and nadir is a stone’s throw, especially in the age of social media, where everybody approaches the conversation with all the patience and decorum of a toddler hopped up on blue Smarties.
And this will be a looming threat that Steven Gerrard is all too wary of.
Before we go any further, by no means is anybody suggesting that the Rangers boss is in any kind of danger when it comes to his employment status. Yes, the Gers have lost three games on the bounce, and yes, they’ve face-planted at the first hurdle in their much-fabled and hotly-anticipated return to Champions League football, but this is a man who, after a couple of false starts, transformed the club from lame ducks into one of the most dominant, thoroughbred title-winning juggernauts Scotland has seen in quite a while.
Most supporters in the blue half of Glasgow could come home to find him in bed with their significant other and they’d probably tuck him in and ask him if he prefers Hobnobs or custard creams with his cup of tea. In short, Gerrard is revered and idolised at Ibrox - justifiably so, mind you - and he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But while those in the stands might be content with cutting the boss as much slack as he needs, the scrutiny that comes as part and parcel of the turf in Glasgow means that we’re never too far away from a baying mob of rival fans and doubting Thomases willing to point out that football management is riddled with complexities and nuances that go far beyond the distribution of P45s.
In a two-horse town like the Scottish Premiership, perception - not possession - is nine-tenths of the law. You can strut about flaunting more gold and silverware than King Creosus, but as soon as the prevailing wind changes, you can bet your bottom dollar that the armada from the other side of the Old Firm divide are coming to plunder you.
Rangers did exactly that to devastating effect last season, and the concern at Ibrox will be that for the first time since it became apparent that they were going to usurp Celtic, the weather vanes are twitching.
While Gerrard’s men are bidding to avoid a fourth straight defeat for the first time in four decades on Friday night, Celtic head into their Scottish League Cup clash against Hearts looking like the bit is firmly between their teeth.
On a superficial level, that might seem like a bizarre statement to make. After all, to all intents and purposes, the two Glaswegian giants are occupying the same square on the snakes and ladders board at the moment. They’ve both lost a league game already, they’ve both enjoyed thumping victories in highly winnable matches, and they both now face the purgatory of qualification for the Europa League group stage.
The difference is that while the Gers have ended up where they are after encountering a trio of greasy pythons, the Hoops have been steadily ascending ladders, looking more and more surefooted at each rung.
Make no mistake, FK Jablonec are hardly the Harlem Globetrotters - currently sitting seventh in a Czech top flight that could be kindly described as “average” - but Thursday night’s 3-0 win at Parkhead had all the hallmarks of a vintage, imperious Celtic display.
If David Turnbull can keep running the show like he did on his way to bagging a brace, he could have a very big say in the outcome of this year’s title race, while special praise has to be reserved for Joe Hart. It’s still early days for the former England number one, but he made a couple of truly magnificent stops against the Czechs, and Ange Postecoglou must already feel that his decision to bring him in is looking partway vindicated.
But arguably the most important sweetener that the Hoops gleaned from Thursday evening, the Cornetto on top of the trip for bread and milk, was the momentum it has mainlined straight into their domestic trajectory.
After reeling in their curtain-raiser against Hearts, Celtic have rebounded off the ropes with venomous surety, and haven’t stopped swinging since. It’s now nine goals without reply in their last two matches, and things just seem to be clicking at Parkhead.
They look good, while their neighbours appear off-kilter and anaemic. A dejected Connor Goldson even went as far as to admit that Rangers “just don’t look the same team as last season” after Tuesday’s disappointment against Malmo - a confession that might have seemed almost unthinkable just a fortnight ago.
This is why Friday’s clash against Dunfermline has taken on a new significance for the Gers. Ordinarily, a game like this would be a walk in the park for Gerrard’s typically rampant side. It still could be, but it could also prove to be a tightrope walk over a crocodile enclosure at the zoo. At the end of the day, you can’t win a marathon in the first few miles, but you can sure as hell lose it - even if the bearing on the league table this evening would be purely psychological.
The Ibrox boss will be acutely aware of this, and he wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t mindful of the added pressure hanging over him with Damoclesian intent.
Many will argue, and with good reason, that Rangers don’t have a proverbial rot to stop just yet. But that would change if they were to somehow lose this evening, and were Celtic to then go and stuff Hearts on Sunday, as they have the potential to do, the balance of power - in the minds of the neutral at least - would lurch dramatically towards Parkhead.
The dichotomy at the heart of the Old Firm, perpetuated by the cycle of a rinse and repeat two-club title race, means that momentum - rightly or wrongly - is practically seen as the be all and end all in a never-ending tug of war.
At the moment, Celtic have just about regained the impetus after being well off the pace for a long time.
The best way for Rangers to neuter that surge is to steady themselves and build one of their own. That process has to start against Dunfermline.