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Rangers are closing the gap on Celtic, insists Jimmy Nicholl

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Jimmy Nicholl

Jimmy Nicholl

Jimmy Nicholl

After playing for two clubs, managing three - including being player-boss at Raith Rovers in the first of two spells - and coaching at more than a handful of others, it's fair to say that Jimmy Nicholl knows Scottish football.

In fact, what he doesn't know about the game in Caledonia probably isn't worth knowing.

Since first joining Rangers way back in 1983, the former Northern Ireland World Cup star has spent all but a handful of years in Scotland, returning to Ibrox as reserve team manager and then being brought back by Graham Murty when he was handed the reigns on a caretaker basis a couple of years ago.

And that's why when he says that Rangers are now well placed to challenge for a first Premiership title in a decade - and thus prevent Celtic from sealing an unprecedented 10 in-a-row - it is worth listening.

It is just over two years since Nicholl spent five months assisting Murty and, while he may now be looking at things from the outside, he can see the work that Steven Gerrard has done in getting Rangers closer to being serious title challengers.

Celtic were 13 points clear of Rangers when the 2019/20 season was suddenly halted after just 30 games, having lost out by nine points in each of the two previous seasons.

On the other side of the coin, Gerrard did lead his team through a 16-game unbeaten run and they were in a great position to challenge before a slump in form after the mid-season break, which ultimately cost them.

Across the city, the pressure may be on Neil Lennon to deliver the historic 10th successive title, but there is also a demand from the Ibrox fans to stop their bitter rivals doing what they couldn't in the 1990s.

Happy-go-lucky Nicholl has always been a glass-half-full kind of person and he can see positive signs of progress that give him a belief the Celtic steam train can be derailed.

"People keep giving you facts and saying there has been no progress," says 63-year-old Nicholl, who suffered a consequence of the Covid-19 crisis when he was let go by Dundee as part of cost-cutting measures at the Scottish Championship club.

"I ask 'how do you know there has been no progress?', and they say there hasn't been as far as points are concerned - but there is progress around things they don't know about, things they haven't seen.

"I can say that because I was there for five months not so long ago before Steven Gerrard came in. I know there has been progress. I've been about the place; I've been about the club.

"Of course, they want to see it tighter and a lot closer. Be positive.

"It wasn't going to happen overnight. You assess the players and bring in what you think you need and gel them in to be closer to Celtic. There are a lot of things that go on about the place you don't see."

When Gerrard delivered a first victory at Celtic Park in the New Year derby, it was 'game on' as far at the title race was concerned.

The winter break - which immediately followed - came at the worst time. Rather than building on that and rolling with the momentum they had built up, the Gers never really got on a good run before the suspension of the season in March, just 48 hours before they were due to meet Celtic at Ibrox, by which time they would have needed Lennon's team to lose five of their remaining games to overhaul them.

Four months off has given Gerrard time to think and re-evaluate things and Nicholl expects the Liverpool legend to be better prepared this time around to mount a sustained challenge.

"Steven is a football man and upstairs will help him," adds Nicholl.

"It has been an eye opener for him at times. He'll take everything on board and be a lot better for it."

The good times aren't quite back at Ibrox just yet, but the fans are well aware that the really bad times - when they had to go to such places as Annan Athletic rather than Aberdeen and Elgin City instead of Celtic for encounters in the Third Division - are now well and truly behind them.

Nicholl, however, remembers the days when instead of packed houses at Ibrox roaring their team to success, lowly crowds were filing into the stadium and patience with the squad was wearing thin as fans had to put up with not just Celtic, but clubs that traditionally had been also-rans in the shape of Aberdeen and Dundee United, were lifting league titles.

"You can see how things have turned around," he recalls.

"I remember games with 12,000 at Ibrox and big John McClelland saying to me that I couldn't go out the front door because they were waiting for us outside.

"Rangers were finishing fourth and fifth in those days. People don't believe that.

"I returned in 1986 and the difference? We won the league at the end of that season, that's how quickly it can change.

"There were loads of factors, but it was about good experienced players who had a handle on the situation.

"Now players should appreciate where they are at this moment in time. There are 50,000 inside Ibrox every second week, five thousand or more away from home. That's brilliant."

Belfast Telegraph