Ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for Steven Gerrard and Neil Lennon. Alarms have been ringing at Ibrox, hence the recruitment of Gerrard in hope that he can restore battered morale, although – according to caretaker manager, Jimmy Nicholl – the former Liverpool and England midfielder might have a more sizeable task than he first realised.
Neil Lennon, too, should have been alert to the clamour of an alarm but, ahead of Rangers’ visit to Easter Road on Sunday, the Hibernian manager literally slept through it.
Lennon was so upset in the aftermath of Wednesday’s defeat by Hearts at Tynecastle – which cost Hibs the chance of finishing second in the Scottish Premiership – that he declared that he would reconsider his position during the summer, in order to calibrate the ambition both of his players and directors. Garry Parker, Lennon’s assistant, took the pre-match media briefing but played down speculation that the manager would soon cut himself adrift from the club.
“That was the heat of the moment,” Parker said. “You know what he is like. He is a winner. After a game, if things don’t go his way he just lets it all go. He doesn’t like getting beat at anything – cards, anything – and he loses it.”
Of the fact that Lennon had not been seen at the training ground since Wednesday, Parker said: “He is at home in Glasgow. He’s overslept. His wife woke him up and then he has gone back to sleep – which is, in fact, a true story. He will be coming in at some point today but when I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, Lennon’s fellow Northern Irishman, Nicholl, spoke of the disillusionment that set in after he had agreed to a January request by Rangers’ interim manager, Graeme Murty, to act as his assistant. “At the start I was the happiest man in the word – because we went straight to Florida,” said Nicholl, who had two spells at Rangers as a full-back.
“Things started great. We beat Aberdeen, we had six wins in a row – and then you just get a wee setback. All the stuff that was good, all of a sudden, it’s not good enough.
“You think, ‘This is what it’s really like’ and you see a difference in the players. They are a wee bit tentative in their approach to games. It’s the reaction to losing games that I was always interested in.
“That’s why the Kilmarnock game after the Celtic 3-2 game was a disappointment for me. We did well against Celtic, although we didn’t win it, and then we get beaten by Kilmarnock.
“There have been too many games like that while I’ve been here and before that. Sometimes you can see why. I couldn’t see it when I first came in and then I thought – ‘I know now’. You get to know people and you get to know their characters and their wee traits in training, how they react on a Monday and Tuesday after a defeat, how long it takes them to get going again.”
Asked how many players would have to be recruited by Gerrard, whose Ibrox tenure begins on June 1, Nicholl said: “I hope he doesn’t need eight or nine. I hope in the end he only needs three or four.
Steven Gerrard will flourish or fail at Rangers on his record against Celtic
“He should get more out of the boys who are here. If they have anything about them, then he will do. They will respond to his demands. People might say he’s an inexperienced manager, but it doesn’t matter. If someone’s not doing it on the training pitch or on a Saturday for you, then it’s just a case of ‘away you go’.
“I was player-manager of Raith Rovers when I was 33 and dealing with older players at that time, making hard decisions and hopefully the right ones. Twenty or more years on, you still make the same decisions and sometimes the same mistakes.
“Steven will know right away when he’s out on that training pitch what he needs. I don’t think there are many leaders at clubs unless it’s a top, top club.
“Celtic maybe only have one, Scott Brown. In my days, eight or nine of us used to pull two or three through. Now you’re lucky if you have two or three pulling eight or nine through. Not just here, everywhere, in my opinion.”
A win for Rangers – if Aberdeen draw or lose to Celtic – would see the Ibrox side finish second, although Nicholl does not expect the achievement to be greeted rapturously, should it occur
“The supporters hate to hear that,” he said. Players, too, will turn around and say: ‘What’s second place mean?’
“At least it puts you on a good platform for the manager to come into. People will say a massive achievement for Rangers is winning the league and hopefully that will happen one day, but not at this moment in time. This is now the best we can do.”
On Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox would be playing a two game series at London’s Olympic Stadium in 2019. That would make baseball just the latest American sport trying to expand their global footprint by playing regular season games in London, behind the NBA and the NFL which has been doing it for years.
Naturally that announcement got people wondering if this will happen the other way and the Premier League follows suit to play meaningful games in the US? It’s already very well known that the United States is essentially an ATM machine for international soccer. That’s why the Copa America Centenario was created, why the Gold Cup is always held in the US, why Mexico plays all of its “home” friendlies on US soil instead of in Mexico, and why the bubble that is the International Champions Cup exists.
It would only be natural for the Premier League to want a slice of the pie, and it’s an idea that has been brought up plenty of times before.
It started with the “39th game” idea. The idea, which is among one of the dumbest ideas that’s actually been taken seriously, was essentially that the Premier League would add a 39th game for each team and those games would be held all over the world.
The idea is ridiculous. At the moment the Premier League has a perfect competitive balance. Each team plays all the other teams twice, once at home and once away. Adding a 39th game would cause all sorts of issues. How would you determine who plays whom? Would it be fair if Liverpool have to play Manchester United while Manchester City get to play Watford a third time?
Sure you can put all the top teams against each other but what about the other end of the league? What if Swansea, battling relegation, were slated to play against Burnley who were also expected to finish in the bottom half while Huddersfield gets to play Brighton?
Thankfully the “39th game” idea never really got off the drawing board. While it seems that the idea of sending games around the world has been tabled for now, it’s still on the table.
And if something is still on the table, that means it can happen but there are still several roadblocks to make it happen.
For starters, how would it work? The logical move would be to do exactly what the NFL does and just cherry pick the games they send overseas. But which games would that be?
You’re not going to send a Manchester United vs. Liverpool match to New York for the same reason the NFL doesn’t send Steelers-Ravens to London. Sure, if United were playing Liverpool you’d be able to sell every ticket at MetLife Stadium for $200 minimum and make all kinds of money, but as a United fan, I don’t want to see those two teams play in New York, I want that game staying at Old Trafford or Anfield.
Obviously the Premier League would be looking to send one of the big boys overseas to maximize their ticket sales. One would think that Bournemouth, who has a stadium capacity of just over 11,000 seats, would gladly give up a home game against United if it meant they could make more than seven times the amount of money in ticket sales.
But that very well may not be the case. Bournemouth have fought long and hard to get to the Premier League. One of the special things about being in the Premier League is that fans of a small club still get to see the mighty Manchester United or Liverpool travel to their ground.
And what if Bournemouth were to find themselves in the midst of a relegation battle? Would it really be fair if they gave up a March/April home game, where their stadium would be a home-field advantage just to go to New York for what would essentially be a home game for the big club they’re playing?
There’s another major hurdle that the Premier League would have to overcome. The schedule.
As it stands, when would there even be time to travel to the United States to play a game? Look at how the big teams schedule looks in the early season. You play league games on three weekends in September, then the first midweek is European competition, the next one is the league cup, the next one is back in Europe, and then it’s an international break. That pattern continues in October and November. Do you think the clubs would really be down to fly to New York for a Saturday match and then have to fly to Italy for a Wednesday Champions League match?
December and January are out of the question as that’s when the English schedule kicks into overdrive. February onwards becomes more difficult as the Champions League ramps back up and you have the addition of the FA Cup. Along with the FA Cup comes last minute FA Cup replays, and re-scheduled Premier League games.
With a schedule that changes so quickly and suddenly, setting in stone a match to take place overseas would be impossible.
That leaves just two options. The first would be to send teams that aren’t in Europe to the United States (similar to the NFL sending the Jaguars and Rams, who up until this year weren’t competitive to London). But let’s be honest, a random West Ham vs. Watford match isn’t selling out stadiums in New York or Chicago.
That leaves just one other option. Revamp the Community Shield.
The annual ‘curtain raiser’ takes place at Wembley Stadium a week before the season begins between the Premier League champion and FA Cup winner. Since teams are allowed to make up to six changes each during the match, it’s not the most competitive game (it’s often referred to as a ‘competitive friendly.’) But that can change, the UEFA Super Cup is played by competitive rules and that usually produces good games.
This is a win-win for everyone. The game could be moved around to different locations that can be announced a year in advance. Fans will be able to see their teams play in a competitive game, and even potentially lift some silverware at the end.
While the Community Shield may not be the most competitive game out there, it’s the best England can do if they want to export their product in “meaningful” games.