If the 2010s was the most tumultuous decade of Rangers’ history, the 2020s could become the most redemptive. And Ryan Kent will be one of the key figures if their renaissance is to be completed sooner rather than later.
With the club now seemingly on the right footing eight years on from their 2012 liquidation and rebirth in the fourth tier, the Gers’ 2-1 win over Celtic at Parkhead in the final game of 2019 ensured the continuation of a first serious title race in the Scottish Premiership since Rangers’ last triumph in 2010-11.
Celtic’s eight straight championships have come by winning margins of anything between nine and 30 points, but under Steven Gerrard their Glasgow neighbours finally look ready to upset the order.
As soon as the former Liverpool captain was appointed as the new manager at Ibrox in the summer of 2018, speculation started to swirl over who might follow him north from Anfield. Rhian Brewster, Dominic Solanke and even Daniel Sturridge were all, at one point or another, linked with a move, permanent or otherwise, to Ibrox. But only one ended up swapping Merseyside for Clydeside.
Gerrard knew of Ryan Kent’s quality having worked with the midfielder during his time as a youth coach at Anfield. The 23-year-old impressed to such an extent on loan at Ibrox last season that Rangers parted with £7 million, the biggest transfer fee paid by the Scottish club since the 2002 signing of Mikel Arteta from Barcelona.
“He’s a confident boy. You see the tattoos, you see the bowl cut. Ryan, underneath it, is just a nice guy,” Gerrard said soon after snapping him up to a long-term deal. “He’s a quiet and reserved kid but who loves a little bit of banter.
“I like players to back themselves, I like swagger in the right way. Ryan will never lack that.”
His best in a Gers shirt 19/20. Popped up everywhere, smart decision making and defensively brilliant. Attacking wise he done his job with a sublime finish. In terms of all round game he was my motm. Love to know the ground he covered during this game.
Kent has since become Gerrard’s difference-maker, and in Sunday’s 2-1 win he made a crucial intervention just three minutes after Allan McGregor had saved Ryan Christie’s penalty at the other end. Kent’s strike summed up what he brings to the table, swivelling with inherent technique to lash a first-time finish into the back of the net from just inside the box.
The Oldham product has scored more than a few stunners during his short time in Scotland, often breaking down the door when his team-mates have failed to knock loudly enough. He has given Rangers another dimension, easing the load on Alfredo Morelos and Jermain Defoe to provide the firepower to keep the Ibrox side fighting on all fronts.
His role in the side has even had Gordon Strachan likening him to Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.
“The way Rangers set up is literally Liverpool,” Strachan told Paddy Power recently. “You could close your eyes during a Liverpool match, switch channel, open your eyes again and see the same team, but playing in blue.
“When they signed Ryan Kent, most of us were assuming that he’d be played as a left winger. Instead, he’s in a Sadio Mane role, as an old fashioned inside forward, with Joe Aribo on the other side. Like Liverpool, the width comes from the full-backs. It’s a lovely system, as it means that you have five players in the centre of the field – which determines that you win most of the ball.”
Injury and a lack of pre-season has hindered Kent’s campaign somewhat, but he has found some consistency in recent weeks. “He missed a lot of football over pre-season because he was waiting to sort his future out,” Gerrard explained in December. “When he came in, he got the injury and I need to share some of that responsibility as well.
“But once we got him fit and sharp, you can see his contribution and how important he is to the team. Whether that is through goals or assists, or just being out there - because he terrifies defenders by being so sharp and quick. You are starting to see him move towards his best, which is great for us.”
Rangers’ £7 million signing of Kent represented an investment in a player they believe will be worth a lot more than that in the near future. However, Kent could help Rangers deliver something of much greater value - a first top-flight title in nine years.
His goal against Celtic edged the Govan outfit into a position of power and, on the basis of his recent displays, Kent will continue to propel them ever closer to that long-coveted 55th Premiership title.