BEING omitted of the Rangers squad for the Europa League group stages could easily have been a severe blow to the pride of a seasoned professional like Jermain Defoe.
The striker has played at the very highest level for both club and country during his long and accomplished career. So having to sit and watch the matches against Benfica, Lech Poznan and Standard Liege from his home or the stands has been a new experience for him. A lesser man could have taken umbrage at being left out.
Yet, Defoe had, underlining the all-for-one and one-for-all mentality that manager Steven Gerrard has successfully instilled in his Ibrox squad, no problem whatsoever accepting his old England team mate’s decision last month.
Now 38, he knows that not being involved in European competition will enable him to perform at his usual high level whenever he is required to lead the line.
“I can understand it,” he said. “The manager will always be honest with me. A lot of the time he looks at it and puts himself in the position of what could have helped him at the back end of his career.
“We speak on a level, to be honest. He asked me about it and I said it would help me. I train hard on a Wednesday – I do a power session in the gym after training – and I have the Thursday off my legs.
“I can sort of peak going into the weekend games which has obviously helped me. When you travel and maybe not get on, it can make you tired and there is a chance you could be starting on the weekend. It’s helped me because in the two games I’ve started I’ve felt really sharp.
“At first, it was one of those ones where you have to put your ego to the side a little bit and think about the bigger picture and why the manager is doing it. I asked: ‘Is it going to help me in the long run?’ And I think it has.”
Rangers have a punishing schedule of domestic and European fixtures to negotiate this season and Gerrard will need the forward and his fellow fringe players to be at their very best whenever they are called upon – like in the Betfred Cup match against Falkirk away tomorrow.
Defoe, who has scored two goals in six appearances to date in the 2020/21 campaign, is confident that whoever takes to the field against their League One opponents can extend their impressive 22 match unbeaten run.
“The manager didn’t make any substitutions against Benfica last night so I’m sure there will be new personnel in the team on Sunday,” he said. “Those players will be ready to go.
“With the amount of games we play, it’s important to have a big squad so the manager can make changes. But it’s not just about the squad being big, it’s about having that quality within it so that the manager feels confident making those changes and knows he will get the same performances put in.
“That’s what’s happened to be honest. If you look at the games so far, with the changes the manager has made, the players who have come in understand their role, understand how the team plays and understand how important the games are. That goes for the new players as well.”
The performances of Kemar Roofe, who scored another spectacular goal in the 2-2 draw with Benfica, up front for Rangers in the Europa League this term have more than justified Gerrard leaving Defoe out of his squad.
The former West Ham, Spurs, Portsmouth, Sunderland and Bournemouth player has struck up a friendship with Roofe since his countryman arrived in Glasgow in a £5m transfer from Anderlecht during the summer and has not been in the slightest bit surprised by his success.
“Kemar and I speak a lot about finishing,” he said. “We do a lot of stuff after training – recovery, massage, ice baths – and we speak a lot. He’s one of those players who wants to do well. He’s confident and he wants to score goals. He believes that, if he plays, he will score goals. He’s got that hunger, which is exactly what we need.”
But Defoe, whose devotion to his profession is renowned, can sense that desire for success in every one of his team mates as well as the coaching staff. He believes that dedication is why they have started the 2020/21 campaign so positively. He is excited about what the future holds.
“Everyone is playing well,” he said. “That is not only credit to the players, but to the coaching staff as well. A lot of it starts in training, with the intensity of how we work in and out of possession.
“It’s probably down to the focus and the mentality of keeping those high standards in training – training well every single day, not wasting a training session. And I think we have taken that into the games.
“With the group of senior players that we have, we are trying to make sure that we keep those standards every day, with everything that we do, on and off the pitch. That’s probably been the main difference.
“The mentality has always been good, but at the end of the day, we’re humans. There are times where you are playing well and naturally you take your foot off the gas a little bit or go through the motions in training.
“But I’ve seen a different kind of focus. Every single day is just relentless. The intensity in training, the hard work. Even the younger players are coming into the gym after training, lads doing yoga, just ticking every box.
“I hope this continues for the whole season because, if it does, you never know what we could achieve. So far, it’s been good.”