Leon Balogun issues ego pledge to Rangers boss Steven Gerrard as James Tavernier faces weeks on sidelines

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UNLIKE so many of the Scottish sides to have enjoyed a degree of European success in recent years, this Rangers team is not prepared to just “park the bus” in continental competition.

Steven Gerrard’s men, as was evident once again in their thrilling 4-3 victory over Royal Antwerp in Belgium on Thursday night, are always ready to take the game to their opponents and attack.

Yet, when it comes to putting the needs of the collective ahead of their own personal pride, the members of the current Ibrox side certainly have no problems parking their egos.

Leon Balogun, Ryan Jack, Ryan Kent and Ianis Hagi were all, for a variety of reasons, left out of the visitors’ starting line-up in the Europa League last 32 first leg tie in the Bosuilstadion.

Each member of the quartet has distinguished himself in the tournament in the past and will have been bitterly disappointed not to be involved. But every one of them came on and played their part in a brave second-half comeback.

It was no surprise that Gerrard singled out Balogun for special praise afterwards; the centre half took over from James Tavernier at right back in the first-half and performed heroically until the final whistle.

The Nigerian internationalist, an elegant and experienced footballer who has been a stand-out for Rangers since moving to Glasgow on a free transfer from Wigan last summer, typifies the all-for-one and one-for-all ethos present in the squad.

He admitted it hadn’t been straightforward going into such a difficult away match against such formidable rivals in a position that he had not played in since his time in Germany. However, he stressed he was more than happy to do so and is prepared to remain there if required in the coming weeks.

“It’s tough, especially if you haven’t played there for some time,” said Balogun. “The running is so much different from centre half, especially the way our full-backs play in our system.

“I did play that position before so that obviously helped, but still you need some time to settle. I think you could see that in the first-half. It was quite early in the game. You still need to get warm.

“But I think overall I am quite happy with how it went and how I played. There was a big energy shift in the second-half and I think we came closer to what we should look like and that helped me as well.

“James is a big, big component of our game, a big character. We need him, that’s for sure. But we have some goals in the season, one big goal (winning the Premiership) in particular.

“We just need to do what is necessary and if that means I have to play out of position I am ready to go. It is all for the Rangers so therefore I am happy to do it.”

He added: “The way we have played the season so far, you can tell there is not too much ego involved. If you are able to park it at the right moment, you can make it up between you and yourself when you are alone.

“In terms of the group, it’s a great team spirit, probably the best dressing room I have ever been in in my career. That’s essential for us this season. You can just tell how everybody is fighting for one another. Even if we come through sloppy periods, where we are not ourselves, we always try to regroup.

“That includes not just the players but the management staff around the team. Everybody just knows that we have to pull together. That’s what enables us to turn games on like we did last night.”

If Tavernier – who is, with 17 goals in all competitions, Rangers’ leading scorer in the 2020/21 campaign – is ruled out for a lengthy spell as a result of the knee injury he sustained against Antwerp it will be a blow for the top flight leaders.

Gerrard encourages his full-backs to get forward and attack and many of their goals stem from the wide areas. It is little wonder the manager is contemplating signing a specialist right back.  

But Balogun, a former Hannover 96, Werder Bremen, Fortuna Dusseldorf, Darmstadt 98 and Mainz 05 utility man, has extensive experience there at a high level and is confident he can continue to do a job for his team, both defensively and offensively, if required.

“My breakthrough in the Bundesliga with Dusseldorf was as a right full-back,” he said. “I played a full season there. I also played right full-back for Darmstadt. Mainz brought me in as a right full-back, but I ended up playing centre-half there most of the time.

“So I do have experience there and that helped me immensely to adapt quickly to that kind of quick, frenetic game.”

Balogun added: “When I played there before, it was quite an attacking position as well. You had the likes of Philipp Lahm and Dani Alves there already. The way they interpreted that role was quite offensive. Marcelo to this day.

“The difference is more in how I used to play. I used to play for teams that would sit back a little bit more. I would also go and attack and run up and down the field but not as frequently as we do it here. Our full-backs are an essential part of our game. It’s definitely a lot more offensive than I was used to.”

Balogun’s appearance in Flanders edged him closer to a new Rangers contract. A clause in his current deal, which only runs until the summer, will be activated if he makes a certain number of appearances. He is keen to extend his stay.

“I am playing for an amazing club,” he said. “This season so far has been going really well for me. So, yeah, I just hope it keeps going, I hope I can keep the momentum going and we can then at one point announce that we pulled the trigger.

“Obviously it is under some confidentiality. But it is getting closer and closer. Let’s just say I am quite confident that my time with Rangers is not over after this season.”

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