When Rangers last headed to the Highlands, James Tavernier’s stock could not have been much lower.
The Ibrox skipper was injured, and left out of the squad which ground out a 1-0 win at Ross County in their final game before lockdown.
Tavernier had been hurt in the 1-0 midweek humbling at home by Hamilton Accies, but must have been wounded, too, by the criticism aimed at him.
His defensive performances, leadership qualities and penalty misses were the subject of negative comment throughout the campaign.
And as the season crumbled early in 2020, his programme notes for the Accies game were dissected by fans, angry at an admission that Rangers struggled to cope with any team that got in their faces.
In the eyes of the Ibrox fan base, his captaincy was a pressing matter for manager Steven Gerrard to address.
That burning issue was – handily for the Light Blues boss – ushered away by football shutting down with Celtic 13 points clear.
Since football resumed, Tavernier has returned a man transformed, with a phenomenal haul for a defender of 15 goals in 24 outings, the latest a vital penalty against Standard Liege.
The standard of his overall game, and leadership of the Premiership pacesetters, has been of the highest order, much to the delight of ex-Ibrox boss Walter Smith.
The managerial legend called on the sterling services of Richard Gough, Barry Ferguson and David Weir to captain his Rangers teams over his two spells in charge.
So for Smith to single out “Tav” for praise is a further boost to the right- back’s excellent season.
“James Tavernier is doing a remarkable job,” said Smith. “I think he must be the highest-scoring full-back in the world, never mind Scotland!
“You can tell he’s enjoying being in the team, and getting great results for them.
“Normally you look at a right-back and say to yourself: ‘If he gets up the park and delivers a good cross into the box, that’s fine.’.
“But he’s delivering an incredible number of goals. He’s top scorer in the division.
“Now, I know he takes penalties. But there are loads of boys who have been top scorers as forwards over the years, and taken penalties as well.
“And he’s got to deal with being a defender, too.
“Sometimes it’s hard for a defender if he makes a mistake, particularly one that leads to conceding a goal.
“People look upon it in a different manner than if you’re a striker who’s missed a chance.
“Another one will come along for them but, as a defender, you’re exposed to a level of criticism.”
That criticism reached fever pitch last October when a miss by Tavernier at Motherwell racked up a hat-trick of penalty fails for the season.
He was relieved of those duties, but neither Alfredo Morelos – infamously in the Betfred Cup Final loss to Celtic – or Scott Arfield were able to take the job on.
The manner in which Tavernier has embraced the pressures of penalties again, says Smith, makes him worthy Rangers captain material.
The Yorkshireman is a perfect nine from nine from the spot, including a nail-biter in a typically-tight contest away to Kilmarnock at the start of last month where the Gers prevailed 1-0.
“I can’t think of anyone who’s never missed one if taking them on a regular basis,” Smith argued.
“James has gone through that and, sometimes, it needs a strong mentality to go up there and take another one. And maybe even miss another one.
“So he’s shown good strength of character there. And he’s shown good leadership, being the captain of the team and doing what he’s doing.
“And you’ve got to say to yourself: ‘Is there anyone better at doing it?’. I don’t think so.”
Tavernier scored 15 times in the Championship, broke John Greig’s single-season goalscoring record for a full-back and led the team past Celtic to the Scottish Cup Final in his first Rangers campaign.
He wasn’t the only Mark Warburton signing to toil as the Light Blues came up well short of Celtic in their first couple of years back in the Premiership.
Under Warburton, Pedro Caixinha and Graeme Murty, the Ibrox club endured chastening, heavy losses to their old rivals – and Tavernier was the skipper bearing the brunt.
Ex-Celtic favourite and pundit Chris Sutton waspishly branded him a “serial loser” midway through last season.
The 29-year-old has brushed off such comments and dug deep to come through tough times to re-establish himself as a hugely-influential player.
Smith added: “James Tavernier is like several players who have been there a while now. They’re settling in to playing for Rangers.
“That’s a big thing. It’s not been easy for any of these guys.
“They came to the club during a period when they’ve been second-best to Celtic for a number of years.
“So I think it’s great for them that they’re doing so well at the present moment.”
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