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James Tavernier, the European dream

James Tavernier is certainly one of the most underrated European players in football. Back to the improbable course of the English left side.

“I will never forget him”, remembers Steve Evans, now coach of Stevenage, in the fourth division. I asked him : “Are you coming here to be a man and become the great player you could be, or to waste your time? It’s the only time I had to do it. It was then absolutely stunning for us. He played an important role in our promotion. Even James would say we played a big part in his current situation.”

Nine years later, let’s trace the Rangers captain’s rise from lower-league trainee to scoring-capable right-back. But why does the 30-year-old Englishman, who will lead his team to the semi-finals of the Europa League on Thursday, remain ignored in his country?

Recurring loans to Wembley hero

After six loans in four years, Tavernier perhaps needed a harsh word to understand. The Bradford-born defender had all the potential to excel at the highest level. The fact that Premier League club Newcastle were ready to poach him from Leeds United’s academy in 2008 is proof of that.

Tavernier made his first of 10 first-team appearances for Newcastle in a League Cup elimination away to Peterborough in September 2009 – the only first-team game he played that season.

Another League Cup exit was granted to the teenager the following campaign, a 3-2 win at Accrington Stanley, before a January loan move to non-league side Gateshead. Further spells abroad followed – at Carlisle United, Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons and Shrewsbury Town – and he racked up a meager tally of 52 games in England’s lower leagues.

But it was an emergency move to Rotherham in November 2013, with former Rangers midfielder Haris Vuckic, which exposed Tavernier to professional play on a regular basis. The full-back made 31 appearances, scored five goals and provided a further six assists, playing a vital role in the Yorkshire side’s promotion to the Championship.

“I first met Tav when I saw him play for the under-23s,” explains Evans to BBC Scotland. “I saw fantastic talent, a fullback who could play in four or five positions as long as he had an attacking theme. He’s won games for us with the set pieces he’s known for. Every time we got a free kick, anywhere from 30 yards out, you thought it would be a goal, thanks to its quality. We had a great team, but James was special. In the play-off final at Wembley, we were trailing 2-0 at half-time by Leyton Orient. We needed a more attacking threat, so I brought in a young fullback and pushed James forward. He revived the team from the ashes, playing the ball and pushing us forward. His massive contribution got us into the championship.”

“I told Celtic to sign him”

Evans, an avid Celtic fan, recommended his boyhood club sign Tavernier after his instrumental impact at Rotherham. Instead, it was Wigan Athletic who came for the Englishman, who has completed his five-year spell at Newcastle.

A permanent departure from Tyneside was expected to result in more playing time, but the right-back only started seven times in the Championship before being loaned out mid-season to League One . This time it was Bristol City who benefited, with the current Ibrox captain helping to further promotion to the Third Division.

As Rangers lick their wounds after their own failed promotion campaign, manager Mark Warburton has been tasked with revitalizing the club to return to the Premiership after three years in the lower divisions.

One of his first tasks was to bring Tavernier from Wigan. The right-back was one of 11 players signed by the former Brentford boss that summer – seven years later he is the last man standing.

“Playing against Tav, he was an amazing athlete,” Queens Park Rangers manager Warburton told BBC Scotland. “He had a lot of power which was a constant feature throughout his career at Rangers. His best form of defense was attack. Everyone I asked about James told me that his character was strong, affable, friendly and hardworking. He trained every day and rarely missed a session. Everything we heard turned out to be true.

James Tavernier, a timeless side

“I hope to score more than I scored”, Tavernier said the day he arrived at Ibrox. It’s a statement one would expect from his club’s new striker, perhaps an out-of-form striker looking to regain his mojo. Instead, it came from a defender.

A free-kick against Hibernian at Easter Road on his debut is a sign of things to come, the first in a series of strokes of genius. That season, he scored 15 goals and provided 23 assists, for an impressive tally of 80 goals and 106 assists in 340 appearances.

“His numbers are scary“, says former Rangers striker Kenny Miller, who played with Tavernier for three seasons at Ibrox. “Tav arrived as an unknown quantity, but we immediately saw his qualities. He’s a real modern full-back, but he’s a better defender than you think. He’s always the scapegoat when things seem to be going badly, but that’s what happens when you’re the leader of a great team. He’s been through a lot since he’s been at the club and he’s developed the mindset that a Rangers player needs. He really responded to what it means to represent this badge.”

The level of Liverpool – but why always in Scotland? To put Tavernier’s tally in some context, Miller scored 116 goals for Rangers in 301 games. For a defender to reach more than two-thirds of that total is quite a feat.

The caveat is that a good chunk of those goals are penalties – 40 to be exact – but the Englishman’s assist tally is unrivaled in Scotland – he’s on 12 this season in the league and has created 88 chances in the league. 32 games.

Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, also hailed for his performances and his frightening number of assists, is also at 12 in the Premier League.

“The best praise I can give him is that he could play for Liverpool if Alexander-Arnold was out,” adds Evans. “He could compete in the Manchester City team. It would suit both.”

So why hasn’t he attracted more interest from the Premier League? “It’s not for lack of trying”, Evans replies. “Over the past two seasons, seven or eight good Premier League managers have asked me about him. But the only reason he didn’t leave isn’t that people don’t want to pay. He never said he wanted to leave. Rangers fans have a special captain.”

Warburton adds: “People asked me, ‘Why doesn’t Tav come down south?’ Well, there must be an offer. He plays in Europe at one of the biggest clubs, with a fantastic history and a wonderful fanbase, why would he want to leave?”

For his first season as Rangers boss, Steven Gerrard has named Tavernier captain following the departure of Lee Wallace – a role Warburton claims the Englishman “savor” after receiving advice from Wallace and David Weir, another former Ibrox captain.

After etching himself into club folklore last year, becoming the first Rangers captain to lift a Premier League crown in a decade, the title defense this season has not gone to plan.

Leaders Celtic are six points clear with four games remaining, but the defending champions salvaged their season by winning successively in extra time against Braga in the Europa League quarter-finals and against their rivals in Scottish Cup semi-final. Impressive Bundesliga side RB Leipzig are awaiting the Rangers captain, but the latter can yet write himself into Ibrox legend by leading his side to their first European final in 14 years.


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