WHEN Rangers beat Partick Thistle 2-0 at Ibrox at the start of April back in 2003 they moved into a nine point lead in the Premier League with just six matches remaining and looked to be in a strong position to win the Scottish title.

Yet, the following month, after a 2-1 defeat in the final Old Firm game of the season and a 2-2 draw with Dundee, they went in to their last league match against Dunfermline at home behind Celtic in the table.

And only an injury-time Mikel Arteta penalty in an emphatic 6-1 triumph saw Alex McLeish’s men crowned champions on goal difference on a final day of unprecedented tension and nerve-shredding drama.

So Bob Malcolm, the former defender cum midfielder who was involved with the Govan club during that rollercoaster run-in, can understand exactly why Steven Gerrard is being so wary entering the second half of the 2020/21 campaign.

Some jubilant Rangers supporters set off fireworks at the end of a 1-0 triumph over Celtic at Ibrox on Saturday that sent the runaway top flight leaders no fewer than 19 points clear of their nearest challengers.

They can sense the Premiership is, after 10 years of pain, disappointment and false dawns, finally within, as their old chairman Dave King would say, tangible reach.

READ MORE: Club 1872 complete first Dave King share purchase and agree Rangers funding deal

However, Malcolm knows from personal experience that there remains, with Celtic out of Europe and still having three games in hand to play, an awfully long way to go before anything is decided.

“We were nine points clear in the 2002/03 season and ended up getting pegged back,” he said. “It was strange. It went right down to the wire. We only ended up winning the league on the last day with the victory over Dunfermline.

“That season we got knocked out of Europe early (Rangers lost on away goals to Viktoria Zizkov of Poland on away goals in the first UEFA Cup qualifying round). But that probably ended up helping us when it came to the domestic league and cup competitions.

“That is something Rangers have got to watch now – Celtic don’t have any Europa League matches to play and they have to play the last 32 games against Royal Antwerp next month and hopefully some more ties after that.

READ MORE: Rangers' Europa League opponents in bizarre striker storm

“Celtic can concentrate on the league now. That proved to be a big thing for us in that 2002/03 season. We were able to concentrate on the league and cup competitions. It gave us that wee bit of extra motivation.”

Malcolm added: “The lads who have been there before, Steven Davis and Allan McGregor, will keep the boys motivated to do it. Steven Gerrard and Gary McAllister are winners too. They have won trophies and titles with Liverpool and Leeds and know what is required.

“I am sure the manager and the coaching staff won’t be talking about the league even if the fans are. They’ll know they need to keep the players grounded and focused. They need to ignore all the noise and keep on playing football.”

READ MORE: Archie Knox: Rangers don't have a Brian Laudrup or a Paul Gascoigne - but Allan McGregor is as good as Andy Goram

But Malcolm has been impressed with Rangers this term and is confident they can avoid the collapses that ended their Premiership challenges in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons thanks to their new-found strength in depth.

He vied with the likes of Lorenzo Amoruso, Craig Moore, Kevin Muscat, Sergio Porrini and Fernando Ricksen for a start during his own time at Ibrox and was always well aware he had to perform at a high level whenever he got the nod from either Dick Advocaat or McLeish to keep his place.

He believes Gerrard, who strengthened by signing Leon Balogun, Calvin Bassey, Ianis Hagi, Cedric Itten, Jon McLaughlin, Kemar Roofe, and Bongani Zungu during the summer, now has the same sort of competition.

READ MORE: Brighton skipper Lewis Dunk buzzing for old pal Connor Goldson to end Rangers' agonising wait for title

“It is massive,” said Malcolm. “If you think you are going to play every week, if you believe you can just turn up and play, you can relax and switch off. But if you know you have got a guy who has similar ability to you who can come in at any point and take your place if you aren’t doing great then that gets your back up and keeps you focused.

“This Rangers team have definitely got the potential and the players to win the title. They have grown in confidence from last season and made a great start to this season. They have done well in the league and had an unbelievable European run. The results they are picking up only breed confidence.”

Malcolm has also been taken aback by the improvement Rangers, captain and right back James Tavernier and centre half Connor Goldson in particular, have made defensively since football resumed in Scotland back in August

“Last season some of the fans were on Connor Goldson’s back and James Tavernier’s back at times,” he said. “But both of them have been unbelievably consistent in their performances this season.

“Goldson has come back this season and has been frightening. He took a lot of stick for the way the team folded after the winter break last season. He has really stepped it up a level. He has been a standout.

“His passing range has been incredible. He has set up as well as scored goals and created many more scoring chances. If he keeps doing that then the team will keep winning games. It is about confidence.”

READ MORE: James Tavernier on how the appliance of science will help runaway Premiership leaders Rangers maintain their form

Malcolm continued: “The fact that Tavernier and Goldson have played in every game is of huge credit to them – they are obviously enjoying their football and want to be involved whenever they can.

“There is going to come a point where they are going to need to be rested as well because it is a long hard season. Especially if you are involved in the Premiership, the Scottish Cup and the Europa League.

“But Rangers are playing with so much confidence just now. It doesn’t matter who is playing, everyone knows their role.

“The manager made seven changes in the Betfred Cup match against Falkirk last year and they still won comfortably. He knows now that he has got two or maybe three players who can play in each position. If he gets injuries in the remainder of the season he has cover.

“The fans have been unbelievable over the years. They stuck by them when they went down to the bottom division when it would have been easy to walk away. They are getting their reward for that loyalty this season.”