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James Tavernier: From lower-league loanee to Rangers' free-scoring, title-winning captain

James Tavernier lifts Scottish Premiership title
James Tavernier captained Rangers to a first Scottish Premiership title in a decade last term
Europa League semi-final first leg: RB Leipzig v Rangers
Venue: Red Bull Arena, Leipzig Date: Thursday, 28 April Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Listen to live commentary on Sportsound & follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app

It was half an hour into James Tavernier’s first training session at Rotherham United, his sixth and final loan spell away from Newcastle United.

Steve Evans, then manager of the promotion-chasing League One side, watched on one bitter winter morning as the youngster ignored his instructions for a fourth time. A “strong word” was required.

“I’ll never forget it,” Evans, now boss of fourth-tier Stevenage, recalls. “I asked him: ‘Are you coming here to be a man and develop into the great player you could become, or to waste your time?’

“That was the only time I had to do that. He went on to be absolutely stunning for us. He played a massive part in our promotion. Even James would say we played a big part in where he is today.”

Nine years on, BBC Scotland documents the rise of Rangers’ title-winning captain, from lower-league loanee to free-scoring right-back.

But why does the 30-year-old Englishman – who will lead his side into a Europa League semi-final on Thursday – remain unheralded in his homeland?

Recurring loans to Wembley hero

After six loans over four years, perhaps a stern word was what Tavernier needed for the penny to drop.

The Bradford-born defender had bags of potential to eventually excel at the top level. The fact Premier League Newcastle were willing to poach him from Leeds United’s academy in 2008 was evidence of that.

Tavernier made his first of 10 senior Newcastle appearances in a League Cup exit at Peterborough in September 2009 – the only first-team football he played that season.

Another League Cup runout was awarded to the teenager the following campaign, a 3-2 win at Accrington Stanley, before a January loan to non-league Gateshead.

Further stints away followed – at Carlisle United, Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons and Shrewsbury Town – as he accumulated a meagre 52 games in England’s lower leagues.

But it was an emergency move to Rotherham in November 2013, along with former Rangers midfielder Haris Vuckic, that exposed Tavernier to the professional game on a consistent basis.

Steve Evans & James Tavernier
Tavernier’s influence was integral to Rotherham achieving promotion to the English Championship in 2014

The full-back racked up 31 games, scoring five goals and providing a further six assists, as he played a pivotal role in the Yorkshire side’s play-off promotion to the Championship.

“I first came across Tav when I saw him play under-23 football,” Evans tells BBC Scotland. “I saw a fantastic talent, a full-back that could play in four or five positions as long as it had an attacking theme.

“He won games for us with the set-pieces he’s become known for. Whenever we got a free-kick, anywhere from 30 yards in, you just thought it would be goal because of his quality. We had a super team, but James was special.

“In the play-off final at Wembley we were 2-0 down at half-time to Leyton Orient. We needed more of an attacking threat so I brought a young full-back on and pushed James forward.

“He rose the team from the ashes, getting on the ball and driving us forward. His massive contribution got us to the Championship.”

‘I told Celtic to sign him’

Evans, a devout Celtic fan, recommended his boyhood club sign Tavernier after his instrumental impact at Rotherham. It was instead Wigan Athletic that came calling for the Englishman, who ended his five-year stint at Newcastle.

A permanent departure from Tyneside was expected to result in more game-time, but the right-back made just seven Championship starts before another mid-season loan to League One.

This time Bristol City were the beneficiaries as the current Ibrox captain aided another third-tier promotion.

With Rangers licking their wounds from a failed promotion push of their own, manager Mark Warburton was tasked with revitalising the club as they aimed to return to the Premiership after three years in the lower leagues.

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

“Playing against Tav, he was a tremendous athlete,” Queens Park Rangers manager Warburton tells BBC Scotland. “He had great deliveries which have been a consistent trait throughout his Rangers career.

“His best form of defence was attack. Everyone I asked about James said his character was strong, affable, friendly and hardworking. He trained every day, rarely missed a session.

“Everything we heard turned out to be true.”

‘For a right-back, his numbers are scary’

“I’m hoping to bag more than what I’ve scored,” Tavernier said on the day of his Ibrox arrival.

It is a statement you would expect from your club’s new forward, perhaps an out-of-form striker looking to rediscover their mojo. Instead, it was coming from a defender.

A free-kick against Hibernian at Easter Road on his debut was a sign of things to come, the first in a catalogue of wonder strikes.

A tally of 15 goals and 23 assists were racked up that season, contributing to a staggering total of 80 goals and 106 assists in 340 games.

“His numbers are scary,” says former Rangers striker Kenny Miller, who played with Tavernier for three seasons at Ibrox. “Tav came up as an unknown quantity, but straight away you could see his quality.

“He’s a real modern-day full-back, but he’s a better defender than he gets credit for. He’s always the fall guy when things seem to go wrong, but that’s what happens when you’re a leader of a big side.

“He’s been through a lot in his time at the club and he’s developed the mindset a Rangers player needs. He’s really responded to what it means to represent that badge.”

‘Liverpool standard’ – but why still in Scotland?

To put Tavernier’s scoring into some kind of context, Miller netted 116 Rangers goals in 301 games. For a defender to have reached over two thirds that total is some feat.

The caveat is a fair chunk are penalties – 40 to be exact – but the Englishman’s assist output is unrivalled in Scotland – he is on 12 in the league this season and has created a mammoth 88 chances over 32 games.

Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, similarly hailed for his deadly deliveries and frightening assist numbers, also sits on 12 in the English Premier League.

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

So why has he not attracted more public interest from the Premier League?

“It’s not for the want of people trying,” Evans replies. “In the last couple of seasons, seven or eight good Premier League managers have asked me about him.

“But the only reason he hasn’t left isn’t because people won’t pay the money. He’s never said he wants to leave. Rangers fans have a special captain.”

Warburton adds: “People have asked me: ‘Why doesn’t Tav come down south?’. Well, it’s got to be some offer. He’s playing in Europe at one of the biggest clubs with a fantastic history and magnificent fanbase, why would he want to leave?”

For his first season as Rangers boss, Steven Gerrard appointed Tavernier his captain after the departure of Lee Wallace – a role Warburton says the Englishman “relishes” after receiving advice from Wallace and fellow ex-Ibrox skipper David Weir.

After etching himself into club folklore last year, becoming the first Rangers captain to lift a top-flight crown in a decade, this season’s title defence has not gone as planned.

Leaders Celtic sit six points ahead with just four games remaining, but the reigning champions went some way to saving their season with back-to-back extra-time wins over Braga in the Europa League quarter-final and their city rivals in the last four of the Scottish Cup.

Impressive Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig await, but the Rangers skipper can further cement himself as an Ibrox legend by leading the side into a first European final in 14 years.

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