This time of the season evokes different memories and provokes different emotions for Filip Helander. He is older and wiser and, more importantly, fitter this time around than he has been in the previous two campaigns. When he casts his mind back a further term, he arrives at one of the highlights of his career.

In March 2021, Helander was crowned as a Premiership champion. The following year, he made what was to prove his final appearance for Rangers. Today, he can reflect on the challenges of the months that followed and be thankful that he emerged from them, be grateful that his career has been salvaged. The defender will not be challenging for medals this time around but the fact that he is a regular name on the team sheet for Odense Boldklub is something of a victory in itself.

On his day, Helander looked worth every penny of the £3.5million fee that Steven Gerrard sanctioned to bring him to Ibrox from Bologna in the summer of 2019. Come the end of the four-year contract, both parties were counting the costs in very different ways from financial and football standpoints. In black and white terms on the balance sheet, Helander was a drain on resources as wages were paid out with no return. From the Swede’s perspective, he lost some of the best years of his career and missed out on the run to the Europa League final and a Scottish Cup success. It turned into a case of what might have been and it would have been easy to write Helander off, even in his early thirties, and state that he would not have a fulfilling career for club or country.

The move to Odense has been the start of a fresh chapter. In the city that was the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, Helander has penned a new narrative and has enjoyed a fairy tale renaissance. Once again, he is the main protagonist in a defence, and he has 15 Superliga appearances to his name this season. The last five of them have seen him wear the captain’s armband for a side that narrowly missed out on a place in the top half of the standings before the split at the 22-game marker.

“Yeah, it has been great to get back to playing every week and feeling good,” Helander tells the Rangers Review. “It has been great. The last two seasons at Rangers it was more about injury, injury, injury. You don’t really feel like you are a football player. You are there working every day or training every day but you don’t get to play any games because you are not fit. That was frustrating. Now I am playing every week and that is all I wanted to do. It has been great and I am really enjoying it all this season.”

It all could, and perhaps all should, have been so different. Helander focuses on the good times rather than the bad and speaks about the positives rather than the negatives. He doesn’t hold a sense of injustice at being released at the end of his contract and he still cherishes his relationship with the club and the support.

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When his time allows, Helander watches on from afar and follows the fortunes of those that he left behind. Three members of the back four – James Tavernier, Connor Goldson and Borna Barisic – are still regulars for Rangers, while Leon Balogun is also bidding for his second title medal. Stalwarts of the squad moved on at the same time as Helander as Allan McGregor retired, Scott Arfield was released and Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos headed for pastures new but the likes of Ryan Jack and Kemar Roofe are links between the side that won 55 and the group that is bidding for 56.

Helander jokes that his chances to watch Rangers are sometimes limited given that his free time is taken up by looking after his two young children, twin boys who were born late in 2022. He is pleased at the progress that has been made under Philippe Clement and social media provides him with a way of keeping up to speed on what he believes will be a ‘tight race until the end of the season’. That, of course, was not the case three years ago.

“I will always remember that season, it was a fantastic time,” Helander says of the Invincible campaign that saw Gerrard guide Rangers to the most cherished league flag in their history. “It is something you dream about as a player and when you are at Rangers, that is what it is all about. It is about winning titles. Hopefully they can succeed in doing that again this season. I really hope so. It was, of course, one of my absolute highlights. Rangers hadn’t won the title in such a long time so it was big, you knew how much it meant for everyone in and around the club.”

When it comes to an occasion that resonates with the supporters, there is none more meaningful than the Old Firm fixtures. On Sunday, Clement’s side have the chance to take another step towards the title when Celtic visit Ibrox for the second time this term. Given the state of play at the top of the table, the ramifications of a victory or a defeat need no explanation.

It was this famous head-to-head that provided Helander with one of his most vivid recollections of his time in Glasgow. Barisic raised his arms to rouse the supporters in the Copland Stand before putting his right hand in the air to signal where he was going to place his corner. On the edge of the area, Helander waited before setting off and met the cross on the six-yard line. His header was central but powerful and Joe Hart was unable to keep it out.

The scenes summed up what the moment meant to Helander, his teammates and the supporters. He will now hope that a member of Clement’s side can follow his example this weekend. Winning goals in Old Firm fixtures are not forgotten by those who score them or those who celebrate them.

“It was fantastic,” Helander says. “As a defender, you don’t get to score a lot of goals. To score a goal in that game, and when it finished 1-0, it was obviously big and it got us the three points. I think it was also the first Old Firm with the people back after Covid as well. It was an amazing day. I will remember that day for a long time.”

The 55 campaign was not the first medal on Helander’s CV. His time at Bologna and Hellas Verona did not see silverware secured but he made the move to Italy with two Allsvenskan titles and a Svenska Supercupen medal to his credit from his time at Malmo FF. He arrived in Glasgow at the age of 26, his recruitment a sign of intent from Gerrard as he strengthened a defensive unit that, Goldson aside, did not have the experience or the positional awareness that Helander possessed.

The chance to work with Gerrard made the switch something of a no-brainer for Helander. A debut in the less-than-salubrious surroundings of New Bayview was followed by wonderful European occasions against the likes of Feyenoord and Porto. That campaign was curtailed by Covid before Helander’s career was halted by a knee injury that sidelined him for several months. The sight of the Swede being stretchered off against St Johnstone was sadly a sign of things to come.

It was not the injury that ultimately ended his time at Ibrox, though. That moment arrived in Paisley the following April. Helander sat on the turf and received treatment before heading for hospital in a moonboot. He didn’t know it then, but he would never play for Rangers again.

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The decision not to have surgery and instead embark on a rehabilitation programme cost him six months in recovery time. The issue was described by Michael Beale as ‘unique’ and put down as a foot problem more widely. Helander had actually suffered a Lisfranc injury, a condition that occurs due to bone fractures or torn ligaments in the middle of the foot. It is named after Jacques Lisfranc de St. Martin, a French surgeon, who discovered the injury in cavalry officers who fell from a horse with their foot still caught in the stirrup. The issue is more common in NFL and NBA players and it is rare for footballers to succumb to it. Helander found himself stepping, or hobbling, into the unknown.

Beale spoke about the defender having a point to prove to himself once the end of the journey had been reached and it was clear that Rangers couldn’t take a chance on another contract. If Helander had been fit, he would have been a starter and arguably the most complete defender at Ibrox. His absence was felt on the pitch and by those in the stands.

“I think you realise the size of the club and how many fans there are, how many people really care about the club,” Helander says. “I always had a good relationship with the Rangers fans. Of course, I had injuries and that was frustrating for the fans, but it was also frustrating for me.

"You cannot do anything about it, really. I always felt that the fans were great to me the whole time and I think most of them would say that I was a good player when I was in the team and fit. I appreciated that relationship with them. I was gutted to have those injuries. I try to not think about that. You can’t change what has been.”

The trials and tribulations of Helander encapsulate Rangers’ fortunes on the injury front over recent seasons. The loss of a handful of established performers undermined Giovanni van Bronckhorst and hampered Beale and it says much about the job that Clement has done that he has been able to guide this group into such a promising position at this stage of the season. If the Belgian didn’t have his problems to seek, the situation would surely be even more encouraging for a side that are aiming to add the Premiership title and Scottish Cup to the League Cup that was won in December.

Helander was joined in the treatment room by John Souttar for much of last season. Kemar Roofe and Tom Lawrence were regular attendees, too, while Ianis Hagi worked through a lengthy rehabilitation programme after undergoing knee surgery. It was a negative situation for each individual, but there was a collective benefit as stories were shared and spirits were raised. They were a band of brothers that were unable to assist their teammates on the front line but each were well aware of the world around them.

“As a player, and maybe as a foreign player, when you go there you are not really used to it, you don’t really know what a huge club it is,” Helander adds. “Once you are there, you realise how big it is, how important it is. Once we got that title, it was just unbelievable.

“I think you get used to it quite quickly once you are there, you have to get to know what the demands are, what the standards are. You get a feeling for what people expect and how important it is to people. I really enjoyed my time at Rangers. It was a fantastic club to be at.”

Goals were indeed a rare commodity for Helander. He scored twice in a week as Motherwell and Hearts were overcome in his first season and found the net against Willem II, Ross County and Slavia Prague in his second term. That Old Firm winner was followed by the opener away to Annan Athletic on the night that he made his return from knee surgery.

Defenders will always be judged first and foremost on clean sheets but one of Helander’s former teammates is an outlier in that regard. Tavernier now holds the title of British football’s highest scoring defender. He has once again come to the fore when Rangers have needed him most, his strike in the win over Hibernian the 131st of a remarkable career. The coming weeks will determine if the goals added to the tally this term contribute to a treble triumph.

“It will mean a lot to him, just as it will mean a lot to the other players in the squad,” Helander says when asked about the impact a second Premiership medal would have on the skipper. “Tav is a fantastic player and he has shown that for many years at Rangers. Just look at how many goals he has scored, how many goals he has been involved in with assists. He is a good leader, he shows by example. I would be happy for him and for the whole club if they manage to succeed by winning the league.

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“You get judged a lot by winning titles but if you just look at what he has done in terms of goals and what he brought to the table, it is still a lot. Of course, if he wins the league that just adds further to his legacy. If you are a defender and you score more than 120 goals, you have still done a lot for the club.”

Tavernier was granted a place amongst the most illustrious names in Rangers’ history last season as he, McGregor and Steven Davis were inducted into the Hall of Fame. A second Premiership title would further enshrine that status. Captaining his side to a clean sweep would be no more than he deserves for the part he has played on the pitch and in the dressing room.

“He is friends with everyone and he is someone that everyone can talk to,” Helander says. “I felt like that. I felt I could talk to him about situations. He can be vocal in the dressing room but only at a certain point. There can be a sense that you talk too much but I think he was always good in that way. He talked when he had to and only when it was necessary. He leads by example, he leads by scoring important goals when the team needs them. That is when he has always been so crucial for Rangers.”