Excuse me for paraphrasing a cringe-inducing cliché, but six months is a long time in football. The reason I say this is not because of a single player, or specific league’s remodelling in that time period, but rather concerning the affairs of what is now the minority club in Glasgow, the blue half, formerly rigidly Protestant-based Rangers FC, and how, since we spoke here exactly six months ago - as of Saturday 11th – about the failures of Scottish football in the 21st century, the Gers have done little to challenge this slide, waning in their ambitions to be scrapping with Celtic for titles. In fact, only a matter of minutes after that blog has originally been uploaded, back on September 10th, few fans could’ve missed the statement of intent Brendan Rodgers’ Hoops delivered to the rest of Scotland by dissecting the Teddy Bears in a 5-1 romp at Celtic Park, a Gameweek Five signal for how the remainder of the season would already pan out in the SPFL. The second match, notably, after which Celtic led the division of the season, that momentous and embarrassing defeat for the Ibrox-based side saw the five-time consecutive champions continue in pole position for the rest of the season, and the Gers soon slide down to mid-table, before recovering to second and now bronze medal position, trailing Aberdeen, while also setting the tone for a 2-1 Celtic victory in the turnaround on New Year’s Eve.
In that time, while a 33-point lead has opened up between the sides just under six miles apart over the M74 and the River Clyde, and the Hoops have eliminated their rivals with a late Moussa Dembele goal in the Scottish League Cup Semi-Final, there has been a far more distinct diversion in the retrospective of what has already been an extremely telling season for both sides. While Rodgers’ credibility, alongside that of the SPFL, has been called into question as a result of Celtic’s utter domination – 27 points ahead of their nearest competition in the Dons of the East coast, having only dropped two points all season and conceded 16 goals from 27 games – a matter which has been brushed off by the former Liverpool boss and the league alike, congealed in a state of malaise after such pre-season optimism; Rangers acrimoniously parted ways with Mark Warburton, their first ever English boss, on February 10, capping a bizarre tenure.
Having almost achieved an astounding treble the season previous – delivering the fans the glory they had been long-deserved in the Scottish Championship title, the Scottish Challenge Cup trophy and so nearly the Scottish Cup, only edged out by two late Hibernian goals in a 3-2 final defeat – this term had been a distant stretch from that anticipated success, though one Warburton had been expected to see out and rework in the summer before his controversial departure. One which I doubt we have heard the last of, as legal action may be on the horizon after Warburton questioned the Rangers statement, which noted he had resigned. After the honeymoon period of the Londoner’s first season, in which no fewer than eleven permanent signings were made – all of sufficient quality for the SPFL, I hasten to add, with nine having experience in English League One football or higher – ended, reality setting in over the scale of their challenge to even compete with Celtic in a match, let alone over 38, it has seemed a distinct possibility that Celtic may consolidate their run for another five seasons.
The whole of Scotland looks to Rangers - still, I must note, the most successful Tartan club with 54 league titles, 33 Scottish Cups and the record for the most league titles and trebles of any professional club in the world – to go toe-to-toe with the Bhoys on a consistent basis, and without a pillar of great reckoning in south-west Glasgow currently, very little else dares to heel Celtic’s dominance; both financial and football-wise. Aberdeen, despite filling a gap vacated by the liquidation of the Gers in May 2012, haven’t seriously presented a title challenge to Neil Lennon’s or even the vulnerable Ronny Deila’s Hoops sides in the meantime. Hearts, despite presenting some promise since their 2014-15 promotion back to the Premiership, haven’t sufficiently rattled the Bhoys either. Without clubs who could’ve previously been relied upon to tussle for European places in Hibernian, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and St Johnstone either, Scottish football desperately requires a spark of hope to topple Celtic’s mundane handle on power.
This metaphorical spark is supposed, traditionally, to arrive from the Teddy Boys, with Old Firms not just the highlights of the season’s action, but also title-deciding matches which can only be decided by a moment of timeless brilliance. Who can provide this in Ranger’s current set-up? This is exactly what the period of relative silence, prior to the past week, from Rangers’ board has been focused on, while under-20’s boss Graeme Murty has taken temporary reigns of the first team in the month since Warburton’s exit. Chaired by Dave King, with Managing Director Stewart Robertson heading The Rangers Football Club Ltd. area of the business, the board have now decided, without remorse or second thoughts, to shed Warburton’s rate of steady progress, using his own contacts as a manager to improve the playing standard of the squad. How would they instil a second dawn in the phoenix that now is Rangers FC, though?
Well, that was exactly this week’s revelation. Heading down a route where they will field a Director of Football alongside Pedro Caixinha, the relative unknown quantity of a manager who will be announced accordingly prior to this weekend’s coincidental cross-city clash at Celtic Park – it appears Rangers are going the way of many an ambitious pretender to the throne by approaching a smarter route to success. Having been turned down over the DoF position by Southampton’s highly-rated director of recruitment and scouting Ross Wilson, a 34 year-old Glaswegian, and apparently courting Paul Mitchell, a similar prospect who has just vacated his position at Spurs – though an individual who reportedly has loftier ambitions – you can’t blame the Gers for not aiming high in their attempts to restyle the club’s footballing outlook. It is noticeable, after all, that as current and former Southampton employees, Wilson and Mitchell have been obviously admired for their ability to create significant abundances of cold, hard profit through the tales of player scouting, development and sales that are now so synonymous with the Saints. If there is one way to gain ground on Celtic, it is through the financial artery, the deciding foundation block of the Bhoys’ continued authority in Scotland.
Finance, as we have all become accustomed, is the fundamental to success in the sport – at least, when combined with capable management both on and off of the pitch. If anything, though, I would argue it plays far larger a role in Scottish football, in similar fashion to many minority European leagues; Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and Greece, for example, included. As with any established division, the top leagues in each of these nations - from the rugged coastlines of Gaelic nations at the very west of the continent to the idyllic shorelines, tainted currently with the much-overshadowed plight of Syrian refugees, in the economically strained east – have pre-meditated top dogs. Clubs, for example, of the brand of The New Saints, Anderlecht, København, FC Basel and Olympiacos – who, respectively, have won the six Welsh Premier League seasons, five of the last ten Belgian First Division titles, ten of this millennium’s Danish Superliga terms, seven consecutive Swiss Super League gongs and an astounding 18 of the past 20 Greek Superleague seasons – are dominating their nations with their vast array of superior resources.
Qualifying automatically for a hugely significant cash prize, not only from sponsors and league officials, by winning their division (almost) year on year, these clubs reap the rewards of Champions League nights by pumping funds into the playing facilities, so such dominance can be continued. With København and Basel, out of my five examples, boasting by far the largest stadiums by capacity in their respective nations, and the other three clubs only lacking in this category by virtue of circumstance – with TNS not actually located in Wales (but in Oswestry, a few miles over the border), Anderlecht’s Constant Vanden Stock Stadium a mere 3,700 seats behind its leading league counterpart in Liège, and AEK Athens’ lease on the Olympic Stadium of 2004 far outstripping Olympiacos’ seating potential – there seems a clear pattern to success for these clubs. By developing into not necessarily the clubs representing the biggest cities, but instead growing to have a vice-like handle on footballing ability in their nations, they have each exploited a system in Europe which aids, naturally, the best-equipped nations (Germany, France, Italy, England and Spain the largest quintet by national population of UEFA’s sides), while ignoring the understaffed.
This is exactly the predicament Scottish football currently faces. With Celtic qualifying annually for the Champions League, invariably reaching and then bowing out at the group stage, while secondary and third-placed sides falter against their Maltese, Kazakh, Slovene and Danish counterparts, from recent examples, in qualifying for the group stage of the Europa League, Scottish football is being embarrassed on the continental platform. Again, this is why Rangers, with the second highest stadium capacity at the Ibrox of any Scottish club, are being so desperately relied upon to deliver salvation. Rich in their history of overturning great deficits in resources to produce seismic European shocks, Rangers - a side who, less than a decade ago, reached a Europa League final having drawn at the Ibrox in the Champions League against Barcelona and overturned the likes of Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina on their way to the Etihad-based final – many believe, are still capable of such efforts. Not in their current state of affairs, certainly, but with the financial foresight of their bitter rivals, quite possibly.
This relies, however, on them capitalising on as big a pot of prize funds as they can this July and August, entering the Europa League First Qualifying round and hopefully overturning the likes of Jelgava, Irtysh Pavlodar and Trakai; with whom a tie will surely spawn the headline ‘Trakai Fixtures’, with each already assured of a place in such a round as Latvian Higher League runners-up, Kazakhstan Premier League third-place finishers and A Lyga silver medallists in Lithuania respectively. It is imperative that Rangers, under forward-thinking stewardship as of this weekend, transform their league position and lofty expectations; to seize Celtic’s opportunistic power grab, winning each title since the Gers’ penultimate season in the Premiership, into corresponding success on the continent. Without these results, their league ambitions will be entirely redundant, as despite their continued income from loyal season ticket holders, filling a vast majority of the 51,000 or so seats inside the intensely atmospheric Ibrox, they will have few other significant revenue streams. As aforementioned in last year’s Scot-based blog, the SPFL have to share a measly £2 million worth of sponsorship from Ladbrokes per season between both themselves as an organisation and their 42 teams, while broadcasting income amounts to £35 million both nationally and internationally – resulting in a maximum revenue, from figures I can find online, of a mere £1.75 million or so come the end of this season for a side in third place, and something in the region of £2 million for second.
When transfer outlays, excluding the agent or signing-on fees paid to the half a dozen free signings, as well as the undisclosed fee paid for Lee Hodson, amounted to £2.375 million for seven purchases of varying quality and price in this season’s transfer windows for the Gers, including the £1.5 million spent solely on talisman Joe Garner, how are the SPFL meant to condone such meagre payments when aiming to make a fairer, and more competitive, Premiership? Currently, it is nigh-on impossible for clubs to escape the quicksand of the SPFL system; where as soon as clubs think they have wriggled free, they only sink deeper into the mires if the financial system. Many, it has to be said, are unlikely to make any significant operating profit currently, unless they are as self-assured as Celtic, or as frugal as Partick Thistle, who, of their eight signings this season, only spent on one – an undisclosed fee for Portsmouth’s Adam Barton – or Ross County, who covered their costs this season of nine free signings and Jason Naismith for an undisclosed fee by letting go of Jackson Irvine to Burton Albion for £300,000.
It makes sense, then, when this is the situation for many Scottish Premiership clubs – without mentioning the 30 mostly semi-professional clubs below them, for whom I comprehend how difficult balancing the books is, having been the boss of Championship club Queen of the South for the past two seasons of my FM17 save – for Rangers to adopt a mentality similar to Southampton’s in the Premier League. Aiming to promote more promising youth team candidates into the first team for subsequent sales, which could be hugely profitable in the right circumstances, while also developing the existing livestock they hold to find the peak at which they can be offloaded, then targeting suitably prepared replacements with a highly efficient scouting programme, if truly following in the Saints’ path, the Teddy Boys could transform Scottish football in this way. While only taking the existing business plans of practically any optimistic club around them to new heights, Rangers should be able to directly compete with the Bhoys within a few seasons of the successful application of this strategy, providing they do gain the revenue from Europe, and transform their transfer tactics.
Having drafted in five over-thirties in the summer transfer window, Mark Warburton’s transfer strategy seemed a marriage of convenience with his chosen individuals; 33 year-old Joey Barton, 37 year-old Clint Hill, the well-travelled Niko Kranjčar of 31 years, once highly-rated Matt Gilks lugging 34 years and Philippe Senderos, who should start informing his complexion of his relatively meagre 31 years of age, each cheap options on their last legs, whom Warburton clearly thought he could rejuvenate. Contrast that with Claude Puel’s transfer windows with Southampton, and the only over-30 in sight is third-choice ‘keeper Stuart Taylor, who has only made a staggering 75 league appearances at 12 clubs over the course of a 20-year career, while the highly-regarded 29 year-old Martin Caceres was only drafted in as a free signing after a series of defensive injuries this year. In Nathan Redmond, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Sofiane Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini, the Saints have a quartet of highly profitable prospects in their early-to-mid 20’s, who can benefit the club in two departments; in first performing impressively to assure another season of Europa League to mid-table security, before being sold for bumper profits. This must be the model Rangers follow to find their second dawn.
The signatures this season of Jordan Rossiter, Josh Windass, Matt Crooks, Hodson, Joe Dodoo and Jak Alnwick suggested some intention to move this way for the Gers; Hodson the only individual, at 25, over 23 years old in this contingent entirely sourced from English clubs. Honestly though, the prime market the Ibrox club can ever hope to sell these guys to is the English Championship, and the lower brackets of that at best, unless serious development is undertaken by the likes of Dodoo, a striker with two goals from 12 games, or Windass, without a goal to his name in 13 league appearances. Reliance on loan signings must be a habit waned off by Caixinha and the future DoF if Rangers are to succeed long-term also, as while a couple of loans a year might supplement a squad for a charge at success, sourcing some of your best players for a year from a Premier League club’s academy isn’t a financially beneficial strategy in the wider perspective of the club. It is not necessarily the culture of the club that will have to change, however, as this has already been diluted enough from the May 2012 liquidation and subsequent four seasons clawing their way, with loyal players on greatly reduced wages, back to the Premiership from League Two, but there will be a revamp of employee ethos as soon as Caixinha and his Director of Football counterpart march through the doors. Perspective will be key; approaching every decision with an eye on both the future and the present, and while this may create a few teething problems, most sacrifices will be worthy come the time the programme is in full flow.
What of Caixinha, then? Is he, despite his shadowy image, the right man to take the club forwards in this courageous shake-up of the status quo, radically rethinking what has worked in the previous four seasons, admittedly against much weaker opposition, to reclaim their rightful spot as, or at least as crown princes to, the kings of Scottish football? Well, having spent an uninspiring decade as a goalkeeper in the regional divisions of Portuguese football, he rose the ranks as first a youth boss at boyhood club Deportivo Beja, and then senior manager at amateurs Vasco de Gama Vidigueira, before embarking on a six-year long partnership with José Peseiro, becoming assistant at Sporting Lisbon, Panathinaikos and the Saudi Arabian national team to name but a few destinations. Later impressing in restricted circumstances at two lower-table Primiera Liga clubs, and making a name at Santos Laguna in Mexico, where he steered them to an unexpected 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League final and 2014 Apertura Copa MX victory, as well as the Clasura 2015 title (the second championship of a peculiar Liga MX season layout), leading to a mystifying career choice in then moving to Qatari club Al-Gharafa, where Caixinha has achieved little in a two year stint.
Known, away from his patchy managerial record, for his tendency to spend little time at each club – this will be his twelfth club in 18 years -, and for his reported friendship with fellow Portuguese Jose Mourinho, having both made early career progression at União de Leiria, though at different points in the club’s history, Caixinha seems a huge risk for Rangers’ board in the stewardship of a new future in west Glasgow. A maverick, some may argue, with such little control presented in his career, and with little rapport built up with the media or club officials during his short spells, his management style, if from the Portuguese textbook, will be to inspire players with a fiery touchline demeanour, while structuring a system around the natural flair and attributes of his individuals. In this regard, Caixinha could be set for success in a Scottish Premiership crying out for a return to the atmospherically crackling, leg-crunching, all-action way of the Old Firm derbies. To rejuvenate a squad I believe only to be mid-table English Championship in quality, in comparison to Celtic’s easily lower-half Premier League squad stacked with minor internationals and Scottish regulars, will be a significant task on Caixinha’s checklist, and one I can only realistically foresee him achieving to a certain degree with a far prolonged stay than his current average – just fewer than two seasons. It was a bold move to trust this obscure Portuguese individualist with arguably, at such a pivotal stage in its history, Scottish football’s biggest job, but so often, bold calls have been shown to succeed in Scotland – it must be something in the waters.
On a weekend, then, of what is set to be the most competitive Calcutta Cup in recent Six Nations history between England and a resurgent Scotland, as well as an Old Firm paling into insignificance against the largely decided league positioning of the two sides and the divisive installation of a new era at one of the sides, I believe Caixinha, and the Rangers Board, have juxtaposed their decision perfectly. If Caixinha can prove to be half as beneficial to the Gers as Vern Cotter has to Scottish rugby, then he will have performed admirably, as his new side require such transformation, in terms of ideology and performance alike, to even worry the Celtic titan that is currently so commanding that they will have to borrow the heart of Stuart Hogg, the unrelenting force of Jonny Gray and the cunning of Finn Russell, who will pose the seemingly unstoppable English XV all sorts of issues on today’s Twickenham pitch. It is a great task facing Caixinha, fortunately, he certainly seems the cut of individual up for it, but to be successful, he will require much more than raw passion, as while it might go some way to diminishing the hefty gap between the Glaswegian rivals, the application of a long-term plan is the key to charted success. It’s about time the Rangers lion roared back into force – for the sake of Scottish football’s future – and nobody is underestimating the scale of their task, but I for one truly hope they do succeed, and awaken the sleeping giant.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!