Meet the New Boss’s Boss

“We see that sometimes when managers leave a lot of the structure leaves with them. That is no use, you put a lot of time a lot of investment and a lot of resource into developing that side of the business and you can’t have that changing every time a manager changes. The director of football gives you that continuity. They oversee the overall football department, all aspects of it, including the academy, performance and preparation, analysis and everything as well as the first team.”

So Rangers’ Managing Director revealed today in an interview with the club’s website. It makes sense, and everything that he says above is perfectly correct. The days of Jim McLean, Alex Ferguson, and Guy Roux managing teams for 20 years seem to be firmly in the past (Wenger hanging on by his fingernails excepted.) Most managers seem to find some new source of masochism after a couple of years or so, whereupon the club appoints a new person with new ideas, and it’s back to square one. Since the demotion to Division 3 in 2012, Rangers have gone through two permanent and three temporary managers, and dozens of players, yet it doesn’t appear that there is any sort of long-term plan in place. Some people will blame Ally McCoist and Mark Warburton* for that, but in my opinion, that’s sort of infrastructure and strategy is the responsibility of the board to put in place. This didn’t seem to be a priority for the previous regime, so the club has been listing in a sea of transiency for the last two or three years. Indeed, in Ally McCoist’s first season in charge, back in the Premier League in 2011/12, the club didn’t have a proper scouting network. Six years on, that’s still the case.

It’s therefore vitally important that the club puts some sort of foundations in place over the next six months to allow the Director of Football model to flourish, for one key reason. The fans.

I find football fans fascinating, from a sociological and psychological point of view. 21st century football support is a curious mix of tribalism and religious fervour; dogma, rhetoric, zealotry, logical fallacies and confirmation bias are defining qualities of many fanbases. Rangers fans are particularly notable in this regard, I suppose because of the nature of Scottish football where the two big clubs have dominated the rest for the best part of 50 years (and all the other weird socio-political stuff that goes along with the Old Firm rivalry.) As a result of all of this, Rangers fans are not patient in the slightest. They’ll tell you they are, but they’re not. We’re not. You only have to look at the dizzying velocity of Warburton’s fall from grace to see that. In a little over 12 months he went from wizard to wizzard. Of course, much the same thing happened to Paul Le Guen, during his brief spell in charge ten years ago. Maybe it’s the cold winters that do it?

The fallout from last week has seen furious analyses about just who’s to blame for Warburton’s demise. The man himself, the board, the players – they’ve all been fingered as guilty. The fans though? Absolutely and completely without blame. A Cherubic choir that bestows vim and vitality upon their chosen XI, and who cannot be defiled by base human sins. It’s not true though, and I do get a wee bit exasperated by the piety – and it’s not just Rangers supporters that are guilty of it. Yes, football fans pay a huge amount of money to watch their teams, and roughly 75% of all football is terrible, but let’s not pretend football supporters around the world don’t spend half the time groaning, complaining, abusing players, leaving early, not even paying attention to the game, and being generally impatient. In addition, with more and more of us screaming our opinions into the void each day, clubs seem keener to canvass popular opinion when making decisions.

That’s why a director of football approach might work well for Rangers. If the head coach is struggling, and the fans have lost faith in him, unplug him from the system and replace. Similarly, if your coach is doing well, and is poached by a rival, you can replace him with a like-minded individual. The rest of the footballing infrastructure doesn’t have to be affected, and there’s a greater chance of continuity being maintained. Southampton apparently do it, and Hearts have just been through a head coach change process. It might just be the club’s only stab at long term stability. On the pitch, at least.

So let’s see what develops in the next few days or months, then meet back here in January 2018 to read how the director of football model isn’t working at Ibrox.

*The Rangers u-20s have been playing with much the same system as the first team this season, which has been attributed to Warburton, but this was also true when I went to see the reserves play in 2013, and probably many years before that, in fairness.

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Won’t Get Fooled Again

I keep seeing the same things. I keep reading the same things. I keep thinking the same things.

I keep thinking the same things.

I keep thinking the same things.

Being a Rangers fan these last ten years have been exhausting. It’s like being trapped in a David Peace novel (arguably The Damned United, although…) and I keep thinking the same things. Seeing the same things.

The Magic Hat is gone, apparently. There is confusion about whether he resigned or he was resigned (Football Conjugations 101,) but u-20 boss Graeme Murty appears to be in charge for the time being. And once again we begin the search for a new manager. From 1899 until the summer of 1998, we’d had 14 permanent and temporary managers. In the 19 years since, 10 men have managed the club. That’s partly due to the football world getting faster, true…but I keep seeing the same things.

There’s a cycle. The honeymoon period, then a wobble, then if they’re lucky they’re removed from office while they’re only considered incompetent and not Beelzebub or a Celtic fan or something equally abhorrent. In his first couple of months at the club, Warburton was being hailed as a football genius, and a visionary. Now…I keep reading the same things. “He’s a charlatan,” “he’s inept,” etc. I’ve even seen some posters on Follow Follow and Rangers Media hint they think he’s worse than McCoist, which are strong words indeed – as well as being a complete turnaround.

Despite encouraging early results under Warburton, a heavy defeat against the Michael O’Halloran-inspired St. Johnstone in the League Cup in September 2015 resulted in some headscratching and grumbling. 5 weeks later, we suffered the first of three losses to Hibs, in the league. We acquired 3 points per game in the first quarter of the season, dropping to 2 points per game for the remaining 25 games. Similarly, the goals scored average dropped from 3.44 to 2.11, and the goals against increased from 0.56 to 1.07. You might argue that we’d done enough to sew the championship up early and took our foot off the gas, but you could also argue that opposition managers worked out that Warburton’s gameplan was pretty one-dimensional, and prone to disruption. However, two excellent results in the Scottish Cup against Dundee and Celtic, winning the Challenge Cup, and securing promotion back to the top flight meant that any concerns were minor. Well, until the Scottish Cup Final.

Mark Warburton came to us with a reputation for not fielding teams that were particularly competent defensively. “We’re fine with that,” the fanbase said. “As long as we win, and the football’s good to watch.” We also knew he didn’t work on set pieces. “All good,” the support said (online, anyway.) “Winning’s all that matters.” Leading 2-1 with ten minutes to go, Rangers conceded two almost identical headed goals in the closing stages to hand Hibernian their first Scottish Cup since Methuselah was sitting his GCSEs, and all hell broke loose, with fans from both sides entering the playing area and scuffling with each other, police, and players. There is a theory that if the pitch invasion hadn’t happened, more scrutiny might have been turned on the nature of Rangers’ defeat, but as it was, the club and Warburton entered the close-season to prepare for the Premiership. Or to ‘go for 55’ as some fans put it.

Sitting third in the table at the start of February isn’t the worst season a club could have…if you benchmark success by other, non-Old Firm teams. And we’re not doing that, so obviously the season’s been somewhat less successful than it could have as we’re 4 billion points behind Celtic. What’s interesting is to see how quickly a football support can turn on a manager, from people wearing loaf wrappers on their head at games to the invective that’s been hurled around the internet in the last few weeks.

I keep seeing the same things. I keep reading the same things. I keep thinking the same things.

Football dynasties naturally wax then they wain. By the time the McCoist era at Ibrox came to an end, the support were desperate for a change, something new. Something ‘progressive’. The King takeover, and appointing Warburton and Weir, seemed like steps in the right direction. The garden was rosy, the sun was out, everyone was optimistic about ‘tippy tappy football’, and suddenly typos in the teamsheets weren’t the catastrophic harbingers of doom they had been, and Very Bad Things the new boss does the same as the old boss are overlooked. But slowly people start to ask questions, and these questions tend to coincide with heavy defeats. Defeats, after which, Warburton would say ‘we’ll learn from this,’ and yet he never seemed to. Five defeats and seven draws in 24 games isn’t a great return for a Rangers manager. These are, despite any claims to the contrary, the rules of the game.

But what of the fans? I suspect the same thing will happen with whoever the club appoints next, but that depends on if they go for a ‘Rangers Man’, or a ‘Non-Rangers Man’. Any Rangers Man will be likely to come with baggage. A Non-Rangers Man, a left-field appointment, will I think progress along much the same lines as the Le Guen and Warburton experiments. Initially the fans will enthusiastically embrace the new coaching methods, but by December or January, a thread will appear on Follow Follow querying why the players look so unfit. And that will be the start of the end.

 

Field of (Bad) Dreams

From the age of 9, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with football, and as a result, I’ve always harboured the ambition to someday play at the stadium of one of my favourite teams, be it Ibrox, or Hampden. The dream was once to score a goal in front of 50,000 adoring fans. Then it was rationalised to scoring a goal at some kind of industry jolly or charity event. Then it was just getting on the pitch. There’s something about being inside a football stadium that sparks the same kind of fervour in me that cathedrals seem to have inspired in millions of others over the last two thousand years. They share kind of a similar purpose I guess. For me, whenever I emerge from the internal corridors of a stadium tribune, and emerge into the inner sanctum where the pitch is, I get a frisson of excitement. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to photograph matches at Forthbank Stadium in Stirling, and Ibrox, and there’s something intangibly exciting about even being that close to the action.

I think there’s something about the scale of the architecture that dwarves any other entertainment venue that lifts football (and rugby) stadia onto a higher plateau. For example, the biggest entertainment venue in Scotland is the SSE Hydro, which has a capacity of 12,000. Even in a small country like Scotland, there are still 8-10 sports grounds bigger than that. Then there’ the smells of the pies and Bovril, the deep green of the pitches, the strange metallic echo whenever the ball is kicked…that said, when I got a message from my friend Stewart asking if I wanted to play in a Sunday evening 6-a-side league match at Broadwood, for our mutual friend Craig’s team, the stadium itself didn’t immediately come to mind. The ground itself is owned by North Lanarkshire Council, and is a community sports hub; there’s a leisure centre where the north stand should be, and an array of 5 and 7-a-side pitches to the south. I very rarely turn down a game of football, so I said I’d be happy to play.

The game was due to kick off at 8:15, so we met at 8pm in the car park outside. Of the 8 man squad (6 starting, with 2 rolling subs,) 5 played in the league regularly, while 3 of us (Stewart, Gary, and I) were guests for the evening, drafted in from a mutual Thursday night 5-a-side game. The regulars led us into the bowels of the building at the south-east of the stadium, and this was when it occurred to me for the first time that we might actually be playing on the pitch itself, which soon transpired to be the case.

We emerged from a door near the corner flag, to a hive of activity. There were three six-a-side games already in progress, across the breadth of the main playing surface under the blazing, unrealistic illumination of the roof-mounted floodlights. Stewart turned to me, must have caught my wide-eyed stare and gormless grin, and said “the hallowed turf, eh?” Well, not quite hallowed. Broadwood, like many other stadia in Scotland and across Europe, has a third generation artificial pitch. There’s something of a debate at the moment over whether these pitches are safe (the rubber crumb infill has been alleged to be carcinogenic, there’s a feeling more players get injured on them,) and the game’s governing bodies haven’t fully accepted them at all levels yet. Their benefits are clear; they require a lot less maintenance than grass pitches, they’re not as vulnerable to poor weather, and they’re more durable. Therefore, a smaller Scottish team like Kilmarnock or Hamilton can install an artificial pitch and hire it out to the public on the 5-6 days a week it otherwise wouldn’t be getting used. This is a clear income generator that quickly offsets the installation cost of the surface, and I think more and more lower level clubs will go down this route in the future. The larger clubs might be more likely to adopt a hybrid pitch type (natural grass with some artificial fibres binding the turf together.)

Our game was on the northernmost third of the pitch. As we walked to the goal we would be defending, I recounted some of the notable games Broadwood had hosted. Rangers had beaten Clyde in 1996 on their way to winning the Scottish Cup, and more recently Clyde had knocked Roy Keane and Celtic out of the same tournament in 2006. After a brief introduction between the new guys and the regulars, we got underway. There wasn’t much of a discussion about tactics or positions before the game, and it soon became clear that Craig’s team didn’t really hold much truck in either of those elements. Our opponents had a much younger average age than ours, it’s safe to say – at nearly 37, I was probably old enough to be the father of most of them. I last played 11-a-side football in 2004, and a few excursions into 7s aside, I’ve mostly played 5s in the intervening years, on a much smaller playing area. A third of a full size pitch doesn’t sound very big, but it’s still roughly 70 metres long by 30 metres wide. Despite my years, I’m still generally fit and fairly fast, but not enough to ameliorate the step up in pitch size. We got absolutely torn apart. We couldn’t cope with their speed, energy, and pressing, and my giddiness at playing in an actual football stadium soon turned into a bit of a mare, as football people say.

I was reasonably tidy in the opening stages of the game, using the ball well, but the longer the match went on, the worse I got. They opened the scoring when I tried to cut out a cross from the right, and inadvertently curled a precise finish past my own keeper. I had a decent shot on goal a little later, but we were really struggling to make much headway. At one point, I sprinted 50 metres to make a tackle in the left-back area. Shortly afterwards, I made another tackle, and ball broke to me with a big empty space ahead on the left wing. I drove forwards, when a ball from the other game crossed my path. Unlike in most 5s games, these games don’t stop when this happens (known as ‘ball in’,) but their defenders did for some reason. So I kept going. A defender eventually came across to cover me, but I knocked the ball through his legs (at least 66% by design,) cut inside, and got a shot away with my right foot. I watched as it sailed narrowly over the crossbar, then trudged the entire length of the pitch where I summoned Gary to sub in for me. I was knackered after those two sprints, and that was part of the problem. No-one in our team had the engine to get up and down the pitch, so the attack and the defence were constantly isolated.

None of us were entirely sure what the final score actually was. We all lost count. I think it was 7-0, but we were probably lucky it wasn’t in double figures. It was hard work, but I always perversely enjoy these games on bigger pitches, probably because it does suit my body type a little more than 5s, where being skilful is more useful. As I got into my car outside, reflecting on my Du Wei-like performance, they turned the stadium and car park lights out, which seemed like a bit of a metaphor. Maybe someday I’ll have my Eddie Malone moment on some hallowed turf.