Tue, Jul

The Alex McLeish Downsizing

The Rangers Story: 1872-2015
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Alex McLeish's four-and-a-half-year spell at Ibrox was a turbulent one, coming as it did after the wastefulness of the Advocaat era. McLeish never enjoyed access to the funds his predecessors had been given, and his managership was marked by wildly-fluctuating fortunes, in part caused by forced asset stripping of his best players due to the spectre of debt from Advocaat's spending.

His appointment in December 2001 was met with a lukewarm reaction amongst many Rangers supporters. Some viewed it as symptomatic of the downsizing of the club's ambitions, while others saw in McLeish a manager whose mixed fortunes at Hibernian and Motherwell left him ill-equipped to cope with the demands of managing a high-profile club like Rangers.

A few, perhaps remembering McLeish's days in Alex Ferguson's successful Aberdeen side of the early 1980s, questioned whether someone lacking any obvious Rangers allegiance could revitalise a club faced, for the first time in decades, with a concerted challenge from a seemingly rejuvenated Celtic.  Such concerns were quickly allayed, however, as McLeish's Rangers began to display a spirit that had been sorely lacking in Advocaat's final seasons. Cup successes in McLeish's first half-season, 2001/2, saw a renewed sense of optimism that Rangers could regain the ascendancy claimed by Celtic under the managership of Martin O'Neill.

A 3-2 defeat of Celtic in the season's climactic Scottish Cup final, orchestrated by Barry Ferguson and marked by a dramatic last minute winner, reinforced the view that Rangers could once more gain the pre-eminence enjoyed for almost all of the period since Graeme Souness's appointment as manager in 1986.

His first full season as manager, 2002/03, saw the club fulfil this sense of promise, and featured an astonishingly tense run-in to the league campaign that many thought could never be repeated - until two years later. Another victory over Celtic, this time in the League Cup, provided the first leg of the club's latest treble. Rangers' half-century of championships was secured on a dramatic last day of the league season, with victory over Dunfermline Athletic denying Celtic the title on goal difference.

The destination of the title was unknown until the dying seconds of this match as both teams had headed into the game level on points and goal difference. Only a last-minute penalty by Mikel Arteta clinched the win. A somewhat drab and anti-climactic 1-0 victory over Dundee in the Scottish Cup final the following week saw a triumphant finalé to the season and a near-flawless start to McLeish's reign, ruined only by a poor showing in Europe, which Rangers exited in the first round to minnows Viktoria Žižkov.

Yet the overall success of McLeish's initial period as manager proved difficult to sustain. The club's parlous financial position, in the wake of the profligacy of the Advocaat era, meant a period of relative austerity. Wage levels were slashed as the club embarked on an extensive cost-cutting programme in an attempt to stabilise a mushrooming (and unsustainable) debt. Confronted with a squad of well-paid but ageing players largely assembled by Advocaat, McLeish was compelled to rebuild without the luxury of the generous transfer kitty enjoyed by his predecessors over the preceding two decades, and lost from his treble winning team the inspirational but mistake-prone Lorenzo Amoruso, Scottish international winger Neil McCann and, most damagingly of all, club captain Barry Ferguson to Blackburn Rovers To replace these players, McLeish was required to rebuild, not through the high-profile and often audacious signings of the Souness, Smith and Advocaat years, but via wheeling and dealing and the selective use of 'Bosman' free transfers.

After a good start to 2003/2004 which saw the team lead the SPL and qualify for the money-spinning Champions League (with another dramatic late goal in Denmark against FC Copenhagen), the loss of Ferguson shortly afterwards led to a dramatic downturn in results and a trophyless campaign. McLeish's Bosman signings of experienced players, such as the Brazilian midfielder Emerson and Norwegian forward Egil Østenstad have since entered Ibrox folklore as some of the worst players to pull on a Rangers shirt. Most damaging of all, however, was the £600,000 signing of Portuguese winger Nuno Capucho.

The 2004/2005 season started in the same vein, with McLeish making another poor signing in Serbian midfielder, Dragan Mladenovic, for £1m. The Serb would manage less than ten games for the club. On the pitch, the team again fell behind Celtic in the league and exited the Champions League at the qualifying stage. It was rumoured that failure to gain entry into the new UEFA Cup group stage would see McLeish lose his job, but another late goal and a penalty shoot out win over CS Marítimo of Portugal provided him with a stay of execution.

After this, his fortunes began to turn again. Mladenovic aside, McLeish had made some canny signings in the summer, such as Nacho Novo, plus the Bosmans Dado Pršo, Jean-Alain Boumsong along with midfielder Alex Rae. Once these players settled in, the team began to recover ground on O'Neill's ageing Celtic side. Boumsong, in particular, was a great success but he was to be sold in January 2005, after only six months at the club, to English Premiership side Newcastle United (managed by former boss Graeme Souness) for £8m. This cash paved the way for more signings, including Thomas Buffel and the return of former captain Barry Ferguson.

Another trophy, the League Cup, was procured in March 2005 after a 5-1 victory over Motherwell. The league, however, appeared to have been lost. Despite catching and overtaking Celtic (two Old Firm wins, including a pivotal 2-0 victory at Parkhead - McLeish's first win there as Ibrox manager) nerves seemed to get the better of Rangers once they had got on top. A loss to Celtic in the last derby of the season handed a five-point lead to their rivals with only four games of the season remaining, and seemed to end McLeish's hopes of a second league title.

However, the Ibrox team managed to win the league title on the last day of the season. A 3-1 Celtic home loss to Hibernian the week after the derby meant only two points separated the sides going into the final game of the season, at which point Rangers needed to win at Hibernian and hope that Celtic would drop points at Fir Park. In perhaps even more dramatic circumstances than two years previously, Motherwell overcame a 1-0 deficit with two goals in injury time to defeat the Parkhead side, while Rangers edged out a tight 1-0 win at Easter Road. For 89 minutes of the match, Rangers thought their rivals were set for the title, and once news broke of Motherwell's late intervention, ecstasy awaited for the Ibrox legions. Even the helicopter that was carrying the league trophy was on its way to Fir Park to present it to Celtic when it had to turn around and fly to Easter Road. That day has passed into Ibrox folklore, becoming known as 'Helicopter Sunday'. McLeish could celebrate his second, and Rangers' 51st, league title.

Season 2005/2006 got off to a bad start, with Rangers only winning six league games out of the first 17, being knocked out of the League Cup by Celtic in the process. The period from October through to early December saw the team embark on statistically the worst run in their history, going ten games without a win. During this time, however, the club became the first Scottish side to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, yet there was still significant pressure on McLeish from fans due to the club's poor position in the domestic league table. It was widely felt - and publicised - that chairman David Murray would let McLeish go after the European campaign had finished, and a press conference arranged two days after the final group match seemed to confirm this.

However, Murray seemed to undergo a change of heart and stated that McLeish would remain in charge indefinitely, but did concede that domestic results would need to improve. Rumours continued to suggest that this was because his favoured target, Frenchman Paul Le Guen, was unwilling to take charge until the summer.

After this announcement, the team improved, helped by the signing from Kilmarnock of the young Scot and SPL top scorer Kris Boyd. The side strung together a ten-match unbeaten run. Yet, entering the crucial month of February, which was to feature a must-win Old Firm match and the resumption of European football, this evaporated. Rangers lost 3-0 at home to Hibernian on 4 February 2006 to go out of the Scottish Cup and end their last realistic hopes of silverware for the season. Protests against McLeish and the chairman who had kept him on followed the game, and four days later they were humbled in a 2-0 defeat at McLeish's old club, Aberdeen.

Overall, the McLeish era was mixed. Results swung violently from one season to the next, while his record in the transfer market was also inconsistent. The lack of money certainly played its part in McLeish's downfall (he brought in around £13 million in transfer fees overall and the Ibrox wage bill was slashed to under £15 million a year) but it is debatable, based on the money he did have to spend, whether greater sums would have been invested wisely. Indeed some supporters of the Ibrox club claim a good proportion of McLeish's signings have been among the worst in the club's entire history. At a time when Scottish talent was apparently beginning to emerge again, some fans found it puzzling that McLeish failed to make more of an effort to raid markets closer to home, or to develop youth players. However, others pointed out that he signed the likes of Novo, Andrews and Murray from other Scottish teams and youngsters such as Chris Burke, Alan Hutton, Ross McCormack and Steven Smith emerged from within the club.

McLeish obtained seven domestic trophies in four years, beating his initial Old Firm counterpart Martin O'Neill by one.

> The Paul Le Guen Disaster