IN LEWIS Macleod, Rangers assistant manager Kenny McDowall believes the Ibrox club have unearthed a diamond in the dirt. A gem the coach considers more precious than he has worked with since he had Aiden McGeady in Celtic’s development set-up.
The grimy existence forced on the reformed Rangers will continue at Peterhead’s Balmoor Stadium this lunchtime, wherein the runaway Third Division leaders return to the scene of their first lowest-tier league encounter. Whatever charm or challenge this part of the “journey” may ever have possessed, it surely doesn’t now. Watching the 18-year-old midfielder sparkle, however, continues to make these difficult days for McDowall.
“Sometimes you find the diamond. I think he’s that good, I really do,” says the Rangers No.2. “He has the temperament to be an Old Firm player. He’s not fazed. The first session he came in, he wasn’t fazed at all. Sometimes you see them a bit tentative and not sure and it takes them a couple to get in the group. He was bang at it straight away, making tackles, demanding the ball. You can tell then.
“People look at David Templeton and Barrie Mackay and Fraser Aird, the entertainers, but for me Lewis has been unbelievable. Centre midfield is a hard area to hold, and for a boy to come in and keep his place at his age is fantastic. He was unwell last week but before that, he was the only one player apart from the keeper to play 100 per cent of the games, and that is astonishing for a kid of his age. He’s got every chance of going the whole way and being a top player for a long time.”
McDowall remembers thinking the same about McGeady on first sight and his response is “oh aye” when the question is whether Macleod is the player who has excited him most since the winger who earned Celtic £10 million from Spartak Moscow. “McGeady was in at Celtic at 12 and just looked unbelievable at 12. He had unbelievable talent. He is obviously a different type of player from Lewis, but when you see them, you see them.”
The liquidation of the old Rangers has forced the club’s management team to see far more of teenagers Macleod, Barrie McKay, Fraser Aird and Robbie Crawford than they would have anticipated. These players, who did not grace the Ibrox side’s first team at all last season, have been required to sidestep the very stage in their development McDowall was essentially responsible for helping the likes of Shaun Maloney, Stephen McManus, John Kennedy and McGeady through at Celtic.
As McDowall explains: “It’s different because these boys are playing first team, and at Celtic they were in the second team trying to get to the first team. They have had no warning. It was ‘bang’, they were up training with the first team. They turned up in June and they were looking about and there were no senior players at that point. I have to say they came on unbelievably from June to now. That is a big credit to them because regardless of what anyone thinks, a game of football is a hard thing to win – no matter who you are playing – if you don’t go about it the right way. They have done brilliantly to get to where they are now.
“They have had to show courage. The other teams were at fever pitch at first over the chance to play us. Some of our boys have come out of the youth team and straight into action in front of 50,000. That’s a big ask for anybody. We’ve signed players from Premier League teams who have come here and it’s taken them time to settle. I think of big Steven Whittaker and Kevin Thomson.
“It took them nearly a season to settle down and get to grips with the demands of this place. So you can imagine what that’s like for a youth player. It’s been a great year for them.”
For Macleod, McDowall believes, the first great year of many.