Persuading Joey Barton to pass up the opportunity to earn more money playing with Burnley in the English Premier League for a stint with a Rangers only just promoted to the Scottish top flight was a task Mark Warburton confessed yesterday he thought would prove beyond him and his backroom team at Ibrox.
Facing up to Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final and producing a display of finesse on an afternoon of high drama that ended with the derby decided on penalties is what Warburton now believes was not only a game-changer, but a squad-changer.
The 53-year-old believes that such as Clint Hill and others – he wouldn’t confirm that Niko Kranjcar was to have a medical at the club today – will follow Barton because of the occasion which received global attention at Hampden in April. Agreeing there could be a “domino effect” in terms of attracting players set in motion by the Barton deal “what did it” for tying up the outspoken midfielder, “I think, was the semi-final”, said the Rangers manager.
“If there is one factor that weighed in our favour, it was the semi-final,” he reiterated. “Everyone I know in football watched it. I had more texts about that game than any other in my life. They all watched it and they saw the passion of the fans, a good quality game, the coverage, everything. That, for me, was the deciding factor that made people decide they want to be part of that.”
Without that semi-final – that gave way to defeat in the final by Hibernian – Warburton agreed his squad “would have been” weaker – Liverpool youngster Jordan Rossiter also signed during the summer, with Warburton confident “three or four more” will follow.
“I don’t mean that in a derogatory way at all,” he said of the derby making a difference to his club’s drawing power. “But it was such a showpiece of a game and so many people watched it and enjoyed it. it was a good game. You had four goals, penalties, the drama, the crowd, the passion. Had it been 0-0 or a 1-0 in the 93rd minute then maybe it wouldn’t have been the same. It was a really exciting game, a good quality game and a good occasion. I think, rightly or wrongly, that really sold the prospect of coming to Glasgow.”
“We set out our targets fairly early and we have gone and got them. To get people like Joey Barton, Clint Hill and Jordan Rossiter, plus Josh Windass and Matt Crooks – they are good, early, high-quality acquisitions. I am delighted with them. All credit to Frank McParland as well. To get someone like Joey Barton is down to [chief scout] Frank McParland and the support of the board.”
Warburton was open to the suggestion that there is a sense of revitalisation of the Scottish game with Championship success he claimed for the Ibrox side, the incoming managers at Celtic and Hibs, and his Twitter-obsessed midfield acquisition.
“But we can’t make improvements and then take our foot off the gas,” he said. “Joey Barton coming in, Neil Lennon coming back, someone of Brendan’s [Rodgers] calibre coming and Rangers being back in the top flight – that’s fantastic. But what we have to do now is keep making improvements and progress. If we take our foot off the gas and think we’ve made it then we go straight back down.”
The arrival of Rodgers pits Warburton against a friend and former colleague with the Rangers manager having headed up Watford’s academy when the Irishman was manager at the Vicarage Road club. Even with the intensity and appetite for acrimony that exists at all levels of the Glasgow clubs, Warburton is convinced that – “absolutely” – his friendship with Rodgers will survive whatever their roles as fierce footballing foes brings. They ironed that out with a phone chat the two shared while the Rangers manager was on holiday in Florida the other week.
“It’s the nature of the game [that only one of us can win],” he said. “We both realise that and if I have a problem with Brendan, he knows I’ll pick the phone up to him and speak to him. I know Brendan is more than professional enough to do exactly the same.
“We have that agreement already. Don’t read what’s in the papers sometimes and, if there is a problem, there’s no doubt he’ll speak to me. It’s the same with me – I’d call him up and we’d deal with it in a very mature way, I’d hope. We are good friends but whatever happens, someone has to win and someone has to lose cups and leagues. Whatever happens, we’ll still be friends at the end of this process.”