Defender reckons former Brentford boss would be a good fit for Rangers, he tells Andrew Smith
In witnessing first-hand the alchemy that Alex Neil performed on Norwich City to earn them promotion to the Premier League, Steven Whittaker knows a thing or two about measured managerial makeovers.
‘Brentford impressed me a lot last year. They played some good football’
The former Rangers full-back has a feeling that his old club could be in the business of effecting such change if they decide to place Mark Warburton and David Weir in charge. It is believed the pair are the only serious rivals to current incumbent Stuart McCall when it comes to leading Rangers next season.
Whittaker considers as impeccable Weir’s credentials for the role of assistant at Rangers, where the pair enjoyed top-flight success. For almost five years from early 2007 the two men were defensive lynchpins of an Ibrox side they helped reach the UEFA Cup final in 2008.
More recently, Whittaker encountered Weir in his role as assistant to Warburton at Brentford City. The Scotland international had nothing but admiration for the manner in which the team the pair moulded performed during the club’s first season in England’s second tier for more than two decades. Brentford finished just outside the play-offs, the route used by Neil to steer Norwich back into the top flight. Neil’s success was founded on 17 wins from his 25 games in charge following his switch from Hamilton Accies in January. One of the few blemishes, indeed, was a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Brentford that same month.
“Brentford impressed me a lot last year,” Whittaker said. “For a team just promoted, they played some good football. They weren’t scared to pass the ball and be brave, and they had some good attacking players there as well.
“I spoke to Davie when we played them and he told me he’s enjoying working under the manager there. He’s enjoying his coaching and I’m sure they’ll make a good partnership at whatever club gets them.
“I think they would be a good fit for Rangers. Davie’s been there and knows the club, knows what it’s all about. With the style of football they play I’m sure the fans will take to it as well. They want to play football and do it in the right way. They had the guys Jota and Alex Pritchard who hugged the touchline but at times came in and found pockets to play in. We found that hard to defend against at times.
“It would be great to see Davie back at Rangers. He was well respected there and has done lots in the game. Everyone knew back then that he would go on to become a coach or a manager one day. He would be a great addition to Scottish football and to Rangers.”
Not unlike the increasingly thoughtful Whittaker, Weir has always possessed a quiet assurance. As a young player at Ibrox feeling his way after a big-money move from Hibernian, Whittaker benefitted from the veteran’s wisdom that was dispensed without his requiring to raise his voice.
“He was a help to me. He was the captain there for a while, and an experienced defender. I was part of that defence and with that great experience you obviously take anything he says on board. I always noticed that whenever Davie spoke, everyone listened, regardless of what tone he used. He commands that respect. Whenever he spoke you wanted to hear what he had to say.”
Neil has prospered from commanding such authority at Carrow Road, though he earned that through being blunter and more abrasive. Many considered that catapulting the then 33-year-old into an wannabe/need-to-be English Premier League team with under a year’s managerial experience at a relative footballing backwater would have been the breaking of him. It wasn’t that the more monied, egocentric elements of the Norwich squad would have had no clue as to who the heck Neil was. They would barely have had an earthly as to the whereabouts or status of the Hamilton side with which he had demonstrated his rich promise.
Even Whittaker could barely tell his team-mates much about their incoming Scottish manager beyond that he had been a feisty character as an on-field opponent. Neil let the Norwich squad know precisely what he was all about in his first address to them.
“It’s important that any manager gets respect from his players straight away and that first time he came in and spoke to the boys in the changing rooms, everyone was almost like taken aback. We pretty much knew our place, and that was important. We knew he was going to be honest. It was like ‘we need to get on side here or we won’t be playing’. The proof is always in the pudding, though, and there is a need to follow through. And he’s done that.”
Neil, inheriting an under-performing squad that was six points off the play-off places, did what he was tasked to do. A comfortable 2-0 defeat of Middlesbrough in the Championship play-off final came after Norwich accounted for their derby rivals Ipswich in the semis. The Wembley decider proved a game of consequence out of kilter with any final Whittaker had previously contested.
“We were all chatting beforehand about how the final would set up our summer,” said the 30-year-old. “It was either going to set up next season perfectly or leave us miserable and grumpy for a while, and leave us having to refocus on the same challenge we had before.
“I was trying to compare it [to other finals like the UEFA Cup] and when you get to that level, the games themselves are all of a pretty similar stature. The difference was what was at stake. You were playing for your future, in many senses, and that meant different possible outcomes. A lot of us had played in big games before but never in one where it defined your next season.”
Neil has already made next season for Norwich. Warburton and Weir may be given the chance to resuscitate Rangers in similar fashion.