It is easy to be dismissive of something you perhaps don’t fully understand. When it comes to assessment of new Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha’s CV, it’s fair to say scepticism of his credentials has been widespread.
If his work had not previously permeated the collective consciousness of Scottish football, however, it did make a firm and positive impression on one of the country’s most notable ex-pats.
From the North American vantage point which has been his home for the past 20 years, Maurice Johnston’s attention was caught by Caixinha’s exploits at the helm of Mexican club Santos Laguna from 2012 to 2015 when he won a league title, domestic cup and champion of champions title.
The Portuguese coach also led Santos to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League in 2013. They defeated three Major League Soccer sides on the way, including Johnston’s former club Toronto. According to the ex-Celtic, Rangers and Scotland striker, Caixinha’s achievements in Mexico – which boasted the fourth-best attended league in the world last year behind only Germany, England and Spain – deserve respect.
“I know a little bit about Pedro,” said Johnston. “He did really well at Santos Laguna and that is a big club. To win three trophies with them isn’t bad and I know he also did fairly well in Portugal before he went out to Mexico.
“The standard of Mexican football is pretty good, believe me. It’s similar to the MLS and, yes, it’s a better standard than Scotland. The CONCACAF Champions League is a really good tournament and Mexican clubs have dominated it.
“They spend a lot of money in Mexican football, so Pedro won’t be able to go back there to buy players. But he will bring better players to Rangers through the contacts he has. He will bring a different perspective, a different mindset to Rangers, so it is going to be interesting.
“He’s a feisty character, I can tell you that, from watching him. I think he will be fine in Scottish football, but he’s got to win. That’s the most important thing for him because coming second isn’t good enough for Rangers.”
Caixinha raised eyebrows during his first media conference at Ibrox on Monday when he stated the group of players he was inheriting at Rangers were the best squad in Scotland. Johnston has no doubts that was simply a motivational ploy to get them on board right away, regardless of the 33-point gap which currently separates them from champions and runaway Premiership leaders Celtic.
“He watched Rangers for the first time at Celtic Park on Sunday and I don’t know how he can judge them that way after just one game,” added Johnston. “He doesn’t know the full squad yet and maybe he was trying a bit of reverse psychology there.
“There is no danger they are a better squad than Celtic, that’s obvious. Celtic are way better and the gap is as big as everyone says. The points are on the board, it’s there for everyone to see. That tells you exactly where the two teams are at this moment in time and the gap might even be bigger before this season is finished.”
Johnston was speaking at Hampden, on promotional duty for next month’s William Hill Scottish Cup Old Firm semi-final. He attended last season’s fixture at the same stage of the tournament when Rangers upset the odds to beat Celtic on penalties after a 2-2 draw.
“Rangers played really well that day,” he said. “But Celtic are different class now and Brendan Rodgers has done a great job this season. They are playing some really good football. I saw the game on Sunday and, especially for the last 20 minutes, Rangers played a lot better than they have been and they deserved a draw.
“Scottish football needs a strong Rangers. The situation they have been in for the last four or five years has also hurt the national team. Do Celtic need a strong Rangers? The league needs it, that’s for sure.
“It was different when I played for Rangers. David Murray was spending money and we had some great players back then. We had the money to back us. But we also had Aberdeen, Dundee United, Hearts and Hibs, as well as Celtic, pushing us. It’s now a one-horse race. Celtic are so far in front of the rest that it’s not even funny. Rodgers deserves huge credit but it’s not going to help them if nobody is pushing them. That’s one million per cent true.”
Moussa Dembele, pictured, has been a major factor in Celtic’s domestic dominance this season and, while the French striker failed to score against Rangers for the first time in four Old Firm appearances on Sunday, he has a firm admirer in Johnston.
“He’s the real deal, a right good player,” said the 53-year-old who scored six times in Old Firm matches – three for each side of the great divide.
“He’s only 20 and while people will laugh at the £30 million figure that’s been bandied about for him this season, there have been players bought for £50 million who have done nothing. So if Celtic can get that amount of money for him, then good luck to them. He has scored in the Champions League and is a real handful.
“I am not sure you can judge any player in terms of what they are worth. If somebody is going to pay that amount of money, then that’s what they are worth, and if it’s a Barcelona or Real Madrid that comes in for him, you will get that £30 million no problem.”
l Maurice Johnston was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.