THERE is every reason to suspect that life at Rangers will improve under Mark Warburton. A fact not merely attributable to what the 52-year-old Englishman is, but what he isn’t. And not linked to the squad he is likely to have at his disposal so much as what has been cut away from that playing pool.
Rangers will embark on a second tilt for the Championship having rectified what has ensured their experience of the level will be more than the expected single season stint. Much has been made of Warburton having helmed only one club, for only 18 months. Yet, at Brentford, he demonstrated he was absolutely cut-out for frontline coaching. Ally McCoist never, across three-and-a-half years in charge at Ibrox, provided compelling evidence that he truly was suited to senior football management. The team he assembled, meanwhile, lacked vitality, order and, unforgivably, youth.
Warburton, in tandem with his assistant David Weir, intends to reinvigorate Rangers by moulding, in his own words, “a young, hungry side with the potential to develop and be improved”. That has been the mantra since his appointment on Monday spelled the end of the unfortunate Stuart McCall’s brief tenure. The freeing of 11 grizzled professionals from the squad gives him the latitude to do just that. The pursuit of defender Rob Kiernan, expected to finalise a move from Wigan tomorrow, is a declaration. At 23, the Irishman is hardly a pimply youth. Yet he is younger than 18 of the Ibrox club’s past 21 permanent senior signings.
Lewis Macleod stood out like a beacon at Rangers because he was a teenager full of the craft otherwise all-too-lacking in the club’s lower-league incarnations. A player that excited supporters – as Warburton is determined to do – because he possessed technique and vision in the couple of seasons before he was sold for £850,000 to keep the lights on at Christmas to none other than…Brentford. Rangers director Paul Murray pointed out the other day that the loss of the midfielder, who was out injured for the month before his departure, was when it started to go seriously wrong for the club last season. Warburton could help put that right with a reunion.
“He is a very talented player but he is Brentford’s player right now,” the new Rangers manager said. “When we saw Lewis, we saw a highly talented and dynamic young footballer with quality and loads more potential left in him. That is the value aspect that we talk about, as you don’t buy the finished article, you buy a player that can do a job for you in the short term but who has the potential to flourish in the next 18 months.
“Lewis would typify the kind of player we would identify; the average age of the squad at Brentford was 23. That included some senior players at 33 and 34. We had two full backs at 21, both centre-halves were 23 and our midfielders were 21, 19, 20. If they are good enough, they are old enough. That will be the policy here but don’t forget the role of the senior pros will be to guide and help them through that daunting task of playing in front of 50,000 supporters.
“If you are playing in front of 500 people or 50,000 people it’s about being the best you can be and trying to win. Our job is to pick the right players who can handle playing in front of 50,000 and can keep the ball and want to have the ball. Some players can’t do that. Our job is to recruit well. We will make one or two mistakes but if we can get the majority of decisions right then we’ll be OK.”
Warburton dismissed the notion that he was a radical coach because of his methods at Brentford. Yet, setting himself on a mission to entertain with an expansive brand of football makes him seem positively revolutionary in a Rangers context. Ibrox teams down the years have hardly been noted for accenting the aesthetical.
A sizeable section of the Rangers support have long pined for the footballing orthodoxy at Ibrox to be challenged. It is understandable that they see Warburton as an answer to their prayers. Encouragingly for them, the former city trader who often had to rely on cold-calling to get the cash rolling, doesn’t just talk a good game. His team played a good game at Brentford. You won’t find a soul who would say otherwise.
Warburton appears to be a man who leaves little to chance. A 6am starter – note not riser – as he was in his trader life, at Brentford he would plan the day’s activities with Weir hours before they ever encountered a player. By the time the squad assembled at 9am for breakfast, the schedule would be written on a white board. Come 9:45am players would present for testing and injury reports, with training starting at 10:45am. After lunch, a period would be given over to analysis.
This pro-active approach is entirely disregarded by those who point to one fact with reference to Warburton’s wholly positive outcomes across his short time as a manager: they have come at a club transformed by a near £80m investment from owner Mark Benham. Yet, most of that was ploughed into structural improvement rather than squad salaries. Granted, Warburton banked Brentford a place in the second tier for the first time in 21 years with the fourth highest wage bill in League One. It is worth noting, though, that when he made the switch from sporting director to manager following Uwe Rosler’s departure to Wigan in December 2013, Brentford were fourth. He assured them automatic promotion by driving them on to claim second.
Brentford had the fourth lowest player budget in last year’s Championship. Yet Warburton, in no small part by showing belief in the potential of some promising performers plucked from League One, guided the club into the play-offs. And did so after his unwillingness to defer to Benham’s moneyball metrics in player signings to the point where he lost the final say and was serving out his time from February onwards.
One scene from last season encapsulated what Warburton wove together at Brentford. On the day it emerged that he would be parting with the club in the summer – along with assistant Weir and sporting director Frank McParland – Watford came to Griffin Park. They won 2-1, but not before the home team had taken the lead through Andre Gray and celebrated with a show of support for their manager that amounted to them piling on top of him.
“I had no idea the boys were going to do that to me,” Warburton said. “I nearly crumbled under the weight of them as they jumped on top of me. We built last season around two key pillars: work ethic and unity. That’s what it has to be. Players come to work every single day and the environment about the training ground has to be right.
“They are athletes so we need to make sure the food is right, pitches are right, kit, video analysis, medical care, logistics, all that stuff. We must give them the best chance. We can’t give them any excuses.
“I’m hands on every day. There is no point in me moaning about things that aren’t right. David and I work well together. I delegate and I also do things. If people tell you they can do everything then I think they are lying. It can dilute the quality of what you are trying to do. If you get good staff in then you have to trust them and give them responsibility but they also have accountability. If they screw up then they pay the price, the way a player would do.”
With Rangers set to continue operating with the second highest wage bill in Scotland, there should be no way for them to screw up promotion again. Especially not when Warburton has demonstrated an ability to maximise his resources. That doesn’t make him Jose Mourinho. It does, though, make him a manager that potentially offers Rangers what they need – and didn’t have for far too long.