Soon after taking control of the club, Rangers Chief Executive Graham Wallace proclaimed that he is implementing a five year plan to regain the club’s place of competing with Celtic on a domestic level & competing against Europe’s best in the Champions League.
Rangers Report is beginning an ongoing series that is meant to assess & provide a recommendation or two as Rangers have publicly embarked on their five year plan.
Part One: Learn the Southampton Way
If there was a single club for Rangers to model themselves after in British football it would have to be Southampton. The club is currently sitting ninth in the English Premier League table behind only Newcastle, Manchester United, Everton, Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, & Chelsea. That’s pretty impressive company as the Saints have placed themselves among the league’s elite in only its second year back in the EPL.
Southampton is the ideal model for Rangers to emulate, not only for it’s success but also because of the similarities for the initial need of a five year plan.
In the spring of 2009, the club was assessed a ten point penalty as Southampton went into administration. The penalty was enough to relegate the club to League One – England’s third tier (Rangers supporters, more so then others empathize to that pain).
After a few months of disarray, the club was sold to the late Markus Liebherr who promptly installed a new leadership team to implement a plan to bring the club back to the Premier League. Alan Pardew was named manager & an Italian banker named Nicola Cortese was anointed as the club’s Executive Chairman. It was Cortese who ultimately would be in charge of establishing & implementing the club’s five year plan.
Chris Rann, who covers Southampton for ESPN FC believes that the decisions made in those first months after administration set the precedent to salvage the club.
Rann told Rangers Report, “The appointment of a banker, a man who knew nothing about football to oversee the rebuilding seemed odd at the time but was a master-stroke. Football is a business and big business at that, it can’t be run on sentiment. Well, it can, but it doesn’t last long.”
“The squad was improved and rebuilt, but without going mad financially. Making the right acquisitions at the right prices and not overpaying for players. Gambling on players helped. Rickie Lambert, for instance had been scoring goals at League One level for years, but Saints took the chance on him.”
“We were incredibly lucky, that cannot go unnoticed. We already had the decent stadium and the successful youth Academy to fall back on, that is what attracted Markus Liebherr to the club. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t come along.”
Pardew was charged with rebuilding the roster to win League One & to do it with a limited budget. His first big signing was a trans-formative addition. Rickie Lambert was signed for £1 million from Bristol Rovers. Lambert has gone on to score more then 100 goals for the Saints & famously scored in his international debut against Scotland. Lambert’s success was a calculated risk for Southampton that paid off greatly.
Then Pardew went about piecing together a group of players on the cheap. Players like Dean Hammond, Radhi Jaidi, Dan Harding, David Connolly, Papa Waigo & Lee Barnard aren’t necessary household names but they served a purpose. They were a rag-tag group of signings – pieced together from mostly lower division clubs that met the Pardew’s desired price tag. They were brought in to hold down first team places while the Saints feverishly developed younger players to eventually take their places.
According to Rann, who also covers the team on his blog GeorgeWeahsCousin, “The policy was clear, only sign players that improve the first team. There was no need for filler. The youth team would provide that.” Relating that to Rangers – if they followed the Southampton way there would be no need for a Steven Smith, Steve Simonsen, or even an Arnold Peralta on the first team squad (nor their wasteful salaries).
Rann adds, “From day one of the Liebherr/Cortese era there was talk of signing players that were not only of the required quality to play in the division we were in, but also that were ready to step up through the levels with us.”
“(In 2009), Rickie Lambert and (in 2010) Jose Fonte were signed in League One and are playing Premier League football with us now. Compared to other League One sides we did spend a lot of money, but it was done within the club’s means.”
This is where Ally McCoist deserves some credit. The recent play of David Templeton & Dean Shiels has provided a reminder to supporters that the duo should be part of the foundation that brings Rangers back to the SPFL. Templeton especially given his relative youth – 25 years old – is primed to be a the kind of player that should feature for a Rangers side that eventually returns to the top of Scottish football. Ally McCoist also has proclaimed that another 25-year old, Nicky Law, is at the heart of Rangers long term plan. That rounds out a core, that includes Lee Wallace & possibly Ian Black, that will be expected to bring their experience of playing in the SPFL & internationally to provide the leadership for younger players to rely upon.
What truly distinguishes Southampton’s approach in its five year plan is its visionary approach to its youth system. The club has a long history of developing talent – Gareth Bale (who was first recruited by the Saints at age nine), Theo Walcott, & Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (signed at the age of seven) all begun their careers as children in the Saints’ youth teams. After administration, the club pledged to infuse a significant amount of its resources in expanding its already successful youth system.
In 2012, Nicola Cortese described the club’s approach to developing young players as a key to his five year plan. Via The Daily Telegraph, Cortese said, “The academy is very important to become a sustainable business. We would want to see a starting eleven in the Premier League that is fed from our youth development.”
“We have got examples. The Champions League title of Barcelona in 2009. At the beginning of the game they had seven players from their academy. At the end of the game they had eight. It’s hard to quantify, but we definitely believe we can achieve that as well.”
As Hamish Mackay wrote in his post for Football Fan Cast, “With economic prudence weighing heavily on the mind of most English clubs, the idea of prospering as a result of your academy system is as attractive as it has ever been. Clubs look back at Manchester United’s golden generation of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and the Nevilles, or the success Arsenal have had under Arsene Wenger in developing their own players and wonder: why shouldn’t they too benefit from their own academies? Southampton, as we all know, has done just that.”
Beyond having an eye for recruitment, Southampton has used its youth academy to put in place a style of play that is infused at all levels – from the under eights to the first team. Les Reed, who heads the club’s youth academy, said in 2012, “We want to win matches by keeping the ball on the ground and therefore we have to develop players who can do that. The parents understand it, they enjoy it, they want their kids to be playing a good style of football and hopefully over time that becomes the culture of the club.”
Reed added that Southampton aims to use Bayern Munich’s model of utilizing its youth academy. “The philosophy of player-development at Bayern Munich is two [players] each year for the first team, two for the league, and two for the rest of German football.”
The cost to run Southampton’s youth academy is estimated to be £2 million a year. A successful academy funnels young players into the first team & finances the club to maintain sustainability – exemplified by Oxlade-Chamberlain’s £12 million transfer fee paid by Arsenal.
ESPNFC’s Chris Rann elaborated, “The dream of Nicola Cortese was to build a self sustaining club and to eventually better Barcelona’s feat by winning the Champion’s League with eight players developed by the club. Pie in the sky? Maybe, but the investment in the Academy has been crucial.
“It started long before the Liebherr takeover to be fair, but they have continued to progress it. Saints marked their territory in the South of England a long time ago, meaning their ‘catchment area’ covers everything from London down. A state of the art facility is currently being built that will push the youth system up another level. A lot of it is built on reputation. Young kids and their parents are now looking at the Saints Academy and choosing it over others. It’s the best in Britain. I’m certain of that.”
“This season Saints have started Premier League games with several 18 year old’s at times and they look ready made for this level.”
“It’s an absolute ‘no brainer’ for clubs to invest in their Academy, I know I am biased because they are our rivals, but I was staggered to see that Portsmouth have scrapped their development squad. It’s all good news for us though, it means that the top talent on the South Coast, including the kids from Pompey will wear red and white, just like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Ward-Prowse.”
The added benefit of a reliable youth system, is that it allows the club to be more calculated with its purchases of talent. As the club prepared to compete in the Premier League – the club brought in players like Italian international Dani Osvaldo (currently on loan with Juventus), former Celtic star Victor Wanyama, & Croatian center back Dejan Lovren – who left Lyon to sign with Southampton. The security of a quality youth program allows the club to be more selective in its transfers rather than adding endless players hoping quantity will mean quality.
The good news for Rangers is that it has a successful youth academy that survived the near-collapse of the club in 2012. It was the club’s young players that provided the depth that the depleted club needed, especially during the 2012-13 season. The club has an extensive list of talented youth that the club can rely on for years to come – if Ally McCoist is willing to make that leap of faith. Lewis MacLeod & Fraser Aird have established themselves in the first-team & have been allowed to develop their games alongside the more established players in the squad.
However, as Mark McDougall explains in his post for Metro –there is a sense that McCoist is reluctant to fully commit to relying on youth as the foundation of the club. McDougall writes, “Rangers missed the chance to build a team around their talented youth players in Division Three, but the opportunity is still there to do it but it needs to be implemented soon if it is to work. At the present time the only youth player who has been given a proper chance to cement his place in the team is Lewis Macleod and even then it is out of position on the left hand side of midfield.”
The Southampton Way relies on youth to provide depth until being ready to contribute regularly. Is the Rangers way to rely on veterans on the downside of their careers – Richard Foster, Steven Smith, Emilson Cribari, & Steve Simonsen – to provide that depth. Admittingly including Cribari on this list is harsh – as he was signed when the club was desperate for experienced professionals (i.e. warm bodies) – but it is symbolic of a greater issue. The signings of Foster, Smith & Simonsen are baffling in hindsight given the missed opportunity to allow players like Kyle McAusland, Chris Hegarty & Scott Gallacher to provide depth to the squad.
Tacitly, new manager Mauricio Pochettino has enhanced the system in place to fulfill the club’s vision of their football philosophy. Rob Orr, writing for The False Nine, explains Pochettino’s tactical approach – “This season, he has stayed true to his philosophy, with players pressurising the opposition in their own half, often conceding fouls, but very rarely being punished by the referee.”
“This has been a considerable factor in their remarkable defensive record; only Serie A leaders Roma have conceded less goals so far this season. A solid defence has been complimented by a flair-filled attack, with combinations of Lambert, Jay Rodriguez, Lallana, Osvaldo, Steven Davis and others interchanging positions seamlessly.”
Chris Rann sums up the success of the Southampton Way by telling Rangers Report, “The Saints started with a five year plan to get to the Premier League. They did it in three. That is no fluke. It comes down to appointing the right people in the right positions, realistic ambitions, evolving the playing squad but not just throwing money at it, creating a family like atmosphere amongst the staff and players and making the big decisions at the right time without sentiment.”
“In an ideal world, fan ownership would be great, but in reality it means people who are far too emotionally involved follow their hearts and not their heads. Saints were fortunate that it never had to come to that, otherwise we would be still scrapping about in the lower leagues. Effectively it is just common sense.”
The Southampton Way has survived & permeated at the club – even through multiple changes in manager & ultimately will likely sustain even without one of its architects. When Nicola Cortese resigned from his post after ongoing disputes with club ownership, there was a refreshing sense that the club & it’s ethos would survive & continue it’s upward trajectory.
Rangers are in fine position to emulate the success of Southampton. There has always been an atmosphere at the club that is welcoming & that establishes the expectation that no one person is bigger then the club. When DaMarcus Beasley & Alejandro Bedoya recently returned to Murray Park to train with the United States team prior to its friendly with Scotland – they both commented on how their personal shortcomings for the club would never detract from how much they enjoyed being part of Rangers Family. The outpouring of love for Fernando Ricksen & the omnipresent presence of Nacho Novo around Ibrox are reminders of what the club can mean to its players.
That family environment is firmly entrenched at Ibrox. The history is obviously there. The loyalty of the supporter is stronger then ever. And thanks to shrewd transactions by McCoist – the core of players with SPFL experience entering their prime years is there.
Now the real shift that Rangers need to make is to legitimately commit to its young players in the manner that Southampton has. The pool of young talent is impressive & the potential to create a system of scouting is begging to be nurtured, however there is a lingering reluctance to take that leap of faith to relying on youth to create the foundation of the club.
If Graham Wallace & Ally McCoist really want to put in place a five-year plan to revolutionize Rangers, they should spend some time at St. Mary’s Stadium soaking in the ambiance of the Southampton Way.
- In your view, what are the key components that Rangers must embrace & enhance in order to implement a successful five-year plan? Share your thoughts below.