“I’ve been a Rangers fan all my life, so it’s totally surreal getting the chance to play every week in front of 50,000 people. If things didn’t happen the way they did at Rangers most of the young boys who came in last year, myself included, wouldn’t have got the chance we did.” Lewis MacLeod, October 2013
Early on it was evident that if there was going to be a silver lining in Rangers banishment to the outskirts of Scottish football that it would be the promise that was Lewis MacLeod. It was clear from the outset that Rangers may have a very special talent on their hands & given the club’s new reality, he may actually have the opportunity to learn on the grand stage that is Ibrox.
He made his debut as a 17-year old lining up alongside veterans like Lee McCulloch, Carlos Bocanegra, Kirk Broadfoot, Lee Wallace, & Dorin Goian. MacLeod & fellow teenager Barrie McKay were the only youngsters thrust into the immediate limelight that accompanied Rangers bizarre return to football in 2012. Both seemed a bit undersized, scrawny even – but they brought an energy & bravado that often energized their more experienced teammates. Other youngsters came & went that season, with only Fraser Aird joining MacLeod in gaining a real foothold with a defined role going forward.
Any concerns that MacLeod could handle the physicality of Division Three football quickly diminished as MacLeod seemed to relish the rough play & often went out of his way to stand up for himself after a harsh challenge.
A fan favorite was born.
Beyond the popularity was his importance to the team’s play that began to surface- even in that first season. Even after missing the final three months of the season, many would proclaim MacLeod among the most valuable players in 2012-13. MacLeod ended up making 26 appearances in his first season & scored three goals.
Craig G. Telfer, who covers the lower leagues of Scottish football for Tell Him He’s Pele, agrees that MacLeod’s development over the last couple of years has been impressive & likely would not have happened in a different context. “It’s been remarkable to observe Lewis Macleod’s progress over the last few years.”
“The midfielder has developed from a scrawny street tough into Rangers’ most important player; it seems even more extraordinary when put into context with Ally McCoist’s poor management & apparent disregard for the club’s youth academy. His qualities are obvious.”
“His ascension has been down to two factors: the first is obvious – he would probably be nowhere near the Rangers first team had it not been for the club’s financial meltdown in 2012, & his inclusion throughout the 2012-13 season was more down to necessity than anything else.”
“The second is that he’s a very good player. McCoist isn’t much of a coach – how many players have actually got better on his watch? – & I think that having someone as naturally talented as MacLeod to call upon was a major boon to him. The manager didn’t really need to do much more than stick him on the pitch and let him play.”
“MacLeod kinda reminds me of someone at school who’s clever & doesn’t need to study for their exams to pass, if you follow me.”
A healthy MacLeod sprang out of the gates in 2013-14, as he scored four goals in Rangers opening eight matches. The fourth goal was an outstanding overhead shot that mirrored his effort of a few weeks ago. His talent was coming to the fore, even as he was shifted out of his natural position to make space for Nicky Law. The footballing world was beginning to take notice as he was listed as one of the top 101 young players in the world, alongside such budding stars as Neymar, Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Julian Green, & Romelu Lukaku.
Even though he would only find the back of the net one more time in League One, MacLeod’s importance was becoming more & more evident, especially in his absence. The departure was sudden & frightening as MacLeod was sidelined by a virus that was causing heart complications. His footballing future came into doubt & at the same time Rangers performances began to hit lethargic lows without the youngster in the lineup.
Evidence of this can be measured in the goal production of Jon Daly. With MacLeod in the lineup, Daly scored 15 goals in 21 matches. Once the midfielder departed, Daly’s goal tally dipped to six in 17 games. Even though the team was winning, the performances were flat & often lacking any semblance of excitement. The tension amongst those who followed the club closely was tangible & it may not have been a coincidence that it paralleled the absence of the young star.
Telfer concurred, “MacLeod was missed over the second half of last season, that’s for sure.”
“Rangers were pretty excellent until about December but afterwards, for whatever reason, they became dour, stodgy and limited in their play.”
“With their part-time opponents tending to sit in deep and counter, McCoist didn’t have anyone that could break them down. Whether or not he would have used MacLeod in this way is another matter, but the player has the ability to cut backlines open with the correct pass.”
As MacLeod has returned to form this season & furthered his development, it is not far fetched to claim that he has surpassed Lee Wallace as the most valuable player for Rangers. Considering McCoist’s insistence to deploy others in the heart of the midfield, MacLeod has persisted & flourished while playing away from his comfort zone. As frustrating as it can be for supporters, an optimist would argue that MacLeod has been forced to become even more versatile while still being relied upon to be a catalyst on offence as he sorts out the strain of an uncomfortable position.
Matthew Lindsay, who has covered Rangers since 1999 for The Evening Times, recently spoke to Rangers Report about MacLeod’s ascension. “Despite being just 20, Lewis Macleod is one of Rangers’ key players.”
“In fact, I am hard pushed to think of another individual who is as important to the Ibrox club on the park. Lee McCulloch? Possibly. Lee Wallace? Maybe. Cammy Bell? Perhaps.”
“With his athleticism, eye for goal and intelligence, Macleod contributes so much to Ally McCoist’s side. When the midfielder performs well invariably the team performs well.”
“It was no coincidence that Rangers drew against Alloa away – when MacLeod limped off injured – and lost to Hibs to home this season when they were deprived of his services.”
“Having him in the team is important, but not crucial, to Rangers’ chances of success.”
Telfer agrees that MacLeod has surpassed his teammates as the key to Rangers success. “What marks him out above his team-mates is his drive & exuberance & a willingness to try things that other players would not.”
“For the best part of the season, Rangers have been a decent enough proposition (the defeats to Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian aside) but there’s still a feeling that the team are capable of more, given their qualities.”
“MacLeod has risen beyond the malaise and continues to impress, even from a position he isn’t necessarily best equipped for. Although someone with his poise, creativity and intelligence on the ball is far more suited to a central role (or maybe even as a second striker), only injury & suspension will force the manager to break up the Ian Black-Nicky Law axis.”
“It is a pity, because he’s the kind of player you could build your team around. He’s lovely to watch. That overhead kick against Livingston was a cracker.”
One of the realities that will accompany MacLeod’s continued success will be the inevitable nuisance of transfer rumours that have become a cyclical rite of passage. Supporters got a taste of the paranoia that goes with having a talented youngster in their midst in the hours before the closing of this summer’s transfer window. All was calm & tranquil, outside of the customary Lee Wallace speculation, & then came word that teams from England were piqued by MacLeod’s talents. It seemed like every hour that passed that day saw a new team linked to MacLeod. It was all a little much to handle that day & the transfer talk will only intensify this January.
Matthew Lindsay, who was at the forefront of the coverage that day, reflected on the transfer talk, “I didn’t pay much heed to the transfer speculation surrounding Lewis in the summer. He was just returning to training after a lengthy spell out of action. He knew that he needed to concentrate on building up his fitness & forcing his way back into the first team. Moving on at that stage could have been detrimental to his recovery and development.”
“Plus, I didn’t think clubs would be prepared to take a gamble on a player who had been sidelined through illness for so long. There was some speculation about English Championship clubs Birmingham, Brighton & Wigan being interested in him. He was even linked with Premier League club Queen’s Park Rangers, but no actual bids were tabled.”
Is it a matter of time before both the player & club are faced with a career-defining decision?
Lindsay feels that the crossroads will be upon us at some point. “The spells out of action that Lewis has had in the last two seasons – firstly as a result of a knee ligament injury and then due to a virus – have meant that he has not been the subject of any bids. Clubs were not prepared to take a chance on an individual whose physical condition was uncertain.”
“But if he manages to go through this season without picking up any further knocks & if he continues to perform as brightly as he has done in recent weeks then that could change.”
“It is not inconceivable offers could be made for him during the January transfer window.”
Lindsay elaborated, “A lot depends on what happens off the field at Rangers in the coming weeks. But I think that no matter what transpires it would take a pretty sizable offer for the Ibrox club to let the player leave. Don’t forget that a decent bid for Lee Wallace from Nottingham Forest was rejected back in January of this year despite serious financial issues.”
“Ultimately, Lewis is a Rangers supporter & is playing regularly for the first team. I think he wants to help Ally McCoist’s side get back into the top flight & then help them try to win the Scottish title.”
“If he plays as well in the SPFL Premiership as he has in the lower leagues – and I have no reason to doubt that he will – then interest in clubs from down south & possibly even abroad will intensify.”
“Then the club and the player will be faced with a decision. But in the long run money talks. Would you stay in a job, no matter how much you liked it, if somebody was going to treble your wages?”
Craig G. Telfer shares the view that MacLeod’s departure may not be imminent but it is likely inevitable.
“If MacLeod wants to become a better player, he’ll probably need to leave Rangers at some point, maybe in the summer of 2016.”
“Working under McCoist will only get him so far – simply being gifted is one thing, but it’ll take a better coach to knock him into something more tangible.”
“Should Rangers win promotion at the end of the season, I look forward to seeing him play in the Premiership against more robust defenders. There can be a tendency to overestimate players relative to the league they’re in but he’s good enough to play in the top flight, certainly in this country at least.”
“Long-term, I’d like to see him move on to somewhere on the continent. As fine a ball player as he is, a lack of pace might deter some clubs in the English Premier League from signing him, but the world doesn’t begin & end south of the border.”
“For the moment at least, McCoist & the Rangers support should enjoy watching his rise.”
There has been a great deal of frustration over Ally McCoist’s conservative approach to climbing up the Scottish football ladder when Rangers new reality screamed out for a progressive approach of youth development to mold a new Rangers philosophy – a make over of the Rangers Way.
As the club has relied on signing veterans reaching the end of their careers, the only real salvation has been knowing that fans have the opportunity to see a star develop before their eyes on a weekly basis. Realistically though, in the back of any supporter’s mind is the reality that Lewis MacLeod’s time at Ibrox is likely limited.
Gone are the halcyon days of Rangers being among the biggest clubs in Europe & now the allure is sadly greater for a young Scottish player to sign with a club in England, even if it is a team in the second tier. Money & opportunity is in abundance down south, while Rangers are still years away from competing at an enhanced level that supporters are accustomed to.
So enjoy MacLeod’s time with Rangers while you can…before it becomes a memory that fades into the annals of YouTube clips of step-overs & overhead strikes.
You can follow Craig G. Telfer on Twitter @CraigGTelfer & read his work covering Scottish football at Tell Him He’s Pele & also for the SPFL official website. He also appears from time-to-time on the Heart & Hand Podcast & the Terrace Scottish Football Podcast.