We return to Rangers on Football Manager 2014 for the final half of the 2019/20 season. Things were looking rosy at Ibrox but twists and turns should always be expected…
Who thought Ronan Keating and Football Manager would come together so beautifully?
I’ll start with transfer business first as per usual. There were not many departures from Ibrox in January. Young full back Johnny Diack went to Premier League side Wigan and managed to play a few games to help keep them up which is excellent for his development. The other two departures were a bit more major though. Firstly, academy product and scorer of Champions League goals Ryan Mackintosh departed on deadline day to join Leeds United for half a million pounds. He had been attracting interest all month but bids were coming in around the £180,000-£200,000 mark which was unacceptable. I held firm for £500,000 and Leeds gave me what I wanted and got their man. I was sad to see Ryan leave but it was beginning to look like the team was progressing faster than he was and I had doubts about him. The biggest departure was of Mexican full back Cesar Armando Hernandez early on in the window for £4 million to German side Stuttgart. His improvement and performances had been remarkable and to turn a £4 million profit on a player within 12 months is very tough and very rare to pull off so I was pleased with that. I wasn’t pleased at losing Cesar but the money was good enough to let him go.
So we needed replacements. I took the money for Hernandez and reinvested it into 20 year old Uruguayan Enrique Riestra. He has moved around a lot in his short career and had a season playing a decent amount in Serie A so I didn’t begrudge paying Russian side Ural £4.2 million. There are question marks over his temperament but he has the potential and ability to be a quality full back. I also brought in a long-term project to replace Mackintosh from South Africa. Orlando Pirates only wanted £350,000 for 18 year old winger Mandla Qaba and I bit their hand off for a quick, technically excellent young player with room to grow into something very good. He’s certainly and exciting talent that has seen a couple of first team games already.
Now for the football. We left off on the back of a pretty tough loss at Celtic Park and the new year saw a visit from Kilmarnock and the perfect chance to regroup and get three points. So naturally, we lost 1-0 . Good start. We were back on track after a small break with impressive wins over Inverness, Aberdeen, Hearts, St. Mirren, Dundee United and Motherwell before a very embarrassing 4-3 away defeat against a Ross County side up in 4th where we contrived to throw away a 2-0 then 3-2 lead to lose. We managed to just bounce back against bottom side Partick Thistle (only thanks to a last minute Jeremie Boga goal) before we drew with title rivals Celtic and Hibs where we threw away another lead. It was all getting a bit hairy in the league as the players began to stutter at the worst moment. Defeats against Kilmarnock and Dundee United, sandwiching a win against Inverness, left Hibs just five points behind at the split but we ground out an impressive 1-0 win at Easter Road (where my new strikerless formation stifled the Hibs midfield beautifully). A win over Ross County gave us the chance to win the title at Celtic Park but Graeme Cameron’s last minute equaliser saved Celtic the embarrassment and probably Stuart McCall his job as well. Everything was sealed against Aberdeen at home in the penultimate game before a very young side won at Tannadice to wrap a rather stuttering but impressive second consecutive league crown.
That was part one of our odyssey as I targeted everything in sight. Up next was the League Cup where we were in the semi-finals against Hearts. They proved no match for my side brimming with confidence in mid-January and first half Jose Baxter and Yussuf Poulsen goals were enough to do the job. That set up a rematch in the final with Hibs. I was wary of a repeat of last year’s first half hammering but I still sent the boys out pumped up… and they blew Hibs away. Ex-Hibee Bobby Smith ran the show and scored a rare goal from 25 yards into the top corner as we ran out 4-0 winners. It seems Smith only ever scores important or outrageous goals but I’m not complaining.
The double was complete but I wanted the domestic treble. Aberdeen were swept aside in the Fifth Round at Pittodrie with Poulsen, Boga, Greg Pascazio and Sebastian Faure on the scoresheet. That set up a quarter final Old Firm Derby at Ibrox which looked set to be a real blockbuster. That was until we played Celtic off the park in a comfortable 2-0 win with a Boga brace. That set up another semi with Hearts but this one came at the worst time as we were right in the middle of a shocking run of 4 defeats in six games (two of which I’ve touched on, the other two I’m getting to) and Heart simply smashed us in the first half and ran out comfortable 2-0 winners. They went on to win the cup 4-1 against Hibs in the final but we really could and should have done much better.
Finally, the Champions League knockout stages. This was the one we expected to go nowhere in. It was a shock to even get through our group in the first place but surely Atletico Madrid would be too strong? It certainly looked that way in Madrid when Marco van Ginkel scored but we dug in and replied quickly through a lovely counter goal from Baxter and we held on for a 1-1 draw. The return leg was set up beautifully and we could have sat back but we kept at Atleti and took the lead at Ibrox through Poulsen. Duvan Zapata equalised before half-time and, with the game about to head to extra-time, substitute Habib Ben Yahia smashed home to give us the 2-1 victory and a place in the quarter-finals. I was really excited especially when I saw Dortmund had beat Barcelona. I really wanted the Germans because I knew I could beat them so my heart sank when I was given the holders Manchester United. And sure enough we got destroyed 5-0 at Old Trafford before we salvaged a crumb of pride in our 3-2 defeat at home to crash out badly. Still, last eight is pretty good for Rangers.
A double is still good despite the fact we missed out on more. I managed to pick up both Manager of the Year awards but the players voted for Hearts’ Karl Robinson as their boss of the year which made total sense since they finished in the bottom half. Nicolas Gaitan had another great season and was voted by football writers as their Player of the Season. Habib Ben Yahia was average throughout the season and won Young Player of the Season and not Young Player of the Year because those award are different somehow. Amazingly none of my players were considered for Player of the Season or Player of the Year and Gaitan won the writers award despite the likes of Saidy Janko and Jeremie Boga having more games and higher average ratings. Love it. Boga did make Team of the Year though alongside Nicola Leali and Greg Pascazio so that is a bonus. Props have to go to young right back Derek Johnstone whose first season in the first team saw him win the Under 19 Player of the Season award ahead of our very own Willie Irivine who was at Motherwell on loan.
As for my take on performances, they’ve been mostly acceptable. Yussuf Poulsen has had a massive breakthrough year with 24 goals in 49 games in all competitions as he remained injury free for the first time and played through the middle regularly. Jeremie Boga’s season tailed off a bit after January and he was in and out of the side more often but still managed 21 goals in all competitions for a massive first season from him. Gaitan’s performances were excellent but not quite at the level of his debut season while Pascazio and Sebastian Faure had good seasons but looked vulnerable at times. Jamie Mills and Saidy Janko were incredible at full back while Jose Baxter might just have saved himself from being sold with more consistent performances. Nicky Law earned a new deal with his excellent form in the second half of the season while Nicola Leali had some errors in the second half of the season but did enough to go to Euro 2020 with Italy. It was a breakthrough season too for centre back George Lindsay who looked impressive for someone so young.
On the flip side, the likes of Jordy Clasie and Nicolae Pusca struggled to impose themselves this season while Andy Murdoch struggled at times throughout the season. Habib Ben Yahia was inconsistent but still managed 12 goals in all but he’s disappointed more often than not since his arrival. Ben Craig didn’t even score all season and never actually looked like scoring either which is a massive disappointment for our academy.
The youth intake this year was also a disappointment with only two or three earning a place in our academy. One of whom is Jim Dyer who has attritbutes almost as good as Pascazio and Faure yet is deemed by my coaches to be terrible. He’s far from it. There is plenty of talent ready to come up though and it’s all very exciting.
Next season then is going to be a good one for a number of reasons. Firstly, in January, I secured the signature of Inverness Caley Thistle’s Noel Wells for £2.2 million. He’s a 21 year old former Celtic youth player who finished as top scorer in the SPL with 21 goals and will be second choice behind Poulsen this season. “What about Ben Yahia?” I hear you cry. He’s had a bid of £5 million from Swansea right before I wrote this that I’ve accepted so he will be joining Ben Craig out the door. Craig left on a free to Blackburn this summer which is great. Another man leaving on a free is Geoffrey Mujangi Bia who has finally left. Nearly £30,000 a week for four years or so was a bad move and he never really did much for me.
I have also signed 15 year old John Miller from Falkirk and he looks to be a quality defender in the making. He should be in and around the first team this season alongside Steven Crozier who managed 5 goals in his four games in 2019/20 and has a massive future ahead of him. Rhys Liddell is another that will see more first team action as well after the striker made a scoring professional debut on the final day of the season. A couple of young players failed to make the grade and have been released including Jamie Harris who was touted as a big prospect when he came in and winger Jordan Bryson who was quick but not much else.
I’m looking forward to this season and hopefully you are as well. It’s gonna be a good one.