This time two weeks ago, I was full of excitement. I was in Spain, had my Europa League final ticket confirmed and Wednesday evening could not come quick enough. A fortnight later and, as much as our Scottish Cup winning efforts should not be downplayed, regret remains an unavoidable daily emotion. Time for some cathartic writing…
First and foremost, losing to Eintracht Frankfurt in Seville hurt badly. Yes, the players gave their absolute all in difficult circumstances: the temperature was stifling but, more importantly, no Morelos or Roofe undoubtedly cost us – even if the German side were tactically clever and ultimately deserving of the trophy. Of course, we can be proud of our efforts in reaching the final and being just one kick short of lifting it (be it by the foot of Goldson, Kent or Ramsey) is something I doubt any Rangers supporters would have envisaged last summer. However, losing the reward of winning the competition – both in a prestige and in a financial sense – just made the initial disappointment worse. Beating Hearts at Hampden soothed that Spanish hangover for a few hours but the sore head is still there.
Season 2021/22 was an interesting one in many ways. Failing to secure Champions League group stage football was an early blow and, despite some inconsistent form in the first half of the campaign, losing Steven Gerrard was equally painful as we still topped the table. The board acted quickly and Giovanni van Bronckhorst was a popular replacement. Initial results were decent, performances improved and only a rejigged fixture list stopped our momentum at a crucial stage by the end of 2021.
Post winter break, the outlook (domestically at least) quickly changed. Celtic strengthened their squad immediately whilst we left it very late in the window and could only bring in loan players. On the face of it Ramsey and Diallo’s reputations suggested quality whilst the potential of James Sands replaced that of the departing Nathan Patterson. Again, most fans were happy but draws with Aberdeen and Ross County before a humbling to a resurgent Celtic meant that by the end of February and further dropped points at Tannadice the league appeared beyond us. Already fans were questioning Gio and their concerns had some merit.
To his credit, our efforts in Europe and progress in the Scottish Cup were maintained and, indeed, improvement amongst the squad amidst more tactical flexibility became more obvious. Wins over Dortmund, Red Star, Braga and Leipzig in the Europa League impressed whilst a vital Scottish Cup semi victory over Celtic and a credible draw at Parkhead in the league showed that whilst we could not retain our SPFL title, we still had enough quality to make a renewed future challenge. Nevertheless, with only the Scottish Cup to show for our 65 game endeavours, it is difficult to make the case season 2021/22 was a success.
No matter these regrets though, we must move on and this summer has to be a busy one throughout the club.
As it stands, a cursory look at the squad still shows a decent one on paper. However, if we delve a wee bit deeper then uncertainty seems to be the prevailing feeling. Various players are (or are soon to be) out of contract whilst several more are moving into their last year. This is the case from the goalkeeper to the attack. First team regulars McGregor, Goldson and Balogun are about to be out of contract. Meanwhile, Helander, Jack, Aribo, Kent and Morelos will be this time next year. Only John Souttar has been confirmed as incoming with Arfield and Davis extending their deals by a year as well.
This means the football department has a conundrum on their hands and it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. As seems to have happened with Connor Goldson do they allow shorter contracts to run down and try to get the best out of these players over one final season? Alternatively, do they sell now for reasonable sums to reinvest monies into replacements? Can they persuade them to sign new deals to deliver squad continuity ahead of further CL qualifiers on the horizon?
One of the biggest positives in having a Sporting Director such as Ross Wilson is to minimise such headaches. Along with Andy Scoulding, Wilson is tasked with ensuring recruitment remains efficient and contracts an ongoing budgetary juggle. As such, it is an undoubted frustration that so many key players are in the same uncertain contractual situation with minimal clarity on their future.
By mid-June, tens of thousands of fans will have renewed their season tickets and most will do so in anticipation of squad improvement. Add in the funds secured via the departure of Gerrard and Patterson as well as the substantial income generated by our run to Seville, it is safe to say supporters won’t be sated by further loan deals. Ramsey and Diallo appeared exciting but both lacked any sort of substance so whilst that need not mean the right loan at the right price can’t work, the emergence of home-grown players like Lowry and King should see less reliance in such gambles.
Similarly, the overall contribution of some players has to be examined. For example, the quality of players like Helander, Jack and Roofe per se can be defended but their unfortunate injury records cannot. In addition to that, as much as experience in the dressing room is always welcome, how often should a Davis or Arfield appear ahead of a McCann or Lowry? Where is the line between stifling talent and properly developing it?
Overall, the arguable first XI this season was McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Bassey, Barisic, Jack, Lundstram, Kamara, Aribo, Kent and Morelos. Add in five preferred deputies in Balogun, Davis, Arfield, Sakala and Roofe then only a few at best of these 16 players are likely still to be here for the season after next. That is a huge (and costly) turnaround over the next 12 months and will need to be carried out over the next three windows to offer some semblance of continuity. With that in mind, Wilson’s remit has never been more vital – both logistically and financially. The likely record-breaking income (though not clear profit!) from season 2021/22 and from any summer sales should offer enough working capital to make several signings up front and perhaps extend the deals of one or two existing players. Guaranteed Europa League group stage football at a minimum should also allow further changes in January with the opportunity for more next summer. I would be pleasantly surprised if we’ll need to book complicated journeys again for European finals in Istanbul, Budapest or even Prague next May but positive runs in at least one of these competitions will help balance the books outwith essential player purchases.
In conclusion, I started this editorial with understandable regret from recent events. However, just over 1000 words later, and even with the uncertainty surrounding the squad, the excitement of the inevitable rebuild and the opportunity to see new players at Ibrox next season means I’m now looking ahead to what we can expect in season 2022/23. As always, the league title should take priority and we simply must offer more consistency and quality domestically but the European adventures of recent seasons and the necessary monies gained from such can be considered almost as important. Even so, no matter what we consider success or the context around it, the time for looking back has gone. The next step is now vital and we cannot stand still. In some ways, that was a fair criticism of the club last summer so it cannot be this season. We must move forward and with genuine authority.
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