This week, I’ve gone for something different with this column, and it’s based upon the fact we’ve had a lot of comparisons made to this period in our history by fans who remember it all too well. This week, a walk down a well-tread path to discuss Paul Le Guen…
Le Guen came in for the ’06/07 season, and we couldn’t have been more excited. He’d won multiple titles with Lyon, was one of the highest regarded young managers in Europe, and we were promised a man who would revolutionise everything at the club and drag us into the modern era. It really couldn’t have been more of a disappointment.
Some expressed concerns straight away as Le Guen spent the summer competing in the Marathon des Sables rather than working over here to enhance his knowledge of Scottish football. There were also fears about his lack of Scottish coaches in his management team, but those voices at that time were in a small minority. We had seen an awful domestic season under McLeish, where we finished third and had no Champions League football to look forward to, and we were desperate for change.
There were also some worries about our transfers. Players like Sionko, Sebo and Svensson had some promise, but they weren’t the sort of players we were expecting to see come in with such a highly regarded manager. We had raided Austria Vienna for three players and brought in some French youngsters and not much else.
We saw early on that Le Guen wasn’t going to mess about, with Ricksen being disciplined for being drunk on a flight during pre-season. Such was the excitement behind Le Guen’s appointment, he could have made any decisions at this time and been backed by the fans.
The early signs on the park didn’t look too bad. In Le Guen’s debut league match, we won 2-1 away to Motherwell, and played some excellent football, with a young Charlie Adam, in particular, having a great game in the middle of the park. We had energy going forward, we created chances, and we looked far better than we’d seen in ages. Our first home game saw some of the weaknesses highlighted though. A 2-2 draw with Dundee United where we went behind 2-0 before responding, and looked like we’d concede more. We were still looking good going forward, but Buffel must have missed about ten sitters in the first few games of that season, and that day was particularly galling. We also saw that Svensson didn’t look suited to Scottish football at all, and players like Rodriguez and Hemdani were struggling for form.
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Very quickly, things descended. We were playing well in Europe, unbeaten there and getting good results, but we had Letizi in goal, replaced by Allan McGregor very quickly. We had Novo falling out with Le Guen, and then working his way back in. We had Ferguson coming back from injury and rumours that he and Le Guen didn’t get on. Phil Bardsley, on loan from Manchester United, had been banished from training. And in November, we lost to First Division St Johnstone in the League Cup at Ibrox, and the protests from the fans began.
November and December were horrendous in terms of performances and results. We had gone from feeling confident going into every game at the start of the season to dreading any away match and not entirely enjoying home games either. The experienced players in our squad weren’t doing enough, and the signings all looked to be struggling, even Jeremy Clement who had obvious ability.
Then at the turn of the year, it all ended pretty quickly. On the first of January, Le Guen stripped Barry Ferguson of the captaincy, just after a home draw against St Mirren, claiming that Barry had undermined him. The fans certainly seemed to take Ferguson’s side, and in the game at Fir Park the next day, we were given the infamous “nae Barry, nae Rangers” line from a fan interviewed on TV as we went into the new year 17 points behind Celtic and seemingly all over the place. When Kris Boyd scored that day, he held up six fingers in support of Ferguson, and we all knew this squad was unlikely to turn things around for the manager.
My memory of that time was that I felt the manager needed more backing and we had to go with the overall strategy, one which was destined to change things at the club. If we’d sold Ferguson, Boyd and any others who didn’t want to be there and given Le Guen time to turn it around, I’d have been happy to have gone with that. Since then, with everything we’ve learned, the club can be said to have made the correct decision. Le Guen had tried to resign earlier in the season and just didn’t have the stomach for the fight when things weren’t going well. As much as Ferguson acted in a way players shouldn’t be encouraged to do, it was understandable that the squad were split in terms of how to react to the manager when he didn’t want to be there. A few days after the mess surrounding Ferguson, Le Guen was gone, and Walter Smith came back to help steady things.
I remember also being annoyed by that decision. Walter’s second spell was brilliant, and showed how much he’d grown as a manager, but I wanted us to continue with the plans to make the changes we were hoping to bring in, and re-hiring Walter seemed like a backwards step. Given everything he achieved in the years after that though, I can safely say I was wrong about that as well.
We have a record with managers that we can be rather proud of. We haven’t had a huge number since our formation in 1872, and we tend to give managers who aren’t having the best of times a bit of backing, even if that doesn’t always seem the best decision. Le Guen remains the only manager who didn’t complete at least a season with us, and the reason for bringing this up now is because so many Rangers fans seem convinced already that Caixinha will be gone before the end of next season. When we brought in Warburton and started the process of changing so much at the club and rebuilding what was ripped apart by previous custodians, we truly started the journey so many felt we were on for a few years. There’s still a long way to go, and it requires the sort of patience and time I felt we didn’t give Le Guen back then. We don’t have the means to go with tried-and-tested at the moment. When comparisons between Warburton and Le Guen were made, they were too often based upon a situation that wasn’t accurate to where the club is now. Being another foreign manager who many think has made a slow start (I don’t even consider what he’s done so far as having started yet), the comparisons are made again, and due to Le Guen being best remembered for poor results, player fall-outs and signing Sasa Papac rather than anything he did to improve us (and there wasn’t much sadly), it feels like some have made their minds up about our new manager before he’s even got going.
So what should have been? Maybe we should have started the process to change things back then. Instead of going with Walter and getting some short term success, maybe we should have looked to replace Le Guen with another manager who would have tried to modernise the approach to training, youth development, player diets and the likes. If we’d done that in 2006, would we be facing a 2017 of such uncertainty because we’re just getting started with it all?
Who knows. I doubt many would have wanted to give up three league wins and a UEFA Cup final on a possibility, and that’s more than justified. Le Guen’s record after leaving Rangers is such that we can say he wasn’t as good a manager as we all hoped, and he’s even had similar issues elsewhere with players. All too often as a Rangers fan, we feel like we’re reacting rather than leading, doing things years after we should have and playing catch-up with the very best sides. It’s possible we missed a chance to get ahead of the game in some ways by abandoning the idea of change when Le Guen was sacked, but it’s more probable that we were never really ready for it then. If we’re honest, a lot of us are barely ready for it now, at a time when it’s needed more than most.