Dundee, Hamilton, Azerbaijan and back again. It is safe to say that when Andy Halliday signed for Rangers back in July 2015, he couldn’t possibly have envisaged the series of trials and tribulations waiting for him over the next three and a half seasons.
From being shipped off to Azerbaijan on loan by former manager Pedro Caixinha to being hauled off before half time by caretaker manager Graeme Murty in an Old Firm defeat, in addition to suffering the abject humiliation of celtic supporters sarcastically singing his name as they romped to a 5-0 win to win the league title, Andy Halliday’s Rangers career has in some ways personified the “Banter Era” that so many label the Ibrox club’s recent history.
Every step forward has been followed by two steps back, with any glimmer of light overpowered by a tsunami of darkness. Yet as a clearly emotional Halliday swaggered off the Ibrox pitch to an embrace from manager Steven Gerrard with 50,000 supporters singing his name after being named Sponsor’s Man of the Match in the 1-0 win over celtic there was a feeling that – just like the Rangers banter era – perhaps we are seeing some form of closure to a chapter that would have unashamedly finished most players.
Andy Halliday is not most players though. Setbacks are nothing new to the 27-year-old. To add some context to this tale of redemption and understand why Halliday declaring the Old Firm win as “the best day of my life” was about more than just 3 points over celtic, we have to first go back a few years.
Growing up on Copland Road in the shadows of Ibrox Stadium, Halliday was born into a family of Rangers supporters. In fact, upon signing for Rangers the player told the story of how he was almost called Mark as the month before he was born his mother was in the away end at Parkhead for an Old Firm game to see a 2-0 Rangers win courtesy of a Mark Hateley double. Signing for Rangers as a promising youngster was a dream come true, but sadly that dream was crushed at age 14 when George Adams, who was Head of Youth at the time, broke the news that Rangers would be releasing the player as they didn’t feel he was good enough to make the grade.
“I was working at Livingston as a youth coach and had previously worked at Rangers. I was told Andy was being released by Rangers.” Scott Allison is currently Partick Thistle’s Academy Director but previously worked as a youth coach at Livingston, which is where Halliday’s career started. Growing up on the same street, he knew Andy and his family well. He also knew that as Rangers supporters through and through, the decision by Rangers would hurt. Deeply.
When Halliday signed for Rangers, he compared his release at 14 to being chucked by the love of your life, but joked that as he lived in the shadow of the stadium it was like throwing in the added torture of having to see her every day. Allison witnessed this dejection first-hand. “I called his Mum and asked how he was, but she told me he wasn’t talking to anyone and was locked in his room not ready to play football.”
What he had been through as a kid was arguably little compared to what he has since gone through as a professional at the club, but it gives an early indication of why no-one should be surprised not only by Andy Halliday’s recent resurgence, but also his dogged determination to remain part of the Rangers first team amidst various culls.
Indeed, since joining Rangers in 2015, the club have gone through three permanent managers and one caretaker manager over two spells, signed an astonishing further 47 senior players and moved on 43 as they desperately try to return to the top of the tree in Scottish football. Halliday made his Rangers debut in a 6-2 win over Hibs in July 2015, with just three other players from the 18-man matchday squad remaining at the club – two of those being Wes Foderingham and Lee Wallace, whose days appear numbered given their lack of involvement under Steven Gerrard.
And yet despite the continuous turnover in playing squad and reports in just about every transfer window since that he is likely to be moved on by the club, Halliday remains a key part of the current first team squad three and a half years later. After being forced out as a teenager, he was never going to give up his Rangers dream without a fight, not even when Pedro Caixinha told him his time was up and shipped him off to Azerbaijan on a loan deal with Halliday reluctant to leave on a permanent basis.
It took some time to get over the setback, but Allison wasn’t for giving up on the teenager. “Eventually we arranged for me to talk to him, and after a few positive words I managed to get him to come out to train with us at Livingston. When he came we set some goals for him, and one of his individual objectives was to play for Rangers at first team level. I met him a few days after he had been signed by Mark Warburton and I could see he was really excited. It was the same for his family, I could see how proud they were that Andrew had worked his way back to Rangers. I was proud to see him get there after all he had been through as a kid.”
“Andy has a strong mentality. Many players would have happily moved on but Andrew has blue blood and would do everything he could to play for Rangers” Allison tells me. “I spoke to him when he went to Azerbaijan and his mind-set was positive. I’m sure whilst others maybe gave up on him at Rangers he would never have given up on the chance to play for the club again.”
Following the victory over celtic, Halliday appeared to agree with Allison’s assessment in acknowledging that he has been questioned over the last couple of years, but that his performance demonstrated why he deserves to be a Rangers player – “No-one can match my character and mental strength” he declared emphatically. It would be hard to disagree.
Much of the criticism of those falling through the revolving door at Ibrox over the past few years has been that they have struggled to manage the demands and pressure of playing for a club like Rangers. Talented players have crumbled and gone missing in recent years, leading to the club recording its worst ever home record in its 146-year history, with seven league defeats in one season.
Which is why it is telling that despite some perceived limitations, and despite a number of technically talented players joining the club with bigger reputations, other than Caixinha the Rangers managers in Halliday’s time have invariably turned back to him when they needed to most. Halliday was an almost ever present and valuable member of the Mark Warburton side that won the Championship, but was cast aside by new arrivals Joey Barton, Niko Kranjčar and Josh Windass as the manager looked to enhance the quality of his squad for an assault on the top flight the following season.
It was a decision that Warburton soon regretted following a stuttering start which saw Rangers draw with Kilmarnock before losing 5-1 to celtic in the season’s first Old Firm game, after which he promptly reinstated Halliday to the team as pressure on the former manager increased. “With Andy we thought we made the right decision” he said about dropping the player at the start of the 2016/17 season. “In hindsight it wasn’t the right decision. There is no doubt that when Andy pulls on a shirt there is no more passionate a player for Rangers.”
Graeme Murty also knew the value of having someone like Andy Halliday in your corner, which is why he recalled the player from his loan in Azerbaijan following the sacking of Pedro Caixinha. “He understands what it means to play for the football club and I think you can see when he turns out every time for a Rangers team he wears his heart on his sleeve” he said at the time of Halliday’s recall.
Ironically, those qualities are most likely what led to Halliday’s darkest moments as a Rangers player. After a storming start to the second half of the 2017/18 season, winning 10 out of 11 games, Rangers’ form took a dip. A defeat to 10-man celtic at home killed any remaining hopes of a last-minute title challenge, and was followed with a home defeat to Kilmarnock and a draw with Motherwell. Even in his caretaker role, Murty was coming in for heavy criticism. He needed players he could trust for an upcoming Old Firm semi-final, and turned to Halliday to spearhead his midfield, despite him having started just three games since returning from his unsuccessful loan spell and being well short of match sharpness.
It was a decision that backfired spectacularly, as Rangers found themselves 2-0 down going on 6-0. Murty reacted by replacing Halliday with Josh Windass just before half time, which prompted an angry response from the Rangers player much to the delight of the goading celtic supporters who were revelling in his misery.
Things didn’t get much better two weeks later in the next Old Firm game with Halliday subject to incessant jeering from the celtic support, who sang his name sarcastically as they followed up their 4-0 semi final win with a 5-0 romp at Parkhead. It is somewhat ironic that the song for Andy Halliday is derived from The KC & Sunshine Band hit “Give It Up”, as that is exactly what he must have felt like doing.
For any professional footballer, this kind of indignity could be impossible to recover from. With the added hurt of being a supporter he might have been forgiven for wanting to relive the time when he locked himself in his room and decided to take a break from football. He didn’t of course.
He still remembered how much it hurt when the club let him go at 14, and how much he put himself through to achieve the first objective he set himself upon signing for Livingston months later – to play for the Rangers first team. “I don’t think it was ever Andy’s intention to move elsewhere” Allison states. “He loves Rangers. He was born into a family that supports the club, he grew up on the streets around the club. He had setbacks as a kid and has had many as a professional since. All those experiences will have hardened his mentality and made him more resilient.”
It’s hard to argue with Allison’s assessment today. He knows the player as well as anyone within the game and was always confident that given the opportunity Halliday would prove himself worthy of the Rangers jersey. After working hard throughout pre-season under new manager Steven Gerrard but finding game time hard to come by, that opportunity finally came in the second leg of a Europa League tie against Maribor.
With Borna Barišić cup-tied and Jon Flanagan suspended, Halliday was picked as a makeshift left back much to the concern of sections of the Rangers support. They needn’t have worried – Halliday put in a sterling performance as Rangers kept a clean sheet to qualify for the next round, from where they went on to make the group stages, with Halliday going on to make 24 appearances by the halfway mark of the season. This was topped off by his recent man of the match display against celtic in the same position which prompted the manager to label Halliday his “unofficial captain”, a remarkable turnaround for a player who looked finished when Gerrard officially took charge in June.
Allison believes that Rangers will see the best of Halliday if they ditch the idea of persisting with him as a midfielder and continue to develop him on the left-hand side, where he scored 16 goals in 37 games and earned a move south. “He was always a left-sided player for us at Livi and his resurgence will continue if they keep him on the left. He went on loan to Bradford and they played him in centre midfield, he scored against Chelsea and perhaps that’s where Warburton saw him. He was always wide left or left back at Livingston. He will be like a new player if played there regularly.”
Having played there a few times already this season, Gerrard may appear to agree and interesting times lie ahead for Halliday. There is every chance that as Steven Gerrard continues his Rangers revolution, more glamorous names in the football world will emerge in Govan, challenged with bringing good times back to the success-starved club. Whilst Mark Allen and his squad of scouts scour the globe for footballing talent, supporters will be able to assess their potential new heroes’ impact through performance data and YouTube highlights.
There are immeasurable characteristics that supporters cannot see on YouTube however, which can mean missing out on the success story and qualities of someone like Andy Halliday. Whilst youngsters look to replicate the latest tricks and flicks of the next potential loan from an English Premiership club or hot talent from further afield, it is important to remember that the talent they see is nothing without application and sacrifice.
The kind of application and sacrifice that sees a 14-year-old kid go from locking himself in his room to 50,000 supporters singing his name in an Old Firm derby via Livingston, Bradford and Azerbaijan. The kind of application and sacrifice that means not giving up on the dream, no matter how difficult the road ahead is and how many obstacles lie ahead.
Allison believes this is a key message in working with other young players who share the same aspirations. “I have worked with some young players who have been released by clubs who know Andy’s story and I can see it inspires them. It shows kids you can achieve your dreams if you believe in them enough and are willing to work harder than anyone to achieve them.”
Andy Halliday may never receive the same recognition as more technically gifted players who capture the imagination of supporters, but there can’t be many better role models for young players who want to know what it takes to make it as a professional footballer at a big club. As Halliday left Gerrard’s embrace and strolled back up the Ibrox tunnel last Saturday, he must have reflected on some of those setbacks with a smile and realisation that he was finally living his dream.
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