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The best of times, the worst of times . . .


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Alex McLeish is enjoying a reflected glory as the last Rangers manager to deliver a liberal scattering of silverware. It is a far cry from his largely insufferable final season in charge. To recap, McLeish's patchwork team of season 2005-06 - a collection of cost-effective freebies and low-budget journeymen - lagged behind Celtic and, even more heinously, Hearts.

He was summoned to Sir David Murray's Perthshire pile as the supporters demanded a ritual sacrifice for their suffering but, instead, was granted a stay of execution in acknowledgement of his historic jaunt into the last 16 of the Champions League.

McLeish has a forensic recall of the trials and tribulations of his long goodbye. Having taken a swashbuckling approach to ending Martin O'Neill's dominance in succession to Dick Advocaat in 2001, the traumatic final months of his tenure have taken on a fresh resonance.

As Walter Smith endures new scorn for his dour coaching conservatism, McLeish's final season was hamstrung by his own ideological interpretation of Rangers' long-standing principles.

In short, McLeish regrets not implementing Smith's sobering tactics to offset the deficiencies of a squad pared back to the point of parlous. The consequences of such uncharacteristic pragmatism may not have been as dire as those suffered for being proactive in respect to a fabled philosophy.

"We were losing far too many games, mainly because I had to stay true to Rangers' principles of going to win the game even if, to be honest, there were times when we were not good enough," McLeish recalls, with a mixture of defiance and despair.

"We still had to go out every week and try to win games but the irony is, if I played the way Walter played in a lot of the games last season, with five in the middle, we might have made a better fist of it in the league that year and definitely pipped Hearts to second place.

"I was tempted to change but I was thinking, We are Rangers, we have to try and win this league,' even though, deep down, I knew the players were not good enough and did not have enough confidence or form."

McLeish was the first to pay for the sins of the past but by no means the last. He inherited a dressing room riven by discord and was challenged to restore respectability and success, while simultaneously dismantling a wage bill that had seriously threatened the club's health in the recklessly indulgent Advocaat era. He did so as aggressively and dutifully as his years at the bedrock of Aberdeen's success in the early 1980s.

Now, as Rangers revisit the grim financial hardship and Celtic continue in clover, McLeish's record of seven trophies in five years, including two dramatic last-day title wins, is seen in a new and more flattering light.

"I thought it would eventually pan out that way," he says. "At the time I wasn't given much credit and the last year was difficult. Even when we were struggling domestically in that last season, I was quite proud and was sure people would look back and say it wasn't a bad job in difficult financial circumstances, especially taking the job at a time when Celtic were sweeping the floor with Rangers.

"My first thought was, How can I say no to the Rangers job?' even with Celtic being strong and dominant. Even if I was only manager for a week, at least I could have looked back and said I managed Rangers."

He did so commendably, extracting enough improvement from Ronald de Boer, Lorenzo Amoruso and even Bert Konterman to finish with a cup double in his first season. It was not simply the impact he made, but rather the manner in which he quelled O'Neill's rampant Celtic, that has prompted a revision of the McLeish era, as supporters lament the stodge served up by the current squad and, by association, the manager who has used pragmatism as a substitute for financial resources.

"We changed the tactics against a Celtic team that were very bold against us; a Celtic team even Juventus changed to play against," McLeish recalls proudly. "We went for it, playing three up against their back three.

"We left ourselves vulnerable at the back but had players with the experience and quality of Artur Numan, Amoruso and Craig Moore; these guys were intelligent enough to take in what I was trying to do. We managed to get the upper-hand against Celtic and it was only after Martin O'Neill changed to 4-4-2 that they started to get back at us again."

He would become a victim of his own coaching success. "I wouldn't say I felt triumphant, in fact I was gutted he changed," he says as O'Neill counteracted McLeish's masterplan. "Something had to give: we went seven games without losing against Celtic and then Martin had me on the mantelpiece with seven straight wins in a row. It was horrible for me and anyone associated with Rangers: it was the ultimate insult."

It was also the tell-tale sign of a debt-driven downturn in quality as Sir David Murray sought to square the books; a policy that has become more pressing as the barren years roll on.

The symbolic sale of Barry Ferguson to Blackburn Rovers for £7m in 2003 was the first step towards slashing a wage bill that had spiralled out of control under Advocaat. What followed was a bric-a-brac policy of recruiting free transfers allied to the roulette gamble of loan signings.

The infamous window that produced, in one lamentable job-lot, Emerson, Nuno Capucho and Dan Eggen will take some beating, while Filippo Maniero came and went without a single sighting.

"It doesn't matter who wears the jersey, the fans expect you to be brilliant, but it was hard," McLeish says. "After we lost Artur and Ronald and people like that, the quality did go downhill.

I saw it coming.

"We trimmed the wages and got the budget down, but when we lost Numan and Ferguson, we took in a few bob in fees and wages but had a dismal season.

"We brought in six free transfers and David Murray and I have discussed since that when you throw your money at frees and loans, it is not a recipe for success. I knew to replace that quality on frees was nigh impossible and he was very fair and saw it, too."

Murray, as has been his trademark, duly conjured the funds to pay the inflated wages of two reputable Bosmans, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Dado Prso in the summer of 2004.

The Boumsong deal, in particular, would yield a financial windfall within six months that would radically enhance Rangers' title credentials. His bizarre £8m transfer to Newcastle United gave McLeish his first transfer budget of note: an opportunity he capitalised on by re-signing Ferguson and bringing in Ronald Waterreus, Thomas Buffel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

"It fell into place because we worked hard," he recalls proudly. "People called me lucky but we deserved what we got for the work we put in."

Then an old pal arrived to inflict on him what he had done to O'Neill. Gordon Strachan took over at Celtic, replaced an ageing squad on a fraction of his predecessor's budget and, frankly, got his pal his jotters in the end.

"In that last season, I still thought we had quality but Dado was injured, Buffel was injured and by then we had lost Boumsong, big Marvin Andrews was in his last year, Kyrgiakos had missed pre-season and was not up to speed in the early months so we lost ground."

Defeats to Aberdeen, Hibernian, Hearts and Celtic and draws to Falkirk, Dundee United, Dunfermline and Livingston did for Rangers' title challenge by the turn of the year. To make matters worse, Hearts had briefly registered a title challenge under George Burley and were durable enough to finish second under Valdas Ivanauskas.

McLeish was embattled and at the height of the frenzy, was summoned by Murray to his Perthshire retreat for what was largely considered to be the business of agreeing a mutual consent separation or, in less charitable language, the sack.

"We had qualified for the Champions League knockout stage and I am not a quitter, I did not want to walk out," he says of the chat. "The bears were getting a bit restless, having a go at myself and the board but we shook on it and agreed I would stay until the end of the season. After it, we won 30 points out of 36 - that would have been championship-winning form if we had done it at the start."

In his absence, Strachan has compiled a sequence of success to rival, if not surpass, his illustrious predecessor. He has done so with only a fraction of the acclaim afforded to O'Neill.

"Gordon is in a similar situation as my own; not revered as much as other Rangers and Celtic managers of the past but he has not made too bad a fist of it," says McLeish. "I don't get the he's not a Celtic man or a Rangers man'. In many ways it would be healthy for the Old Firm because sometimes it clouds the issue."

McLeish has a new-found clarity over his Rangers career.

http://www.theherald.co.uk/sport/headlines...st_of_times.php

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