In a move that seemed as inevitable as the horizontal horseshoe passing, that became a negative symbol of his team’s playing style, Giovanni van Bronckhorst has today been relieved of his duties as manager of Rangers Football Club.
The decision by the board to take action won’t have surprised many supporters, the overwhelming majority of which had lost faith in Gio’s ability to even challenge for the league title. But even still there is a strange contradiction and paradox to his brief tenure which took us to the immense high of a European final but which has now been curtailed only six months later.
It is fair to say that the Dutch manager, a previous league winner with Feyenoord, entered a bit of a mess, summed up by the humiliating capitulation to Hibs where he watched from the stand at Hampden. He quickly set up about making the team more solid & “keeping the zero” was a clear mantra which he attempted to translate onto the pitch.
Nine wins in the following ten league matches followed and even if the football wasn’t scintillating it was something supporters could understand following the early season mediocrity under a clearly unhappy Steven Gerrard. This was to prove the high point of his league performance as the curse of the winter break would soon hit Ibrox again.
With Celtic strengthening and gathering momentum, results caught up with performances at Rangers under van Bronckhorst. A draw at Pittodrie was quickly followed by the horrific 3-3 draw at Dingwall before a monumental embarrassment at Parkhead, one that would sadly be repeated this season. And with points dropped in 5 games from 8, after the turn of the new year, our lead and indeed the league itself was meekly and swiftly surrendered before the end of February.
Set against this despair however was the hope and glory of the Europa League. After navigating through the group in which we had struggled under Gerrard for the first time in his 3 years as manager, a glamour tie against Dortmund looked like our season would be ending early. Not so.
Gio would win in the famous Westfalenstadion where Rangers didn’t just emerge victorious but won by going toe-to-toe with the competition favourites in their own back yard. This was followed by the 2-2 draw with Dortmund at Ibrox which got the job done and started whispers of repeating the glory of the legendary Barcelona Bears some 50 years after their triumph. The fact these results were followed up by two domestic draws and four dropped points however probably epitomises van Bronckhort’s time as manager.
As we now reflect on the domestic failings which have seen him depart it would be remiss not to dedicate some time to the famous victories over Braga and Red Star Belgrade and, of course, possibly the best European night in modern memory as Rangers triumphed over Red Bull Leipzig as Ibrox rocked like few have seen before. And all done with the tactical nous of a manager who quite clearly had a plan and whose team was brave and bold enough to carry that expertly onto the pitch.
This was not just enormous footballing success that we had no right to achieve but of course a huge financial boost to the club at a time when investor funds has dried up. The journey to Seville pumped millions upon millions into the club coffers and took Gio and his team to within a couple of kicks of immortality. But, alas, it wasn’t to be. The money was banked but the ultimate glory was left just out of reach.
Silverware was of course added in the shape of the Scottish Cup following victory over Hearts at Hampden. Given the inability of his predecessor to return any cups in his lengthier time at the helm we should not be snobby or turn our noses up at such an achievement. But in the absence of the league and Europa League it felt very much like a consolation prize, one that we had to build on in 2022/23.
Europe would again be where Gio racked up points in his favour after leading the club into the riches of the Champions League for the first time in 12 years with a particularly impressive win over PSV in Eindhoven. This was to be the highlight of the season because, as it was to transpire, the reality of actually being in that competition would make any excitement and optimism felt upon qualification look rather foolish.
Ultimately though while the European embarrassments would blot any copybook it was the domestic form that would put an end to Gio’s time as Rangers manager. New signings wouldn’t play, those that did got injured and the team would have no style or character and play with a tempo fit only for testimonials.
The fitness that saw us overcome both Braga and Celtic in extra-time within a couple of days of each other was now unrecognisable to the lethargy and tiredness that hamstrung our performances. In addition our play would not simply be slow, it would also be predictable, summed up by the aimless throwing of some 70+ crosses in our home draw with Livingston. If we didn’t lack ability, we certainly lacked identity.
Those who follow hipstery football stats will have been aware that our xGD – the difference between our expected goals for and against – lagged significantly behind Celtic’s on a consistent and ongoing basis. Even Colak’s clinical finishing could not carry this burden indefinitely and, as the board and manager perhaps hoped to limp on into the winter break to regroup the wheels eventually fell off with a defeat to St Johnstone and draw at St Mirren, results reflective of Gio’s inability to set his team up successfully away from home. And with that the curtain fell.
Giovanni undoubtedly delivered some startling success in last season’s Europa League. He added to that by earning the club millions in qualification for the Champions League. But no manager of Rangers can remain when there is an inability to challenge for the title and capitulation before the end of November, with only one Old Firm game played, really is inexcusable.
Couple that with the fact it was a re-run of last season where his team watched one bad result turn into another to surrender the league in a matter of weeks and there really was no room to hide. If any doubt remained it could be dispelled by the lack of fitness, lack of style and lack of any measurable progress being made on the park.
Maybe the manager wasn’t helped by recruitment or a distinct lack of funds. But none of that excuses the eye-test on the pitch. If the board didn’t take action now Gio would have been gone by February anyway. Results would have dictated as much. There has been a feeling of inevitability about this ending for too long. Prolonging it was simply delaying any hope of a refresh & denying any new manager the opportunity of the winter break to get working with the players.
Giovanni van Brockhorst is a thoroughly nice guy but he is not the guy who will win us our next league title and that is the ultimate judgement. I’m still trying to fathom how a manager who can outwit bigger and better teams in Europe is the same manager who leaves us looking so clueless against the comparative dross of the Scottish Premiership. His tenure seems littered with such contradictions but the one constant has been the decisive one – the league results and performances haven’t been good enough. And with that we move on.
Ross Wilson and the Rangers board are now tasked with finding the manager who will deliver 56. Given some of our recent recruitment issues there is understandable concern over their ability to do so.
On one hand we need a manager with the character to fill the gaping leadership void at the club and carry this often weak group of players. On another we need a coach who can instil an identity and style to allow for success in breaking down teams domestically and winning away from home. The perfect combination of both probably doesn’t exist within the realms of our realistic targets and so this is where Wilson & Co will succeed or fail in identify what we need most and who is best placed to deliver it.
For now though let’s acknowledge that van Bronckhorst delivered us a European final, a Scottish Cup and participation in the Champions League within his year in charge.
Thanks for the memories, Gio. Farewell.
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