Monday 11 December 2017

Ex-trader's stock rising again as Gers return from darkness

Former Brentford boss Warburton sets sights on Champions League

‘Top, top people within the game phoned me up and said: ‘Congratulations. Now just get through that first season and survive.’ How do you go into a dressing room and say: ‘Just survive’? It’s nonsense’
‘Top, top people within the game phoned me up and said: ‘Congratulations. Now just get through that first season and survive.’ How do you go into a dressing room and say: ‘Just survive’? It’s nonsense’

Ewan Murray

February: Brentford, in form and fourth in the table, give manager Mark Warburton notice. Owner Matthew Benham says he wants to build an innovative, data-driven Moneyball club, powered by mathematical modelling and stats - and Warburton doesn't buy into the vision. Local press dub it 'Warburton-gate'.

May: After taking his side to the play-offs, Warburton says goodbye, and joins Rangers a month later. At Brentford, Benham hires the 43-year-old Dutchman Marinus Dijkhuizen. "We wanted someone who could share our vision. We want to be innovative in everything we do." Dijkhuizen: "I think it's a brave decision."

November: And so it turned out. With Dijkhuizen's reign already history - he lasted eight games before being sacked - replacement Lee Carsley stabilises them in 10th. Meanwhile, for Warburton, the season has been almost flawless so far: 16 wins out of 17 games, marred only by a League Cup defeat to St Johnstone.

Mark Warburton is deserving of a fresh narrative. The man who enjoyed eye-catching success with Brentford cannot be discussed without the asterisk of his past: as a city trader in London, a career he boldly abandoned to pursue one in football. "I understand why," the Londoner said. "I just think people have heard all that now. I had a long time in the city and took a lot of things from there. I left there nearly 11 years ago now. We have to move on."

Warburton's disregard for convention was evident again in the summer, when he took the manager's post at Rangers - stuck in Scotland's second tier - rather than remain in England. The 53-year-old saw the benefits of a blank canvas as 16 players headed through the Ibrox exit door. Now, a team who were ridiculed are trusted with young prospects from England's top flight.

With 11 wins from as many league games and a fresh confidence blowing through a club which had been wrecked by chaos off the pitch and regular tedium on it, Warburton has been vindicated. In his own mind, that will not fully be the case until a loftier target has been hit.

"Champions League football," Warburton replies instantly when asked about his ultimate Glasgow goal. "Absolutely. Not 'job done', but major target achieved. This is a Champions League club. I think managers and coaches, if they have been out of work for a year, don't go into an interview and ask questions they need to ask because people need to work. Sometimes, instead of all the questions you need to ask, it becomes: 'I need this job.'

"For me and David Weir [Warburton's assistant], we had to go in there and ask the blunt questions: obvious ones about the financial stability of the club, the long-term health and welfare of the club. Equally, we were asked some pretty blunt questions about why we left Brentford.

"I was offered good jobs in England. I was offered three or four more Championship clubs, which was very flattering. This job came up and I looked at the potential, the opportunity. You look around here, a Champions League training ground with hydrotherapy pools, saunas, top-class gyms, undersoil-heated pitches. It is magnificent.

"I have seen and watched Ibrox on a Champions League night. What an opportunity. If we can get it right here, with the magnificent fanbase the club has, it could be a tremendous experience."

To some, this will all sound incongruous. Rangers' plunge into administration, liquidation and Scotland's fourth tier was notable enough without the general decline in standards which has seen the country's clubs and international team regress to the realms of the also-ran. It seems deliberate that Warburton chose to ignore the gory detail of recent times.

"Everyone tells me about that and sometimes it is good to come in fresh because you aren't bogged down," he explains. "There is no lack of appreciation at all of what the fans, players and others have been through, it would be disrespectful to say otherwise, but I can't turn round and say: 'I know how you were feeling.' I'd be lying.

"You couldn't not be aware of what happened. Through media channels, the intensity of focus is quite incredible. You couldn't fail to see what was going on. When I was a kid, teams like Rangers, Milan and Red Star Belgrade were European giants. It wasn't that long ago, 1993 or 1994, Celtic and Rangers were the sixth and seventh highest payers in the UK.

"So you know the size of the club, you know where it has been. We know where this club has been over the last four years but we equally know where it has to get back to. That's what we have been tasked with."

Warburton provides enlightening, enjoyable company. He has been disappointed at an apparent "acceptance" that Scotland cannot produce top-level footballers. The former Enfield and Boreham Wood player was warned about Glasgow but quickly sensed unwarranted scare stories. "This is a great city to live in."

Warburton is conscious of two things: not being viewed as a new-age, know-all revolutionary and not dismissing the extent of Rangers' task when eventually going toe-to-toe with Celtic. "There is no lack of respect or appreciation; Celtic have been hugely successful, Champions League football, selling players, making money," he says.

Warburton is fully versed in the ideology attached to the Old Firm. "You are expected to win. Rangers don't lose," he acknowledges. "Likewise, people said to me about just getting back into the Premier League and starting to build. David Weir said: 'No.' You have to accept that, that's the challenge.

"When Brentford got promoted from League One, 95 per cent of the media said: 'Just survive.' Top, top people within the game phoned me up and said: 'Congratulations. Now just get through that first season and survive.' How do you go into a dressing room with players and say: 'Just survive'? It is nonsense. Saying to these guys: 'Just do enough'? It's not how we work, I don't think anyone can work like that."

Brentford, too, moved on. Their sacking of Dijkhuizen in late September seemed to emphasise the notion that dispensing with Warburton at the end of last season was an error. The intensely analytical approach of the London club's owner, Matthew Benham, has itself been subject to criticism.

So did Warburton raise a smile when Dijkhuizen departed? "People keep saying that to me but life is too short. The owner gave me a chance, which was a big call on his part. I hope I repaid that faith. I wish them well but I have moved on.

"There was a frustration for me, that I didn't want David and I to be painted as dinosaurs who didn't embrace it [the Brentford strategy]. There are some very clever people there, the owner is a very intelligent man who is very successful in what he does. He has some outstanding ideas in terms of the data and research that they use."

Quite logically, Warburton would "love" to manage in England's top league one day. "I maybe represent a massive risk because people would say my background is not steeped in football," he says. "All we can do is prove ourselves. It's about more than leagues, it's about seeing that a club is built on solid foundations."

At that point, Warburton would enjoy backward glances.


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