I asked a friend the other week: “How would you feel if you were told your team would win a major European trophy, but that they’d be remembered – even despised – throughout the continent as the most negative team ever to do so, your name synonymous with defensiveness for a generation or more to come?”
He answered, quite correctly: “If we won a major European trophy, I wouldn’t care how we did it.”
“Quite correctly” because that’s what fans do. All they care about, bottom line, is that their team does as well as its resources allow it. Anything extra, punching above their weight, achieving higher than those resources should allow them to reach, is the stuff of dreams. In the list of priorities, quality of football comes fairly far down.
Of course, you’d love to have the players that were capable of playing slick, penentrating football and beating all comers with wonderful, expressive goals. You’d LOVE that. You’d be proud as punch of your team. But if you’ve not got those resources, if you’ve got a decent squad of players, who can play reasonable attacking football and score a few goals but not well enough to progress all the way to the top of the tree, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to say, well, we’ll try our best and see how far we get, or are you supposed to look at the resources you’ve got and try and devise a system that will maximise your chances?
Say you were the manager of Rangers (of course that’s who we’re talking about here). Suppose this was the one chance in your tenure to achieve something on this scale. Suppose you’d only recently taken over the team after a bad, bad period and were trying to rebuild it on meagre finances by European – hell, even by Scottish – standards, and sensibly starting by spending on defenders and midfielders and young, inexperienced Scottish players. Suppose, looking, at the opposition as each round came up you saw better individuals on the opposite roster. What would you do? Seriously?
No, of course, you’d limit the opposition’s chances and try to grab your own on the counter. That’s what anyone would do.
The more I look at the “Watenaccio” formation (ain’t that a fabulous word?), Walter’s version of the famous Italian system, the more I realise how clever it is. It’s a system of absolute trust between the manager and the players, and it does allow for a switch to attack when it’s going well, but it’s a risky strategy. It hasn’t worked so well in the two Fiorentina ties as it did against Lisbon. The out ball to the lone striker hasn’t been held up as well, and the supporting midfielders haven’t be close enough to him. And that’s when you find yourself “hanging on”.
Fiorentina manager, Prandelli, is not happy about it of course, and Lionel Messi called it anti-football, but guess what, they’re not in the final. To deserve to be in the final, Fiorentina should have had a better ratio than 3 shots on target out of 21. They had their chances, but they didn’t take them.
I’ve enjoyed watching the the ITV4 commentary of the last few games. Not only because auld Archie’s voice drives me up the wall, but because they know what they’re talking about and they call these games as they see them. In the first leg of the tie, Rangers were poor. Their ball possession – a key part of the system’s success – was awful, but Fiorentina were profligate. I agreed with the analysts’ assessment that we’d have to be a lot better in Italy, and we were. And I agreed with their admiration of the work that Smith has done in motivating a failing, disjointed side into a genuine team that refuses to be beaten.
I was four years old last time Rangers were in a Euro final, and I’m delighted they’re there again. I haven’t a clue if it’ll be good enough to beat St Petersburg, or win the league, or even the Scottish Cup. I just know that the transformation in the personality of the team is astonishing.
These are the experiences that bond teams. There will be new faces next season (hopefully at least one really good striker), and withthe confidence we’ll have gained from this extraordinary journey I suspect when we take on the Chamion’s League again the system will slightly less negative.
Maybe we’ll even win the trophy this time round, maybe not. But this is just the start of the second Smith era. What I’m looking forward to most, is seeing how this team develops.