THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and beat your bitter rival to claim glory in the Scottish Premiership and bragging rights in Glasgow.
THE CATCH: The battle between Celtic and Rangers has already defeated Alex Stewart. Can Matt Stanger clean up the mess at Ibrox and wipe the smile off Iain Macintosh’s face?
Episode 1; Episode 2; Moneyball Rangers; Episode 3; Episode 4; Episode 5; Old Firm Preview Part 1; Part 2; A Message From The Board; Episode 6; 5 Things We Learned From The Old Firm Derby; Episode 7; How To Play Catenaccio In FM17; Episode 8; Episode 9; Episode 10: The First Cup Final; How To Play Like Atletico Madrid In FM17; Episode 11; Episode 12; Iain returns to Everton; Episode 13; Episode 14; How To Play Like Chelsea 04/05 In FM17; Episode 15; Episode 16; Episode 17; Episode 18.
It has not been an easy start at Rangers. Parachuted into the job with only two weeks of the January transfer window remaining, it has quickly become apparent just how desperate the situation is. Alex Stewart was sacked with morale at rock bottom; a 3-0 defeat to Aberdeen in my opening game has done little to lift the mood. I fear I may need some help.
If you could ask anyone for advice on how to improve fortunes at Rangers, Alex McLeish would be top of the list. Indeed, the Ibrox club themselves have been linked with a move for their former manager having recently cut ties with Mark Warburton.
In four-and-a-half years in charge, McLeish won the lot – two Scottish Premier League titles, two Scottish Cups and three League Cups, including the Treble in 2002/03. But when he replaced Dick Advocaat in December 2001, the club were in difficulty, much like the predicament I’m facing thanks to Alex.
“When I arrived the league was already virtually gone,” McLeish tells me.
“The team were down on their confidence and Celtic were beating them. Martin O’Neill had a bit of a hoodoo over the Advocaat era. I just got them enjoying training again. We were about fourteen, fifteen points behind Celtic, but there were still two cups to play for.”
It’s as though I’m playing in a parallel universe. Yes, McLeish’s achievements were bona fide, real life success – not a thirty-something man playing a computer game for a living – but the similarities to his first few months are clear. With the title beyond us, I know what I have to do: Win the Scottish Cup for the fans and prevent Iain from claiming a Treble that would leave him so smug he might fracture his cheekbones from grinning.
We have already seen off Championship side Dunfermline in heroic fashion (a 2-1 home victory secured in the last minute) and should be able to sneak past St Mirren in the fifth round, despite being taken to a replay. McLeish faced a much greater challenge on route to claiming his first silverware.
“The first time we played Celtic we beat them in the semi-final of the League Cup. That was the day the players really believed they could beat them again,” he recalls.
“We were more of a cultured football team; Celtic were more dynamic, maybe more aggressive. The players I had – Dutch internationals, World Cup semi-finalists; Arthur Numan, Michael Mols, Ronald de Boer – there was no option but to play good football with these guys. It’s the dream of every coach.”
Adopting a certain style of play has been a challenge during my brief reign at Ibrox. Alex’s hopeless spell in charge – in which he tried and failed to implement Catenaccio and 3-5-2, before finally settling on 4-4-2 – appears to have caused only confusion and fatigue. The players need stability, a system they understand. According to McLeish, it’s imperative to work with what you’ve got.
“There’s no doubt that at Rangers you have to create a winning mentality,” he continues.
“Forget about having to perfect a style of play. You get the players to believe they’re winners – they have to be winners or they’ll be out the door.
“You can be flogging a dead horse saying you want the team to pass the opposition to death – you might inherit some players who can’t do that. You ask every coach and they would want their team to play pure football. But you have to assess what you have at your disposal before laying down your style of play.
“We had the Dutch guys, and you know they wanted to take the ball down and pass it. That’s the philosophy we had for that particular set of players. It’s common sense that if you have some players who are not quite at that standard then you can’t force them to do things they’re not good at.”
We don’t have any Dutch players. Julien de Sart is Belgian, but that’s about as close as it gets. And anyway, he was ruled out for the season just days after signing on loan from Middlesbrough. I really should have remembered to include a termination clause.
It’s time to be pragmatic. If I’m to have any hope of holding on as Rangers manager, the whole club needs a lift – and quickly. It’s perhaps a good thing, then, that our next match is the derby against Celtic in Monday’s live stream. A do-or-die fixture might be just what’s required to snap the players out of their stupor. To instil some belief again.
It worked for McLeish: “Winning the League Cup semi-final was a real turning point. We ended up winning the two cups and remained unbeaten by Celtic that season.”
Following their League Cup triumph, McLeish led Rangers to the Scottish Cup final, where they met Celtic once again after they had wrapped up the league title with a healthy cushion. The odds were against McLeish’s side, but there was to be a thrilling finale.
“We played in a brilliant, epic final where Celtic took the lead twice and Peter Lovenkrands scored the winning goal with nine seconds to go. Celtic kicked off, launched the ball forward and the ref blew the whistle. That’s when you can do an Alan Pardew jig. It was a momentous victory. A brilliant game of football with two real, good quality sides going head to head against each other.”
What was it like to taste victory on such a monumental occasion?
“Relief. It’s relief at the final whistle, and then the joy begins, when you share it with the fans, your friends and family. That’s when you have the joy. But it’s a hard place to be in the dugout. I defy any manager to say they’re loving every minute.”
After two weeks in charge at Rangers, I’m inclined to agree – and I’m only playing Football Manager. I hesitate before asking a final question – but it’s one I have to know the answer to…And if we lose to Celtic?
“If you lose you just don’t go out. That’s for sure.”
Catch up on the latest in the FM17 Project here.
And check out the Bet Bright odds for Monday’s live stream between Iain and Matt here.