Football: Marco Who becomes the talk of Glasgow

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The Independent Online
Rangers have unearthed a potent goal-scoring talent in the idiosyncratic Italian Marco Negri. Recruited from Serie A, he has so far scored 23 goals and is already being compared with Ally McCoist in his pomp and prime. David McKinney sees the renegade laying down roots in Scotland.

In these increasingly multi- cultural football times, it should come as no surprise that Marco Negri should lead the goal-scoring charts in Scotland. Any sense of astonishment comes from the proliferation and quality of the goals the Italian has scored in the first quarter of the season.

With ice-cool precision he has scattered Scottish defences to score 23 goals in all competitions and help Rangers recover from a poor start. In Glasgow, the betting shops were happy in August to offer odds and take the cash on the novelty bet that Negri would score 50 goals. Three months on and, for the bookmakers at least, the novelty is wearing off.

The Italian's arrival passed virtually unnoticed, squeezed in as one of seven players brought to the club as Rangers prepared for an assault on Europe. He has shown himself to have the grace and style of a Versace suit and, costing pounds 3.7m, he was almost as expensive.

That price is now being seen as a bargain, yet he was virtually unknown in his native country, contributing 15 for Perugia in his one productive season in Serie A.

His career encompassed five clubs and several loan periods as well as a degree of notoriety resulting from a playboy image, enhanced by long hair and a characteristic earring.

Negri never spent more than 18 months at any club and on one occasion refused to play an away match, electing to stay in his hotel room as he had fallen out with the coach. Rangers will hope he can keep himself happy by scoring goals.

His move to Ibrox was clinched with a hat-trick against Bologna, a game in which he gave Walter Smith a glimpse of a goal-scoring talent no amount of money can buy.

At this stage in the season, scoring 50 goals might not be as fanciful a suggestion as it seems because Negri has already shown he can finish the chances created for him by Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup. The two playmakers put the ball in front of him and invite him to do the rest, something he does with devastating efficiency.

He equalled the Premier Division's personal goal-scoring record for one game with all of Rangers' goals in a 5-1 win over Dundee United, and scored four in the recent 7-0 demolition of Dunfermline.

Negri has scored in all nine of Rangers' league matches this season, which has set a new record for scoring in consecutive matches in the Premier Division. The previous record of eight was set by Ally McLeod of Hibernian in season 1977-98.

In his first game of the domestic campaign Negri lifted the ball over the head of a Hearts defender before lobbing a shot over the advancing goalkeeper. It was a moment of sublime skill from a player who now threatens single-handedly to equal the scoring feats of the Mark Hateley-Ally McCoist partnership at its best. Between them, McCoist and Hateley topped the 50-goals mark two seasons in a row.

Negri combines the qualities of both players. He has the height and power of Hateley allied to the poacher's instinct for creating space and scoring goals that was McCoist's trademark.

Jim Jefferies, the manager of Hearts, who saw for himself the skills of Negri at Ibrox, is convinced Rangers have unearthed a goal machine.

He said: "He has great skill, is quick off the mark and he is a good finisher. If Rangers are looking to replace McCoist, Negri could be the man. He doesn't get involved in the build-up to goals but he's always there at the finish."

That ability to merely score goals is one Rangers have indulged with McCoist in the past, content to allow him limited involvement throughout the 90 minutes while confident chances will be taken.

Negri's reluctance to help out led to his absence from the away leg of the Uefa Cup tie with Strasbourg, and while he has shown a reluctance to appear content in his work it required a talk with Smith to firmly establish that he was happy at Rangers.

The player insists his job is to score goals, not to tackle back or even demonstrate child-like glee every time the ball hits the back of the net.

The taciturn Italian has taken to life in Glasgow in a way he could hardly have anticipated, as he has won the hearts not only of the Rangers supporters but also of Smith, the manager.

Smith has appeared reluctant to talk too much about his discovery, but is in no doubt about the player's ability. "He's a natural goalscorer, so if you give him chances you know he'll find the back of the net," he said.

Negri's fiancee moved to Scotland recently and he has told friends he feels he is treated like a king in Glasgow. Away from the football, Negri regularly plays tennis and golf, while his good looks have seen him in demand as a model. He features prominently in the Italian Collection calendar produced by the club.

Yet it is on the field that he continues to make the biggest impact, even if his achievements have to be tempered to an extent by the fact that he is playing in the Scottish League and not the Premiership. But he looks to better the goal-scoring prowess of Celtic's Joe McBride, who in 1966 had found the net 35 times by Christmas Eve. McBride himself has suggested the Italian could score in any company.

"I wouldn't say defences are poor in Scotland, but what you can say is that he is playing in a team which is providing plenty of ammunition as I did back then. He still has to finish off the chances and I believe if he was getting that kind of service, even in England, he would still score as many."