Football: Big demands of Little General

Calum Philip suggests the Rangers autocrat is in a hurry to deliver trophies
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The Independent Online
IT IS only 11 weeks since they last met, but as Hearts and Rangers wake up to a brand new season today there is only one thing stopping the whole of Scottish football turning into Groundhog Day: Dick Advocaat.

While Celtic and many others in the Scottish Premier League are throwing on the same old clothes for the new dawn, the Dutchman has been spending money as if it was going out of fashion. Seven players have arrived at Rangers, at a cost of some pounds 25m, since Advocaat took charge in June. By tonight, everyone, including Advocaat, will know if the big budget has been well spent.

Sky television's pounds 45m investment in Scottish football will be launched when they screen the repeat of May's Scottish Cup final. All 18,000 seats at Tynecastle will be taken, and millions more in living-rooms around Britain, as the pair kick off the regular Sunday teatime slot for the Scottish game's showcase.

Advocaat's renowned hard line against the star system has already been felt by a few of the under-achievers at Ibrox, but the club's chairman, David Murray, is hoping his new man can bring back the one repeat that every Rangers fan was happy with: the Scottish championship.

Nine successive titles is a hard act to follow, but the ending of that sequence by Celtic has left Advocaat a puzzling legacy. The 51-year-old may start afresh, unburdened by the expectations of Walter Smith's reign, but he also comes to a job which allows no room for failure. Advocaat has to produce success right away.

The new coach has left nothing to chance. He watched Rangers just days after the ink dried on his contract after agreeing to join from PSV Eindhoven. Advocaat made a secret trip to see his new charges draw 2-2 with Hearts in February, leaving to catch a flight back to Holland before Jorg Albertz struck a last-minute equaliser for Rangers. But he had seen enough to recognise that things needed to be changed.

The next time Hearts came back to Glasgow to face Rangers, the Scottish Cup final at Parkhead, underlined that belief. The upstarts from Edinburgh made a mockery of the bloated values of Rangers' collection of foreign signings, winning 2-1, and leaving Rangers with their first season without silverware in 12 years.

Advocaat's wheels were already in motion. "Dick gave me a list of players that he wanted," Murray said. "We went after them and got most of the people we wanted." The first came from the textbook of football management: bring in someone you trust. Advocaat lured Artur Numan, his captain at PSV. If Numan's stock was unremarkable before the World Cup, it shot up by the time his ebullient displays at left-back helped Holland to the semi-finals.

While 16 players left Rangers, including Andy Goram, Ally McCoist and Richard Gough, as well as the crowd's favourite, Brian Laudrup, the stream of arrivals was also steady. Also recruited were Andrei Kanchelskis from Fiorentina, for a Scottish record pounds 5.5m, Giovanni van Bronckhorst from Feyenoord for pounds 5m, the Argentinian striker Gabriel Amato from Real Mallorca (pounds 4.2m), and goalkeeper Lionel Charbonnier from Auxerre (pounds 1.2m). Rod Wallace came as a free agent from Leeds, while the Romanian central defender Daniel Prodan's pounds 2.2m transfer from Atletico Madrid closed the cheque book, for now at least.

"I tried to get Prodan to PSV but he wouldn't come," Advocaat said. "Rangers is a more prestigious club and that makes signing players easy. I would like to sign at least one more, but I will wait." Colin Hendry's name persists but Advocaat believes that Blackburn's resolve will close the door on that deal.

The Dutchman's taciturn features give little hint of a man who knows how to enjoy himself, but when he talks about the men he has paid money for, he relishes the prospect of how they can embellish the new blue era.

Of Kanchelskis, he said: "He can do for the fans what Laudrup did. He is a world-class player." Of Van Bronckhorst, who at 23 is the great young hope of Dutch football: "He is one of the best young players in Europe: he is like John Collins, only younger."

Advocaat has overseen everything. He came to Glasgow six months ago to help choose new facilities, and it is on the training ground that he exerts his biggest authority. Not for nothing is the man who once fell out with Ruud Gullit, forcing the Dutch star to quit international football on the eve of the World Cup in 1994, known as the Little General. There is only one way of doing things: his, as Marco Negri and Lorenzo Amoruso have found out.

Amoruso fell out with Advocaat over the stamina-sapping pre-season routines, before being given extra work for his trouble. His fellow Italian Negri has paid a much higher price for insubordination. He refused to go on the club's pre-season trip to Norway, fuelling speculation that he was trying to work his ticket out of Ibrox to either Spain or Italy. Advocaat has ordered the player to train with the reserves and said: "He will not play for Rangers again. His mind is not here."

Yet, another Italian at Ibrox insists that Advocaat's ideas are just what Rangers needed. The former Juventus defender Sergio Porrini sees a striking similarity with the work ethic at his rather more successful old club. "We are already improving on last season," he said this week. "Advocaat's training is very close to what I did with Marcello Lippi. We work hard and that is essential. You must be able to play for 90 minutes. When you come into the new season, your legs are heavy and you cannot play as you want. Maybe in four or five weeks, though, that is when you will see the real Rangers."

That could be ominous for the other eight Premier clubs over the next 10 months.