Harder times put a leash on McLeish

Scottish Premier kick-off: Champion manager's ambitions are undermined by the overriding need to curtail costs
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The Independent Football

The London Underground is always regarded as the litmus test of true fame. Alex McLeish was somewhat surprised when he was asked for his autograph by a fellow passenger a dozen years ago.

McLeish was entitled to think that his anonymity would be protected, considering he earned his living at the time some 400 miles away as a player at Aberdeen. Sadly, the "fan" had mistaken him for David Caruso, at the time the star of the television drama NYPD Blue.

Back then, the floppy red hair that framed McLeish's face made him a dead ringer for the actor. These days, the Rangers manager sports a more cropped look, in keeping with someone who is 43 - but his changing hairstyle is symbolic of the club he now guides.

More than a decade of lavish spending on players has brought Rangers to a new look: austerity. Wages and transfers have been trimmed back more radically than McLeish's locks. The Scottish Premier League champions will launch their title defence at home to Kilmarnock next Saturday augmented by just one £670,000 purchase, the Portuguese international winger Capucho, signed from FC Porto.

It is a situation that few at Ibrox could ever have envisaged. This is the club that paid £12 million for Tore Andre Flo three years ago. Summertime at Rangers, for as long as anyone can remember, has been a procession of expensive signings - but not any more. A debt of £80m means that McLeish, who won the Treble last season and regained the title just 18 months after replacing Dick Advocaat, will have his hands tied like none of his predecessors over the past 20 years.

He has jettisoned four - Arthur Numan, Lorenzo Amoruso, Claudio Caniggia and Bert Konterman - of the squad who held the League trophy aloft to 50,000 adoring Ibrox fans after snatching the prize from Celtic on goal difference on that remarkable last day of the season on 25 May. Only Amoruso fetched a fee - in a £1.5m switch to Blackburn Rovers - from a quartet who had cost £14m.

"I have a couple of things in the pipeline and I am still hopeful of getting someone in by the signing deadline for the Champions' League on Thursday," stated McLeish last week. However, that strict budget has hampered moves for Sunderland's Kevin Phillips and Luciano Figueroa of Rosario - who is now on the brink of being snapped up by Birmingham City - when neither striker would be likely to cost much more than £3m.

"Forwards are not the priority," McLeish said. "We need cover most at left-back and centre-back." Michael Ball is earmarked to fill the first role, caused by the retirement of Numan after he received a vastly reduced contract offer; the England international has never played for McLeish, having just returned from 19 months' absence after a knee injury sustained barely weeks after his £6m move from Everton in 2001.

"Football has changed a lot since then," admitted Ball last week after facing his old team in a friendly. "It's not just Rangers who have to face financial problems. The manager would like three new faces for the Champions' League. We're fine when everyone is fit, but you cannot ever bank on that."

Emerson Thome was expected to take up Amoruso's vacancy. The former Sunderland defender went on tour with Rangers to Germany after becoming a free agent, but McLeish dumped him on returning home. "I did not want to lumber the club with a player in the long term I'm not sure of," said the manager.

The complexity thwarting McLeish's ambitions - Manchester City and Portsmouth stole Paul Bosvelt and Dejan Stefanovic from under his nose - is that he required Mikel Arteta to return to Spain to free up some cash. The man whose penalty in the last minute of the season clinched the title is only back at Ibrox because Atletico Madrid reneged on a £5m deal.

"It was an opportunity that suited everyone," McLeish insisted. "Mikel wanted to go back to Spain, but if he gives me the same performances that he did last season, he will win the respect of the fans - and, most importantly, me."

Across Glasgow, another group of players appear to have passed that test. Martin O'Neill has kept the same group of players who saw the Uefa Cup and then the title slip through their grasp inside four days. Celtic made £20m out of their Uefa Cup run, but the economic meltdown at Ibrox and Elland Road is injecting caution into O'Neill's pursuit of players. Ironically, he believes it might be better for the general health of the SPL if both Old Firm clubs do well in the Champions' League.

"If ourselves and Rangers are in the group stages, then I expect Hearts and Dundee to get a lot closer to us in the SPL. When I first came here, Dick Advocaat wrote Hibernian off (when McLeish was manager), yet they remained involved in the title race, but I don't think this will be categorised as a two-horse race. Another club will influence the destination of the title, and I don't think it will take 97 points to win it this time."