It has been over a decade since Rangers hit their lowest of lows; the club’s financial mismanagement had finally come back to haunt them and The Rangers Football Club Plc was liquidated, relegating the Gers to the fourth tier of Scottish football with seemingly no path back to the top.
Yet on the 17th of February 2022, they hit arguably one of their highest of highs, dismantling Marco Rose’s Borussia Dortmund in a 4-2 win in front of the astute eye of the infamous Yellow Wall before securing their passage to the next round with a 2-2 draw a week later.
This famous European night came only 11 months after they secured their 55th Scottish title with 105 points and an incredible 0 losses. But the Dortmund faithful were not the only astute pair of eyes that oversaw one of Rangers’ most famous European wins, Sporting Director Ross Wilson was also in attendance.
Wilson joined the Gers in October of 2019 from Southampton and has overseen their rise to a team at the pinnacle of Scottish football and one that can compete with Europe’s elite; all within the relative infancy of his directorship.
His work in both the transfer and loan market helped Steven Gerrard create a side that dominated Scottish football, progressed strongly in Europe, and put Rangers back on the European footballing map.
This fantastic work combined with his passion and drive and his desire to improve Rangers’ infrastructure should see Rangers remain at the top of Scottish football for years to come.
We take a look back at his time as Southampton Director of Football, his job so far in Govan, and why his body of work should be putting him on the radar of top Premier League clubs.
Ross Wilson stumbled into the footballing industry not by old contacts from a professional playing career, but by coincidence. A friend’s father worked at Falkirk and needed someone to report on the Under-18 matches.
Wilson snatched the opportunity, working closely with first-team manager John Hughes until eventually becoming Head of Football Development, a position he would keep for 7 years.
Despite strong interest from Hibernian and Celtic, Wilson decided that a move south, into English football, was best for him culminating in his appointment as Watford’s Football Business Director in May 2011.
After three changes in ownership and a multitude of dismissals around him, Wilson moved from Hertfordshire to Yorkshire, becoming Championship side Huddersfield’s Director of Football Operations.
During his stewardship, the Terriers recorded three consecutive higher placed finishes in the Championship, arguably laying down the financial foundations for their surprise promotion to the Premier League in 2017, whilst also recording a positive net spend of £8.24 million, this predominantly coming from the sale of striker Jordan Rhodes to Blackburn for £9.09 million.
As a result of this good work on a limited budget Wilson was brought to the attention of Southampton’s Executive Director, Les Reed, who offered Wilson the opportunity to oversee recruitment at St Mary’s in March 2015.
Southampton has long been seen as one of the best-operated clubs in the Premier League with regards to its emphasis on youth development and its shrewd management of the transfer market.
Wilson, whilst a risky choice, seemed like a perfect fit to continue Southampton’s tradition of operational success and he did not disappoint. His time at St Mary’s demonstrated that Wilson possessed the crucial strengths of a top-tier executive.
Firstly, his scouting networks brought him some fantastic names who were Premier League quality, but who had room to develop into top European talents.
Wilson signed a 24-year-old Dutch defender from Celtic for a reported £11.5 million, Virgil van Dijk in his first window at the club. In July 2016 he signed a 21-year-old Pierre Emile Höjbjerg from Bayern Munich for £13.5 million, long-believed to be the next top European midfielder who would develop under then-manager Pep Guardiola.
Danny Ings was signed on an initial loan deal from Liverpool after his injury-plagued spell at Anfield and became one of the most lethal strikers in the Premier League before signing permanently for £22.5 million the following summer.
Wilson had developed an eye for spotting top-tier talent who would not only offer Southampton immediate quality but would also offer good resale value in the future.
He also showed he has an eye for a bargain, Jan Bednarek was signed from Lech Poznan for a reported £5.4 million and has become an integral part of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s defensive line.
Oriol Romeu was signed for £6.3 million and has gone on to make over 230 appearances, sporting the armband on multiple occasions, and Kyle Walker-Peters’ form since his arrival (initially on loan) at St Mary’s had led to many at Tottenham wondering why they let him go.
His dynamism down the right flank, his improvement in his 1 v 1 defending, and his ability to chip in creatively with assists and goals have made him one of the best fullbacks that St Mary’s have had for many years.
But it should not just be the quality of Southampton’s incoming signings that impress you about Wilson. He demonstrated that he is willing and able to work at a club whose activity in the transfer market is dependent on the money generated from sales.
During his time at St Mary’s, Southampton generated £237 million of transfer revenue from sales and it was Wilson’s ability to negotiate big-money outgoings that allowed Southampton more flexibility in identifying their targets.
here were big-name sales, Morgan Schneiderlin was sold to Manchester United for £31.5 million, generating Southampton a profit of £30 million. Sadio Mane was sold to Liverpool for £37.08 million, a profit of £17 million, before Van Dijk joined him in Merseyside for a record sale of £76.19 million.
Crucially, Wilson was also able to generate large fees for players in the final year of their deals. Nathanial Clyne was also sold to Liverpool for a fee of £15.93 million, Italian striker Graziano Pelle was sold to Chinese club Shandong Taishan for £13.73 million and Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama was allowed to make a move to White Hart Lane for £12.96 million.
This combination of big fee, big-name outgoings, and the ability to generate large revenue from players who would otherwise be lost on a free gave Wilson and the Southampton recruitment team much more room for manoeuvre than they otherwise would.
Compare this operational efficiency to the high-spend, low-return nature of Arsenal’s or Manchester United’s recent transfer business and how this has impacted their ability to return to the pinnacle of English football, and you can see why Wilson’s name appeared high on top clubs’ shortlist.
Wilson’s shrewd manipulation of the transfer market created a side comfortable adjusting to the demands of Hasenhüttl’s high press; 8 of the starting 11 from Southampton’s 2-0 win against Norwich in February this year were signed by Wilson.
Southampton’s performances this season are of course chiefly down to the fantastic work that Hasenhüttl and his coaching staff have done so far.
However, Wilson’s smart recruitment and his continued backing of the Austrian despite numerous heavy losses have laid a foundation that new owners Dragan Šolak and Rasmus Anderson will be keen to maintain.
But what sets Wilson apart from other Sporting Directors is that this fantastic work at Southampton was completed with an incredibly modest net spend.
Katharina Liebherr sold her 80% stake in St Marys to Chinese businessman Gao Jisheng in August 2017, marking not only the end of the Liebherr family ownership of the Saints but the beginning of Gao’s low spend transfer policy.
During Gao’s ownership, Southampton’s net spend lay at only £850,000, yet Wilson was able to lay a fantastic foundation for talent identification whilst building a squad able to play a high-intensity gegenpressing style of football.
Wilson’s impact on recruitment at St Mary’s remains and their business has continued to impress. It seems likely that Wilson’s networks had a hand in identifying several of Southampton’s most recent acquisitions.
Mohammed Salisu has become one of the most promising Centre Backs in the league, Romain Perraud’s development under Hasenhüttl has been nothing short of exceptional and Tino Livramento could perhaps be one of the signings of the season.
Combined, Southampton spent only £26.91 million on these three and it seems likely that they will offer a similarly large resale value to the likes of Mane, Van Dijk, and Schneiderlin.
Wilson’s work at Southampton demonstrated his ability as a top-tier sporting executive; someone able to manipulate the transfer market to build a competitive high-pressing side whilst on a very low net spend.
He was able to continue Southampton’s tradition of operational efficiency and was crucial in appointing arguably one of the best coaches in the Premier League.
Yet he did not see his future at St Mary’s and instead looked for new pastures. In October 2019 it was confirmed that Wilson would be making a move back north of the border and returning to Scottish football. Not to the side who expressed such an interest in his services back in May 2011, but their arch-rivals, Rangers.
Wilson made the move to Govan 16 months after Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard was appointed manager, and despite the enormous progress that the Gers had made over Gerrard’s first season it was Celtic that lifted the Scottish Premiership trophy.
He replaced Mark Allen as Sporting Director despite Allen’s relative success in the transfer market. Creative sparks Joe Aribo and Ryan Kent were both signed during Allen’s final season in charge and have become the cogs of Rangers’ attack.
But Wilson’s arrival spurred Rangers onto another level as he continued his shrewd work in the transfer market. Ianis Hagi was Wilson’s first signing in Govan.
Initially joined Ibrox on loan, Hagi swiftly became a fan favourite, scoring two, sandwiching Joe Aribo’s equaliser, in their dramatic comeback against Braga in the Europa League Round of 32 in February 2020.
His technical ability, pace in attack, and his potential in front of goal led both the Rangers faithful and Wilson to push for a permanent transfer in the summer.
Hagi joined for a fee of £3.15 million but was not the only big-name arrival in Glasgow during that summer. Former Leeds and Anderlecht striker Keemar Roofe joined for £4.5 million and has gone on to score 30 goals in 63 appearances, including his halfway line strike against Standard Liège.
Wilson was creating a hard-working, creative, and technically excellent front line to join talisman Alfredo Morelos upfront, a front line that would catapult Rangers into a fantastic 16-point lead at the top of the SPFL table by Christmas 2020.
Rangers would go on to secure the Scottish League title in some style, 25 points ahead of Celtic in 2nd and conceding only 13 goals in 38 games. The combination of Gerrard’s tactical prowess and Wilson’s ability to deliver players capable of carrying out Gerrard’s plan created one of the most dominant sides Scottish football has ever seen.
To complement this ever-improving front line Wilson also completed the very shrewd free signing of Calvin Bassey from Leicester’s youth setup.
Despite his rather slow introduction into the Rangers first team setup, he has gone on to become one of new manager Giovanni Von Bronckhorst’s first names on the team sheet, starting both legs of Ranger’s most famous European night. His positioning, pace, and power have led to him excelling domestically and proving himself on the European stage.
However, what Rangers had been missing for many years were big-name signings. Wilson has delivered, emphatically.
The loan signing of Manchester United’s Amad Diallo not only represents fantastic business tactically (he is a perfect short-term replacement on Rangers’ right flank for the duration of Hagi’s injury) but it publicly demonstrates that Rangers are aiming to compete at the very top.
Wilson’s signing of Aaron Ramsey on loan from Juventus is another superb piece of business if they can keep him fit, and is probably Ibrox’s biggest name signing since the legendary Paul Gascoigne.
He has taken Rangers from signing players capable of developing into top players domestically, to enticing one of Europe’s best to join his Rangers renaissance.
Despite the scope of Wilson’s transformation of the club’s recruitment policy it has not been financially heavy. Wilson’s net spend during his time at Govan has been only £8.44 million, a total that will almost certainly be softened by the TV revenue that will come with the club’s progression in the Europa League.
Wilson’s desire to look for European calibre has not stopped at player recruitment, the same can be seen with the appointment of Giovanni Von Bronckhorst. After Gerrard’s sudden move down to Aston Villa it was widely reported that Wilson was leading the hunt for his replacement.
Rather than being enticed by the club’s long-term interest in Derek McInnes, Wilson wanted to hire a coach of European calibre and this led him to the former Rangers midfielder. A coach who had won two Dutch cups with Feyenoord and led the club to their first Eredivisie in 18 years.
With the exception of the demoralising 3-0 Old Firm defeat at Celtic Park, Rangers have been adapting well to Von Bronckhorst’s methods and should give the Ibrox faithful hope that Wilson has employed the right man.
Thanks to the support of Wilson’s talent for player recruitment, the pair seem likely to continue the revival of Rangers. Not just domestically, but now on the European stage.
In his scheduled club interviews, Wilson passionately highlights his desire to improve the club’s training facilities, the importance of the Rangers “B” Team and his plans to streamline the academy. His desire is almost infectious.
His work in Govan has been superb so far and has been crucial in leading Rangers to one of the most famous European nights that Scottish football can remember.
He has proven himself key to Ranger’s renaissance both domestically and on the continent, and he should be a name high on the shortlist of many Premier League clubs looking to improve their Sporting Directorship.
By: Ross Wilson / @90PlusFour
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Craig Foy – SNS Group