Tom English: Rangers sack Pedro Caixinha - but challenge even bigger than before
It's hard to know exactly when Pedro Caixinha first realised that he may have wandered on to the set of the wrong movie, but it would be reasonable to go back to the events of April Fool's Day when beleaguered Motherwell fetched up at Ibrox.
The visitors were in the midst of a crisis. In recent games they had conceded three in defeat by Hearts, five to Dundee and seven to Aberdeen. They had lost six of their previous seven games and had, just a few days earlier, sacked their manager, Mark McGhee.
At half-time at Ibrox, Motherwell were ahead through a goal from Louis Moult. It was Caixinha's second game in charge and his team were booed off the field.
On his introduction to the media, he said he understood fully the culture and expectations at Rangers - but there is nothing like abuse descending from the stands to hammer home the point. The sound of a support in tumult became familiar to him in his seven months in charge.
Caixinha got away with a draw that day against Motherwell. A week later, his team drew again, this time in a goalless grind against Kilmarnock, a team they had put away 3-0 the last time they played each other. The Portuguese named his team early that week, fearing nothing that Killie might throw at him. It wasn't the first, or last, time he made himself look silly.
After that game, and with just one win from his first three matches as manager, Caixinha held court at a news conference and spoke passionately about the anger he was feeling, about Rangers having a culture of winning and how this kind of performance wasn't good enough.
There was understanding of his plight among the followers of the club, a sense of forgiveness based on the fact that Caixinha was having to make do with Mark Warburton's players. Warburton had been long since stripped of his magic hat at that point. The former manager had been recast as a dunce with Caixinha charged with the job of cleaning up his mess.
Elsewhere, beyond Ibrox, there was mystification. Not just after a few weeks of Caixinha's reign, but before it ever began. Who was he? What had he done? Where was the evidence in his track record that suggested he could thrive in such a pressurised job? Why take the gamble on an unproven unknown?
Three men were given the job of identifying the new manager - Graeme Park, the Ibrox director, Stewart Robertson, the managing director, and Andrew Dickson, the director of football administration. They came to the conclusion that Caixinha was the man they wanted to put before the board - and the board bought it. It was an astonishing and wholly unnecessary gamble.
Why do it? You could write a thesis on that. At the heart of it, of course, was their desperate desire to bridge the chasm between themselves and Celtic. That's a long road requiring years of careful planning and good decision-making. The feeling is that Rangers tried a shortcut.
In appointing Caixinha, they took a punt that he was going to be a footballing genius, a tactical sorcerer capable of taking Rangers back to the top in double-quick time.
No need to pursue Derek McInnes, who was painstakingly improving Aberdeen. That was too obvious. And it would probably take too long to rebuild under his guidance. They needed somebody with X-factor to shorten the journey back to the top. They needed a rabbit coming out of a hat.
They were persuaded into believing in the fantasy of Caixinha as redeemer by their former player, and Caixinha's agent, Pedro Mendes. It was a horrendous error that slowly, and expensively, unravelled over the course of the next seven months.
Caixinha arrived and presented a colourful character, a former bullfighter with a penchant for playing to the galleries. Early on, he took that to the nth degree when tapping into the core beliefs of many Rangers fans, just as Charles Green and others had done before him. "The slogan 'We Are The People' will be stamped on the walls for both our players and opponents to feel the strength of Rangers," he said.
Bravado was his stock in trade, but it was empty bravado. It was a three-card trick, a deflection, a time-wasting exercise before he got found out. Caixinha said that he had banned his players from wearing green boots, because "it is the colour of Celtic". Brendan Rodgers hit that with a double dose of reality between the eyes. Celtic beat his team 2-0 in their first meeting and then went to Ibrox and thrashed them 5-1.
"I saw more from my players this week (after the 5-1) than last weekend (the 2-0)," said the Rangers manager. This was a pattern that never ceased with Caixinha. He talked a good game, couldn't back it up and was then left scrambling in a cringe-making attempt to cover his ground.
|Past six Rangers managers|
|Pedro Caixinha (March 2017 - Oct 2018)||26||14||5||7||0|
|Mark Warburton (June 2015 - Feb 2017)||82||54||15||13||2|
|Ally McCoist (June 2011 - Dec 2014)||167||121||22||24||2|
|Walter Smith (Jan 2007 - May 2011)||246||155||53||38||8|
|Paul Le Guen (May 2006 - Jan 2007)||31||16||8||7||0|
|Alex McLeish (Dec 2001 - May 2006)||235||155||44||36||7|
When he said towards the end of last season that Aberdeen were coming to the end of their cycle, he followed it up by losing to them at Ibrox, the first time in 26 years that Rangers had been beaten by Aberdeen in their own stadium. That chipped away at his credibility even further.
How many Rangers fans had he lost by the summer? Quite a few, but probably nowhere near the majority. The Warburton Factor was still heavily in play. The logic was that Caixinha needed to be backed to build his own team in his own image. The Rangers board did precisely that. Their trust in him cost them an estimated £8m. Admirable, in many ways, but a huge error of judgement.
Players arrived in waves. And so, too, did the slapstick. The exit from Europe at the hand of the fourth best team in Luxembourg was a mortification that he was fortunate to survive. In the programme notes for the fateful second leg against Progres Niederkorn it was obvious that the Luxembourg part-timers gave themselves zero chance of winning. "It's virtually certain that Rangers will go through," they wrote. "Rangers FC are just too strong."
Not any more. Niederkorn won 2-0. Their first European victory.
Caixinha's demise was now set in motion and as the weeks and months went on those news conferences became all the stranger. He fell into rows with all sorts of people - McInnes, Neil Lennon, Michael O'Halloran, Kenny Miller, Stephen Robinson. He lectured Alfredo Morelos on the importance of keeping his cool in the first Old Firm match of the season and ended up practically challenging Scott Brown to a fight on the touchline.
He had lost control, if he ever had it to begin with. "The vampires taste the flavour of the blood and they want more," he remarked when asked about the pressure he was under. "They like the way the blood tastes."
When he fell out with Miller, he said he wouldn't divulge what had gone on between them despite multiple leaks from his dressing room. "Have some of you been to Las Vegas? Yes? OK, did you tell your wife everything that happened when you left Las Vegas? But some guys are going and telling everything to their wife."
It had to stop. Millions of pounds had been spent and there was no progress and no authority. After getting suckered by Kilmarnock at Ibrox on Wednesday, Caixinha said he was hurting more than any fan. "I'm blue inside." That shtick had worn thin by then, not before time.
The board are now left with a mess of their own making. A manager and three coaches to pay off, a squad full of expensive, and failing, recruits, and a support to appease. Dave King is the chairman but he's largely an absentee. Who's actually running Rangers? It's a question we have been asking for years.
McInnes is the new favourite to succeed Caixinha. He should have been approached the last time, but it's likely they will contact him this time, presuming that reality has dawned on those who make these decisions at Ibrox. So much is wrong on and off the pitch there that McInnes saying yes is by no means a formality.
Even before Caixinha there was a huge job to be done. In his wake, the challenge is even bigger than before.