Particularly in his second spell, Walter Smith really had an eye for a defender. He signed numerous superb stoppers on his return to Ibrox, such as the talismanic David Weir, the effective cog that was Ugo Ehiogu, then the likes of Carlos Cuellar and Madjid Bougherra, and later, Kyle Bartley. Of course, every manager makes an error or two and this blog is not going to be so flippant as to ‘forget’ Andy Webster. Quite what occurred behind the scenes regarding that player is anyone’s guess.
Regardless, Smith’s track record for defenders was near-perfect, and when he handed over the Rangers reigns to successor Ally McCoist, there was absolutely no guarantee the pretender to the throne would possess the same acute ability to snap up a top class defender for a princely sum.
When Rangers announced the re-signing on loan of Arsenal youngster Bartley (who had originally been a loan deal from the Gunners), McCoist had certainly shown fans that the potential was there for him to emulate his predecessor. Two more significant defensive signings followed, Romanian Dorin Goian from Italian side Palermo, and perhaps the ‘biggest’ signing made during last summer’s transfer window, that of USA captain Carlos Bocanegra from French outfit Saint-Étienne.
|Bocanegra unveiled at St Étienne in 2010.|
The latter signing was by no means heralded in any mass grandeur, but here was a highly experienced international with vast experience of the English Premier League from his time at Fulham for whom he appeared on 115 occasions and even chipped in with some goals.
Bocanegra also enjoyed a rewarding period at Rennes (64 appearances), before making his way to Saint-Étienne where he remained for a single season before Rangers snapped him up for an undisclosed fee rumoured to be in the region of £500,000. Indeed, Bocanegra had been enjoying his time in Ligue 1 and the switch to Rangers came as something of a surprise to him:
“The move came as a bit of a surprise because I had a good situation in France, I was happy there and not looking to leave. Rangers have lots of history, though, and you can’t say no to them.”
Frankly, it was something of a coup for Ally and his team. Here was a top-class US international, with a staggering 100 caps for his country, of whom he was captain, with experience of top leagues such as England and France, and McCoist managed to persuade him to give up the relative opulence of France and its high standard of living for Glasgow.
Bocanegra made his name originally with MLS cracks Chicago Fire, a club he remained at for 4 years – during which time he was Rookie of the Year once and Defender of the Year twice. He was destined for greater things than the American football set up, and indeed Fulham’s then-manager Chris Coleman was one of the first to spot it:
“I have seen Carlos play and I think he has great potential. He reads the game very well and is skilful and strong which are prime attributes for a defender.”
|‘Captain America’ at the 2010 World Cup.|
He enjoyed a fine spell with the Cottagers, but was released by Roy Hodgson 4 years later, deemed surplus to requirements at that stage. It did not take him long to acquire the employment of another top club, and he made his way across the channel to Stade Rennais where manager Guy Lacombe was only too happy to pick up a free transfer of this quality. 2 years later though, after another productive period in his career, he was making his way to Saint-Étienne for a fee of around £400,000 where he was quite content before Ibrox came calling. However, it was not an approach the French side welcomed in the slightest:
“We haven’t received any contact from Rangers. The position of Saint-Étienne is clear. We want to keep Carlos. He is not available for transfer. We have a very young defence and we need Carlos to lead those players. If Rangers were to get in touch, we would tell them he is not for sale.”
His performances since joining Rangers highlight why they did not want to sell. In the aforementioned modern era of Rangers consistently signing great defenders, Bocanegra has more than paid back what minimal fee was spent prising him to Glasgow. As his former manager, Chris Coleman, particularly observed, his reading of the game is absolutely marvellous.
His debut against Maribor was inconspicuous to say the least, given it was a critical CL qualifier, but it did not take the American long after that to feel his way into the side, and his partnership with fellow new signing Goian bloomed wonderfully, with no goals conceded away from home in the SPL until Richard Foster’s speculative drive at Pittodrie was fumbled into the net by Allan McGregor.
Indeed, this partnership forced club captain Weir not only onto the bench, but onto the fringes of the squad. It could be argued Bocanegra is the new Weir, signed at a significantly earlier age of 32. The American, as mentioned, reads the game like a book, and his positional sense resulting from this is pinpoint. He does not engage in the rougher, tougher side of the game which he leaves to Goian, but instead intercepts the ball with ease and appears to be 3 or 4 seconds ahead of everyone else when anticipating an attack.
His use of the ball is also exemplary – his cross-field high ball for Kyle Lafferty in the same game at Pittodrie from which the Ulsterman scored was acute and visionary.
Furthermore, he has already contributed to the side’s goals tally with strikes against Maribor and Inverness, continuing his trend of helping up front as well as in defence.
|Bocanegra scoring against Inverness.|
What stands out about Bocanegra is his intelligence; the way he understands the game, reads it, uses the ball in a smart fashion and uses a sharp sense of timing to make critical interceptions. These are such highly sought-after attributes in a defender that gaining one who possesses them for such a minimal cost really is an extraordinary piece of business. Indeed, with David Weir’s recent departure, many touted the American as new club captain. Instead McCoist awarded it to Steven Davis on a permanent basis, with Bocanegra as vice captain. While the US captain might have been considered prime material for the job, it may have been a bit early in his Ibrox tenure for him to be given the full position.
Nevertheless, Ally McCoist is to be applauded for continuing the Rangers tradition of acquiring exceptionally good defenders. Bocanegra is merely the latest example of that, and indeed at only 32 he could well have many years at Ibrox.