Exclusive - Ross Wilson has emerged as one of the most respected and revered sporting directors in Europe in recent years.
Wilson arrived at Rangers in 2019, when the now Scottish champions finally managed to persuade him to leave Premier League Southampton to take charge of footballing matters at Ibrox.
However, Wilson, speaking exclusively with 90min, is very keen early on to emphasise his thoughts on just where he stands at the club. It is little surprise that he plays down his own place in the hierarchy – despite being one of the top men.
“Nobody is more important at this club than the manager, the players and the chairman and investors, and Steven [Gerrard] has to be that front person," Wilson revealed.
“Everything we have wanted to do we have progressed on. The exciting squad, developing our people and the football infrastructure has been an exciting challenge. Steven and I go on record as praising Douglas Park and investors, as without them we couldn’t do it. The club has needed a lot of investment to get to where we have taken it to.
“Steven and I apply a lot of energy to this and we take it as a personal challenge to make the club as successful as we can. On his appointment, Steven surrounded himself with some excellent operators who all make a big contribution every day. It’s a strong team we have - Gary McAllister, Michael Beale, Tom Culshaw, Colin Stewart, Jordan Milsom and Scott Mason.
Wilson – having been with Falkirk, Watford, Huddersfield and Southampton before arriving back in his homeland with Rangers – has built up an identity, not just in the UK, but in Europe of being one of the most educated minds when it comes to football recruitment and the philosophy surrounding it.
He explains: “Scouting and recruitment is so important in our roles, and I won’t ever play that down. But I go further and see my job as being so much more than that.
"As sporting director, I see it as my responsibility to drive the constant development of the football structure. It is having a really, really clear identity and having a clear understanding of the vision and the plan – everyone pulling in the same direction knowing what the aim is. At Rangers we are continuing to progress, and these ideas change and adapt to the context of the club.
“Every decision you make and take should be done with the vision that you are going to be at the club for a long time, whether you are in it for a year or 10 years - the club is more important than any individual. I am totally clear on that, especially at an institution like Rangers.”
Upon his arrival at Rangers in 2019, Gerrard was already in place, having been appointed 12 months earlier. Wilson confirms that there had to be something between him and the boss from the off, otherwise it’s a difficult job.
“Me coming here was not a worry as before taking the job I made sure I had met Stevie," he continued. "I was so happy at Southampton and one of the reasons was my relationship with Ralph Hassenhuttl, who become a very close friend of mine and still is. I wouldn’t have left my relationship with him for something that I thought wouldn’t work.
"Steven is a world class communicator; you know where you stand and I had no doubt where we stood as a pair."- Ross Wilson on Steven Gerrard
"As soon as I met Stevie, within five minutes of meeting him I knew we would get on great, and I don’t mean that tongue in cheek. I knew we would have that relationship. Steven is a world class communicator; you know where you stand and I had no doubt where we stood as a pair.”
Not long into the tenure and Gerrard is already being linked with moves to some big clubs, and is considered by many the natural successor to Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. However, that is not a worry to Rangers.
“Stevie was one of greatest players of his generation and is an outstanding manager. He handles everything that comes with a massive club like this so well – we can see that already, he is an outstanding communicator. We speak every day, whether inside the club or out, and in terms of our future plans, our relationship is so strong and there are never any surprises.”
The links with Gerrard have come through the success of the club. But Wilson firmly believes the giant that is Rangers Football Club is back where it belongs - as one of the biggest clubs in the UK.
“This is an exciting place to be and by becoming a winning Rangers, this is a difficult club to leave for anyone. You leave behind 50,000 fans, regular European football and a very exciting team. If anyone leaves Rangers it has to be for someone exciting or a new challenge, as there are few who match this club in terms of its size.
“Selling players is normal, but we don’t have that big a track record at the moment - we are probably only coming back to that level now. We now have a talented team and this is a connected squad; this group are so close and are genuinely mates, they have fitted in like a glove. Yes, people will try and entice them, and we have rejected some big offers for players in each of my summer windows here, but the time will come when players do leave. And when it does we will move on to the next player and embrace that freshness.
“The chairman and the board are so intent on taking the club to back where we want to be. We are delighted to have won the 55th title in in our history - it was such a significant one for the fans and the club."
Looking at Rangers now, it would seem that Wilson’s decision to join the club from Southampton was clear cut and an easy one. But that isn't the case – as Wilson rejected them before back in 2017.
He explains: “I had declined Rangers before and that was difficult as I knew at some stage it was an opportunity at a club that I wanted to test myself at. The reason I didn’t was that I was so happy at Southampton and I had no reason to leave. I loved the people I worked with, my own staff, Martin Semmens the CEO is a personal friend, and I really enjoyed the city and the club. But I knew in my head that if the opportunity came again that as a Scotsman I did want to do it.
"The club had just had the most difficult period in their history and I thought, can I go there and help? Can I help Steven Gerrard? Can I help make them a force in Europe again? I knew most of the main players on the board and I felt I could have a strong connection with them.
“Now we are joining up a clear plan and strategy. I knew I was joining a special club, but wanted to help develop it to be one with modern infrastructure. Obviously I never had a crystal ball, but it has been a great two years.”
Wilson firmly believes in himself and he admits that the principles he has picked up throughout his career are firmly entrenched in his footballing beliefs to this day.
“You have to change throughout, adapt and reflect what you're thinking. Yes your principles inside stay the same, but you have to keeping adapting. We have built a modern infrastructure here, we have built up many things such as analytics in data and analysis across different areas - but we are always building. I am not saying you rip it up and start again, but it is a constant evolution and we are certainly not where I want us to be yet.
“We are building a really strong recruitment and scouting team here. Andy Scoulding is someone I inherited when I came in and I am enjoying working with him. Some scouts moved with me from Southampton and we are developing a modern scouting team – across people, information, video and data intelligence.
"We have to be connected to the market as I didn’t feel that Rangers were before I came here. I spoke to a lot of leading agents in UK and Europe when I was making my mind up and one of the common themes was that they didn’t feel connected and that is a key part of recruiting. You have to be connected to the market.”
And Wilson is not just connected to the transfer market. Across his career he has developed connections that reach the depth and breadth of British football.
It all started for him as a fan of his hometown club Falkirk, and as he explains, one thing literally led to another.
“Falkirk was my hometown club and was brilliant to work there, we made the academy successful, played in Europe for the first time and had the longest period in the club's history in the Premier League, it was great. John Hughes and Brian Rice were the duo in charge and I learned so much from them, and to get where we did was fantastic for me as a young man.
“For more than 50% of my time it didn’t even feel like work. And though it took a while for it to sink in, it was a pleasure to work seven days a week; it made me proud and obviously that opened the door for me.
“I first realised that this was my career when John Hughes offered me the chance to move to Hibernian with him. I had sleepless night about telling him I would not go, and around the same time I also turned down Celtic under John Park. That was difficult as John is someone I'm close to, and he was one of the most respected people in Scottish football who had previously given me so much of his time and has been a friend and a confidante to me.”
But soon Wilson was to leave Falkirk, as his journey through England began, from Hertfordshire, to Yorkshire to Dorset.
“Suddenly a call from Watford and a call from Julian Winter came in. The move down south was something I wanted to do. It came out of the blue and they gave me so much. Nick Cox, academy manager at Manchester United, was there and we became so close as we managed to drive things, but I formed so many good relationships. And it was great to help give Sean Dyche his first chance in management – it was great for me, and helped me carve out a reputation for myself.”
After cutting his teeth in England at Watford, Wilson was offered the huge chance of becoming sporting director at Huddersfield - which was something of landmark appointment at the time.
“When I was approached by Huddersfield, we knew that footballing ideas had moved on and the one thing that I thought was that they were a great fit. They wanted an idea to be put in place, a clear structure and strategy – they had an idea that they wanted to be a sustainable Championship club over three years. They wanted to become that modern Championship club that can be progressive, and one who can then build on that and challenge for promotion to the Premier League. It was an exciting aim as it was on the back of more than a decade in Leagues One and Two, but we achieved what we wanted.”
Wilson admits he is still very proud of some the business done during his time with the Terriers, particularly future England defender Conor Coady.
" I look back very fondly on him maturing as a man and seeing what he has done to now be captain at Wolves and play for England."- Ross Wilson on Conor Coady
“We were able to build and develop players, and being able to trade from that. The one that I always look back on was Conor Coady, who we signed for a few hundred grand and sold him for a few million. It was a great to sign a player who was not just developing on the field, but was a wonderful person off it - and I look back very fondly on him maturing as a man and seeing what he has done to now be captain at Wolves and play for England. We also had Philip Billing joining us for a few thousand pounds from Esbjerg also being sold for millions.”
Many now point to Norwich’s Stuart Webber as the most highly-rated sporting director in England, therefore is it little surprise that he has close ties to Wilson.
“That was a great period for me, and I was fortunate they asked me who I thought should come in to replace me. I was delighted I could recommend Stuart Webber, and to be able to leave for Southampton and leave it in his hands was great.
“There were not many clubs that I would have left Huddersfield for at the time but Southampton are one of the best clubs in the country.
“I have been very fortunate in my career. All the jobs I've done I think I have achieved some success, but I have been very lucky that I have very good people around me. Clearly there have been decisions I have been part of that with hindsight I'd have contributed to differently, but that’s part of making decisions. We won’t get them all right as a group.
"I totally respect that someone can have one opportunity in football and it can be a disaster through no fault of their own; being the wrong club or wrong time or wrong people. But I feel I have always been surrounded by good people, no more so than Dean Hoyle at Huddersfield. I could not have the courage of my convictions if I didn’t have those people around me.
“When I was at Southampton, I was so lucky. I honestly didn’t have a bad day working with Les Reed, the different managers, the staff and top characters like Kelvin Davis; brilliant professionals who are outstanding operators in their fields. It was a great place to work and again I wasn’t looking to leave, and it was just the offer from Rangers was one I couldn’t say no to this time. I still watch every Southampton game when I can – they are in my calendar for every game and I speak to the people there nearly every day.
Whilst at Southampton, Wilson worked on a deal that many still give him huge praise for. The signing of Virgil van Dijk – who has since emerged as one of the world’s best defenders - was struck by Wilson and the Saints for less than £15m from Celtic.
“I always play it down on Virgil van Dijk, it was a genuine no brainer for us. I wasn’t surprised we could get him, there was competition for him but I was probably a bit surprised there wasn’t more interest if anything,” he explained.
“He was brilliant and made a fantastic impact on the club, but Virgil van Dijk is someone I have a huge amount of respect for and I was delighted he made such an impact. It did help having Ronald Koeman, no question about that.”
Danny Ings went on to become a Saints talisman before moving to Aston Villa this summer, and Wilson drove his signing despite a difficult injury record at Liverpool.
“Danny was an important signing for us – I know there were doubts when we signed him – but Dan had a point to prove, he was hungry and he would score goals for us. A brilliant person and one of those lads that just deserves to do well in life.”
Off the field and Wilson is full of ideas and is being kept busy at every turn, with things like politics and pandemics.
“Brexit for us is still a moving feast, it is different here than in England but we are heading in the same direction. We just have to be flexible to adapt to a changing climate, but we don’t have to worry or panic as we can adapt.
“You have to be on your toes at this club. This job requires a lot of energy because the club is so big, it has so much energy around it – you have to be switched on as it feels like something happens every day! We have to come through so much from transfers to a pandemic. We have managed it well but that just proves there is a never a dull moment.”
Despite the already huge workload, Wilson admits that he still likes to get his hands dirty at the coal face: “Whether it is scouting, medical or academy, I like being hands-on. That is how I work - I have brilliant people and they make it easy for me.
"I'm not sure my staff enjoy it, but I love the detail and to help drive them every day. In the same way I speak to Steven Gerrard constantly, I am also constantly engaged with Craig Mulholland, our academy manager, in amongst the many calls from agents.”
Wilson has also been creating waves by working with Mulholland in introducing B Teams into British football – B Teams who actually play in a competitive league aside from their first team.
A common occurrence for years in Spain, Holland and Germany, this season has seen Rangers and Celtic play B Teams in the Lowland League, which is the fifth tier of Scottish football.
“The B Team is something I wanted to introduce when I arrived here," Wilson continued. "I wanted to connect the top of the academy much more closely to the first team in terms of the identity and how we want to play, bringing in real development. We have good staff and we now utilise the excellent expertise of Michael Beale so much more in our player development ideas. I am energised in all of my conversations with Michael.
“We are Scottish champions at Under-18 level and we play in Europe with our Under-19s. But we think Scottish football has lacked a development pathway between 18 and 21 - we have been clear on our thoughts and we want to see the authorities here lead with more innovation and drive. We have led the way for our team to be playing in tier five and we don’t care if the average age of the team we play against is 21 or 31, our average age will be 19 or under. It will give them experience to play in front of fans, sold out in our case at times.
“Our aspiration was to get into the league, tier four, with opportunity to get to tier three and that is our ambition. We fundamentally think that is right for Scottish football and it is happening all over Europe in places like Belgium, Holland and Spain, and we think this has to be brought in for Scottish football. We are very appreciative of being in tier five.
“We are trying to break down the barriers, and believe me they are big barriers - bigger than those in Europe. It is something Rangers have driven. We have led the way on our own, if others want to do it then great – but this is something we want to do.”
One unusual occurrence in many ways is Rangers’ own push for domestic talent, very few youth academies in the UK top flights have so few foreign players.
“We are focused on young British talent and we are developing our youth scouting in England. Yes, we have an eye on other markets but now with Brexit, Britain is the fundamental market we are concentrating on."
And as for himself, as one of the men at the forefront of recruitment in England, it is not surprising to see his name linked elsewhere. But Wilson does not engage in such talk.
“The way my career has gone, and working at Rangers you don’t have a chance to think about yourself. You just have to do as good a job as you can and whatever comes in the future comes.”