A marriage between Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Rangers has delivered mutual benefits once before. Now, almost a quarter of a century on from that first union, there is optimism history may repeat itself.
For Van Bronckhorst the player, moving to Ibrox from Feyenoord in 1998 provided a first taste of a different footballing culture, strengthening him both physically and mentally. It was a crucial propellant in an extraordinary career which encompassed an £8.5million move to Arsenal, Champions League glory with Barcelona and captaining Holland in the 2010 World Cup final.
In return, Rangers benefited from Van Bronckhorst’s midfield poise in the acquisition of five trophies before selling him on for a 70 per cent profit on their initial investment. This was a very much a win-win relationship.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst has been appointed Steven Gerrard’s successor as Rangers boss
The Dutchman (middle) has returned to the Glasgow club where he thrived as a player
Now 46 and returning to frontline management following Thursday’s announcement, the Dutchman again feels Ibrox is the right place for him to thrive. The Rangers board and sporting director Ross Wilson agree. How they fare together in the months ahead will add another absorbing sub-plot to an already fascinating Scottish football season.
Steven Gerrard has gone. But the Premiership leaders have ended up with someone who could trump even the ex-England captain in the medal stakes. Van Bronckhorst’s pedigree on the pitch guarantees respect, yet clearly it’s his coaching and leadership prowess that are now most significant.
Once more, he arrives in Glasgow carrying Feyenoord as the primary presence on his CV. Van Bronckhorst delivered the 2017 Eredivisie title – a first for 18 years – completing a comeback that had seen the Rotterdam club on the brink of bankruptcy seven years earlier.
It was a hugely emotional triumph, sealed by a Dirk Kuyt hat-trick on the final day, and also one attained against the odds. Ajax, whom they pipped to the crown, are very much the financial powerhouse of Dutch football in terms of wage bill expenditure and transfer market power. Feyenoord haven’t finished above third place since.
Flashbacks to those glorious celebrations are triggered by none other than Justin Timberlake. His track – Can’t Stop The Feeling – was picked by Van Bronckhorst for the dressing room, accompanying personal video highlights for each player.
‘If I hear that, it still gives me goosebumps,’ he admitted earlier this year. ‘I think back to that championship match every time.’
Gerrard departed earlier this month to take over Aston Villa in the English Premier League
Van Bronckhorst now hopes to update his playlist with title success at Rangers. He starts that process with a four-point advantage over Celtic. Clearly, his backstory shows the demands of big clubs are second nature to him. Any suggestion of being daunted by the pressure at Ibrox would feel absurd.
He may deal with it all in a slightly different way to his predecessor, though. Van Bronckhorst’s personality is a little more reserved.
Gerrard led Rangers through words as well as actions and could often be brutally honest in public assessments of situations affecting him or his team.
Dutch journalists say Van Bronckhorst tends to be more guarded, something he explained in the month’s leading up to Feyenoord’s title triumph.
‘As a trainer of a big club, you know that you only have to explain one thing wrong and the big headlines appear everywhere on the internet,’ he said.
‘It’s a form of protection that I don’t go into in depth about everything. Protection of myself, but also of my team. I just think very carefully about what I do and what I don’t say. You always have to be on your guard in this position.’
Van Bronckhorst excelled as a manager of Feyenoord and guided them to a Dutch league title
Capped 106 times by Holland, Van Bronckhorst finished his playing days back at De Kuip after leaving Barcelona. He then became assistant to both Ronald Koeman and Fred Rutten before taking the reins in the summer of 2015.
Operating with a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 set-up, Feyenoord claimed the KNVB Cup in his first season but finished third in the league – 21 points behind champions PSV Eindhoven. Following up on the title success of his second season proved impossible but another KNVB Cup arrived before Van Bronckhorst decided to step down in 2019. Leading a club he’d first joined as a seven-year-old has been an all-consuming introduction to management.
‘There are trainers who take 20 years to do what I’ve been through in four seasons,’ he once reflected.
Three weeks of travelling around America with wife Marieke and their sons, Joshua and Jake, provided some immediate headspace before his thoughts turned back to coaching. A period was spent studying Pep Guardiola’s methods at Manchester City.
Unlike Gerrard, who was emotional, he is much more reserved when speaking to the media
‘He was very open,’ Van Bronckhorst has said of Guardiola. ‘He talked about the training sessions and I could watch and see everything and talk with his staff.
‘Those are moments you can see him really in action and he is a very special coach. Those months with him in Manchester, I could see a lot of things I didn’t see before and it helped to develop me as a coach.’
England carried an obvious appeal, but China instead became Van Bronckhorst’s next destination when he signed a contract to become head coach of Guangzhou R&F in January 2020. He finished 11th in his only season in charge before quitting last December due to the Covid pandemic.
‘Everything closed very quickly and it meant that I couldn’t see my family there anymore,’ he said earlier this year.
‘I decided then that one season was enough so that I could return to the Netherlands. And now I’m waiting to see if there might be another fun challenge ahead.’
The Dutchman will immediately win respect of players as he looks to push for the league title
Van Bronckhorst has not been idle, though. The work of his foundation, SV Gio, continued during his time out of management.
‘It is an after-school program in which we help children with disadvantages and also want to help them find a social goal they want to work toward,’ he explained in February.
‘For me it was football from an early age, but it is different for every child.
‘We have already helped several thousand children in a few years. They are with us for 16 weeks and at the end of the process they write an essay in which they have to describe their life in 15 years.’
Van Bronckhorst’s life already includes abundant professional success but his hunger for more remains undimmed. Rangers will once again hope to reap the rewards of that ambition.