“During those three days, I literally couldn’t sleep. Just because I wanted to know what the future held.”

Ianis Hagi is reflecting on a moment, a tackle, an injury. A coming together in a Scottish Cup tie with part-time outfit Stirling Albion that would rule him out of action for a year. The presiding feeling in the days that followed was not physical pain but mental, as the severity of his knee injury emerged.

“Every phone call I was getting from the doctor, the news was worse as different specialists reviewed my scans. That was the worst part, the uncertainty. You can’t just be on the surgery bed the next day, you have to be certain of the issue.”

It wasn’t just his ACL, Hagi had also injured the collateral ligament and faced up to a year on the sidelines, unable to do what he loves the most.

Now, 12 months on, the Romanian is in Michael Beale's squad for the visit of St Johnstone tomorrow.

Hagi sat down with the Rangers Review to discuss his injury, recovery and career. Detailing the diagnosis stage, time spent away from the pitch, a love for Ibrox, his best position, the Road to Seville, working under Beale, analysing Rangers matches with his father Gheorghe Hagi and why an obsession with winning was the main reason behind a contract extension.

This is the story of Ianis Hagi’s Rangers career, injury and return. Told in his own words.

Hagi is sitting in the canteen at Rangers’ training centre, situated in the leafy suburb of Milngavie. The temperature is cold but not out of place in any of Scotland’s seasons, the building quiet with Hagi’s teammates having just departed for a match the following day.

He’s relaxed, reflective and nearing the end of a long journey with January bookmarked as his scheduled return to first-team action. The solitude of this scene is a reminder of what life is like for injured footballers. They remain involved and yet cannot be fully immersed in the action. Their injury prevents them from fulfilling the very role that they’re paid to do.

“It has been a long journey but it’s good to be in this position now,” Hagi says confidently.

“The worst part of my injury was not being able to physically kick a football for months. I missed the details that make you fall in love with the game so much. Especially given the type of player I am, not being able to touch the ball and be out on the grass has been difficult.

“Working back from an injury you go back to practising the passes you made as a kid, working on both feet as I’ve done all of my life. It’s mind-blowing. The injury and impact on my knee meant I had to take my recovery step by step."

That injury he suffered came in the opening minutes of a routine cup win on the 21st of January last year.

Hagi, playing as a No.8, dropped deep to receive a pass from Leon Balogun with his back to goal, taking the ball on his right foot and spinning away using his left before finding Cedric Itten and continuing a run in behind the visiting defence. Itten’s flick was headed forwards by James Tavernier but as Hagi moved his right leg towards the ball it forcefully collided with Jordan McGregor. The impact looked serious, confirmed by Hagi’s head nestling painfully in the Ibrox turf. His hands only broke from a clutch around the damaged knee to signal for medical attention.

After being helped to his feet, stretching his leg and walking around the pitch, a substitution felt precautionary. Hagi, like the rest of Ibrox, had no idea that his turn away from pressure and run beyond the defence was the last action he’d see in 2022.

“Exactly,” he says when the Rangers Review suggests his walking off the pitch made a serious injury feel unlikely.

“It was just a big knock. I didn’t hear any pop, nothing that would worry me. My head was to get back into the game. I walked around the pitch, trying to move my knee.

“I don’t know if you remember, I had an ankle injury on the first day of that season against Livingston and the impact and sensation I had throughout my body on that day was the same. But it just didn’t feel right and I wanted to know what it was.”

Cue the bad news. Hagi says the wait for scan results “killed him”. Throughout a 40-minute long conversation with the Rangers Review, he approaches the topic of setbacks with an introspection few footballers visibly communicate. The 24-year-old clearly possesses a strong mental framework which enabled him to accept the reality of his injury and move forward once closure was provided. The intervening period was, by his own admission, the most challenging faced.

“I think the worst part was between the day I got injured and the day I was in London and the surgeon told me how long I will be out for. It was the uncertainty,” he continues. "’Do I have to do surgery, ok let’s do it and get on with it because I have a journey to get back to’. I don’t mind that journey because at the end of the day, it’s part of your path, it’s part of your career and you have to accept it. You can’t just feel sorry for yourself. I just wanted to know what was the problem and they couldn’t give me a proper answer for three days because that’s the process.

“The moment the surgeon told me ‘this is what you have, this is how long you’ll be out for’, I was relieved.

“The support I received was from all angles, from everyone at the club. My family were unbelievable and I won’t take that for granted ever in my life. In my lowest moment, they were there for me.”

Rangers Review:

And then, the recovery. Hagi, a speaker of six languages, decided if he couldn’t improve on the pitch, he’d improve off of it. Describing himself as "obsessed" with self-development, the midfielder worked to sharpen his footballing mind while activity on the pitch wasn’t possible. With a little help from Romanian footballing icon, Farul Constanta manager and father Gheorghe Hagi.

“I tried learning a new language, tried to understand different aspects of football, the coaching, ideas and how to look at things from a different angle,” he adds.

“As a player individually, you always want your best. Then if you look from a coaching side you’re trying to see what the team need and understand that angle and the tactical side. I’m always talking about what I can improve in my game with my father and during my injury it’s gone the other way.

“I’ve been asking him about his tactical decisions as a manager. Why he made a formation change or a certain substitution in a match. We also analyse some Rangers games together, discussing different formations and tactical details. I remember specifically going over the approach away from home against Dortmund. Having a better understanding of a coach's mind should develop my own football brain.”

Hagi comes alive talking about football and when the topic of his best position is raised, the answer is loaded with detail. Equally strong on either foot, able to carve open defences and create for his teammates, he’s been fielded in multiple roles. During the 2020/21 league campaign, no player averaged a higher xA (expected assist) tally at the club per 90 (0.25).

“I don’t only look at the main stats like goals and assists when I’m analysing my game, but pass percentage, through passes, shots per game to try and improve,” Hagi says.

“I remember in the season we won 55 I had a month in November when I came out of the team and couldn’t understand why. I’d had a run of consistent goal contributions and needed to understand why I wasn’t playing. I had different conversations with the staff and they highlighted the need for me to be more mature on the ball. My pass completion rate had been at around 75 percent and needed to get up to 80 percent.

Rangers Review:

“I wasn’t being told ‘don’t take risks’, because it is my job to create, but I needed to understand when to pick my moments, I needed to develop my understanding of the game. I came back into the team in December and scored against Lech Poznan away, then the winners against Hibs and St Johnstone.

“Goals and assists are the most important things, of course, but I came back into the team because I nudged up my passing completion stats by five percent. People don’t see that type of thing.

“Another example came at the start of last season. I worked on an individual programme to try and play the No.8 position consistently. I remember against Alashkert when we went down to 10 men, I’d normally expect to be the one substituted in that scenario. Because I was physically in such good shape, Steven Gerrard kept me on as a No.8. I got man of the match and ran the most.

“For me as a player, I’m more focused on my role than my position. If you play me out wide and tell me to run the line and beat players one-v-one all game, I don’t have that quality. Ok. there are times when I will run behind and read the game but my quality is not running on the side. Earlier in my career, I played as a false No.9 in Romania and although my goal-tally wasn’t high I created lots of opportunities. It’s important for me that I know my role and my team knows my role.”

The Romanian’s injury lay-off coincided with the Road to Seville, a European run that will stand the test of time in Rangers’ illustrious history. Giovanni van Bronckhrost’s tactical tinkering, the power of Ibrox and a belief that swept over the club proved all-encompassing during an intoxicating few months. It paved the way beyond Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade, Braga and RB Leipzig, to penalty kicks in the final.

“You want to be involved but you’re stupid if you’re not happy for the team. Every player put an imprint on that run. I did my duty in the group stage, keeping the team’s chances of going through alive,” he adds with a nod to his equaliser scored against Brondby on matchday four, preventing an early group stage exit.

“I was so happy for the boys because I know how much work goes in. Being in a European final, not everyone can talk about that at the end of their career. If you don’t believe you can do something it’s impossible. Once you get to the knockout stages every single team is good, it’s just about who believes and trusts the tactics more, who believes they can go and win it.

“I remember the season before we got to the Round of 16 against Prague, I was speaking with Kemar [Roofe] saying ‘why wouldn’t we just go all the way’? You get to a certain point where it’s just two or three games to go, it’s not 10 or 15 matches, it’s about believing. Plus we have a big advantage compared to any team in Europe - Ibrox. It’s a fortress. It’s so hard in Europe to lose a home game because of the fans. The history, everything together, it’s hard to comprehend. I’ve got goosebumps just talking about it now.”

At this point, Hagi’s eyes leave the conversation for just a second. The topic of Ibrox conjures up memories that demand his attention. None more than that double against Braga during an earlier European run, which came just weeks after he joined the club on loan from Genk.

“I think every continent has one stadium like this, but that’s it. You can number them on your fingers, stadiums like this in the world. I can’t describe the energy, it’s unique. Any time I think about Ibrox, I just fell in love,” he continues as if talking about a passion project.

“That game against Braga was a happy moment. It came just two months after Genk had left me out of the squad for a league game. I used it as motivation to improve even more. I was on the training pitch extra, practising every type of finish. The first goal against Braga that night was a move I’d been exercising all those months on the training pitch.

“When I first got the phone call about Rangers my father told me it was a no-brainer. We had another option but he didn’t even listen to it. He said it was up to me but for him, it was a no-brainer.”

Three years on from that initial loan spell, Hagi signed a contract extension at Ibrox last month. Clearly happy in Glasgow, the returning Michael Beale represents a manager who can harness his abilities.

Beale wants his attackers playing closer together on the pitch, combining frequently and working in tandem with one another. Van Bronckhorst’s attacking plan felt more individualistic and to this observer, less suited to Hagi’s qualities. The early performances of Ryan Kent and Malik Tillman under Beale within the context of this season give optimism to the opinion that Hagi can thrive in this Rangers side.

The new manager is not just a fan of Hagi due to his footballing ability. Speaking recently at a press conference he admitted the Romanian was one of a select few players with whom he retained contact after leaving the club late last year.

Beale said: “He’s a fantastic talent and lovely young boy and has everything you’d like about someone. If he was your son you’d be so proud of him."

Hagi looks surprised but clearly appreciative when that quote is put to him.

“Yeah? I hadn’t heard that. He’s a manager who gives freedom to his players. Getting to work again with Michael is fantastic because he understands football and what it takes to be a winner. That’s everything I am chasing. It’s a hard football though. Players have to be intelligent and understand the game but it’s very exciting.”

The maturity and perspective Hagi speaks with when detailing his year-long journey back from injury is testament to his character and telling of his mindset. As an individual he’s engaging and as a football observer obsessed. Before the recording ends there’s time for a chat about that weekend’s mammoth World Cup final. Just like the rest of us, he wanted Messi to win.

The final question posed is met with the interview’s shortest answer. Why the new deal? “For me it was simple, I want to win and that’s what Rangers live for,” Hagi says shortly, realising his sentence has communicated all he wants to say.

Getting back on the pitch is the start of another journey for the midfielder. His next step will be finding top form and that could well take time. When in that place Rangers will be better for it and, despite his sunny outlook on a cloudy year, you expect Hagi will be too.