The Rangers Review recently sat down with the vastly-experienced Neil Banfield to discuss his life in football.

During part one of a wide-ranging conversation, Rangers' first-team coach discusses his 21 years working at Arsenal, time spent as Arsene Wenger's first-team coach, spell at QPR, scouting for Steven Gerrard and his journey from knowing Michael Beale as a young player at Charlton to working for him.

In part two, released on Wednesday morning, Banfield dives into the detail of working with Wenger at the elite curve of football and coaching the likes of Mesut Ozil, Robin van Persie, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and more.

Football, like life itself, is by its very nature unpredictable.

Did Neil Banfield expect to end up at Rangers having struggled to get back into football following 21 years at Arsenal? Was the triple bypass he suffered in 2018 close to forcing an early retirement? How likely was it that Michael Beale, who he’d first known as a promising youth player when scouting for Charlton in the early 1990s, would be the man to keep him on at QPR and then latterly offer Banfield a position at Ibrox?

But here he is. After all those years spent in the Gunners' youth system before six as Arsene Wenger’s first-team coach and over three seasons at QPR, Banfield is four months and 20 games into life at Rangers.

He’s worked with an embarrassment of riches and operated at the very elite end of football. Robin Van Persie, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere are just a few of the names brought up in conversation. 

When Beale was handed the keys to his first managerial job last summer, fate had it that Banfield, a contact since those teenage years, was a member of staff inherited. Unsurprisingly Beale saw his experience and expertise as desirable traits to retain.

“I first came across Mick as a 12 or 13 years old. He was a left-winger. Technically really good, coming off the left and playing inside. He was very bright as a footballer even if I can’t remember him too much,” Banfield smiles.

“All throughout my career, I’d been hearing of Mick. His reputation had been growing as a good young coach, then he went to Liverpool, Brazil, Rangers and Aston Villa. We’d cross paths now and again.

“When he got the QPR job he rang me up and asked me to be part of the team and we’ve gone from there.”

Beale and his staff inherited a squad that’d drifted from reaching the Europa League Final and Champions League via an excellent PSV side to recording the worst group stage performance ever, all while limping behind domestically.

Their performance since has been near perfect with 18 wins from a possible 20 although Celtic’s League Cup Final victory still leaves a sour taste. Old Firms are ultimatums in Glasgow and defeats produce scars that only subsequent wins in the fixture will heal.

Banfield is on the self-professed older side of Rangers’ coaching team at 61. Harry Watling is 33, Damian Matthew 52 with 42-year-old Beale completing the generation game. They’ve worked together since the summer and all three followed the manager north after Giovanni van Bronckhorst was dismissed last November.

We’re talking after what’s already been a full day of training and meetings, not that you’d know it. Banfield’s personable and generous with his time, eager to share experiences and chart ambitions. There’s clearly no chore in talking football.

This is a chance for him to catch his breath and gain perspective on years he didn’t foresee after 21 working for Arsenal. A trusted lieutenant of Wenger having headed up the youth department and then the elite Under-23 group before making the jump to first-team coach in 2012. Banfield left alongside the Frenchman in 2018, released into the big, bad world of football’s job-hunting stratosphere.

“When I left it hurt if I’m honest. I found it really hard. But everyone has their shelf life, you have to move on and do something different. That was tricky enough without trying to find another job,” he says.

"Arsene just loved football. He wanted to talk about it all the time. A lot of the periphery stuff got in the way for him I think. He was just a really good football man, so free and giving and always interested in what you were doing.

“I left Arsenal in the summer and then had a triple bypass in September. I was just walking the dog and I had a pain that didn’t feel right. My daughter thought it might be indigestion or something!

“I went straight into the hospital. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with the doctor, they said ‘You’ve got some good news and bad news, there’s nothing wrong with your heart but you’ve got three dodgy veins that have got to come out’.

“Honestly, I broke down a bit. But you get yourself together and you’ve got to have the operation. My daughter was getting married in the summer and Mark Warburton had said to me six or seven months prior, ‘If I get a job you’re in’. Retirement? I was never going to retire.”

“Mark kept his word and the following summer I was at a great club in QPR. Working in the Championship with Mark, Les Ferdinand, Chris Ramsey, it was really enjoyable. Up and down, a bit of a roller coaster.

“I went in thinking of former coaches like Dave Sexton and Terry Venables, I was quite in awe at times. And then coming to Rangers? That’s something I’d never have dreamed of.”

During the intervening period between leaving Arsenal and joining QPR Banfield was, coincidently, scouting for Rangers. He played a key role in identifying Joe Aribo, who arrived at the club in the summer of 2019. It’s another crossed path in a story packed full of them.

“When I was doing my pro-license in 2018, I had one module in September and didn’t have to go to the one after until November,” he adds.

“I had a bypass and then three weeks later was driving to Manchester. I shouldn’t have done it! My wife was going crazy but it just was what it was!

“I walked in and everyone was asking the usual ‘How are you’? I had to say, ‘Well, I’ve had a triple bypass!

“Anyway, it was on my pro-license that I met Steven Gerrard. He said ‘Look, I need someone in the southern area, would you do it?’ I said I’d love to. I was going across Europe, it was progressing really well. I’m not being presumptions but Andy Scoulding did say if nothing had come along I might have got offered a job scouting full-time, which would’ve been great.

“Joe Aribo was one that I went and looked at a few times. They sent me to watch him a few times and they’ve done the rest.”

It’s telling that Banfield has to include a caveat when discussing a potential full-time scouting job. Despite his wealth of experience and reputation, there’s not an ounce of ego about him. He appears genuinely appreciative of each person that’s helped him along the way and eager to return the favour. Humility is scattered right throughout an hour-long conversation.

The prospect of that full-time job at Rangers arose through different means late last year when Beale was announced as the club’s 18th permanent manager. Having spoken privately and publicly about the potential lure of Ibrox and turning down Wolves, returning was too big to refuse.

“Mick has a great affiliation with the club and loves it up here with his family. He always said if it came about it would be hard for him not to take the job,” Banfield continues.

“Coming back from holiday after the World Cup, we landed at Heathrow and I think Gio had just left. I said to my wife Carol ‘I think we could be on the move’.

“I didn’t know anything at the time, I just put two and two together and it could have come out with 55. How it transpired, Mick was then approached and invited me up with him.”

A hugely popular figure during Gerrard’s tenure, going out on his own last summer before returning to Ibrox was a whole different ball game for Beale.

He told the Rangers Review last summer of feeling “overcooked” as an assistant and “overready” to become a manager. Not content as a coveted assistant, the former Liverpool coach wanted to be a boss in his own right and quickly, he’s dispelled any reservations about that jump to centre stage.

However, his real value and strongest hand remains on the training pitch, that’s what has set him apart in his career to date. “I’ll still be at the front on the training pitch because that’s what I love” was his admission last summer.

READ MORE: The making of Todd Cantwell: Rangers' football-mad maverick's origins

What is it that makes Beale’s coaching excel? Enjoyable sessions, intensity, clarity?

“The enjoyable thing…,” Banfield pauses, unconvinced that word encompasses the whole picture.

“That’s relative because it’s proper work. Everyone can make a session enjoyable but Mick’s sessions are proper work and sometimes that’s not enjoyable.

“He coaches properly, there’s no fluff and it’s right to the point. His attention to detail and vision is very clear. It’s demanding working with him but you’re clear about what you have to do and what he wants to achieve.

“It’s very similar to Arsene, there’s not massive messages but clear instructions. You know where you stand and what you have to get on with.

“There’s a real message in his training. It’s very thoughtful and diligent. He never switches off either, not that I’ve seen. He might have a day and then all of a sudden you get a text and he’s looking at data or something coming through. He’s a football obsessive.”

The desired identity Beale wants from his Rangers side is still being formed. There’s been an undoubted trend in the right direction and flashes of what the future holds that a pre-season will properly facilitate.

For everything the manager desires in possession, there’s an abundance of organisation and hard work behind it. Speaking after a 4-1 win against Hibs recently, the side’s best showing under his tutelage, he traced all of his side’s attacking play back to the “out of possession stuff”.

“His teams are very attractive on the eye, tactically really strong. But it’s steel with style, that’s what Mick says and that’s what he wants his team to look like,” Banfield continues.

“You’ve got to be strong with Michael. I think the players enjoy it but there’s also a steel side. When you haven’t got the ball he sees that as a vital part of being a top team.

“I’ve been very fortunate to play with and against really top teams. When you play against the good teams, you know what they’re going to do with the ball. It’s when they don’t have it and you think ‘Wow’. That gives you your foundations to then attack teams.

“I think there is freedom in his system, you have to give players room to breathe while providing something to fall back on, a base to work from. Within that framework, you’ve got to think for yourself and be intelligent footballers. When the picture changes you’ve got to be able to adapt to it. I think his sessions encourage that as well.”

When the word philosophy is raised Banfield turns as quickly to the person as he does the player. His mind does not drift to ambiguous buzzwords, shapes or sizes but to personalities. There’s no self-indulgence, no ‘fluff’.

An old quote from his time at Arsenal detailing the importance of making good people not just good players is put to him and an emphatic yes comes flying back before the sentence ends.

“You try to impact the person as well as the player. That was always my philosophy as an individual.”

And how would those former players he worked with describe him now? “I hope they’d say I tried to help and make them better. I was honest and straight. I will try to make you the best I can.”

Huge success stories from his time at Arsenal like Wilshere and Gnabry are discussed in the same breath as less obvious talents such as Luke Ayling and Steve Sidwell. Banfield’s as excited about Gnabry’s Champions League win, for which he received a commemorative top, as he is Ayling reaching the Premier League.

“When we brought someone into Arsenal we could see a player, not just the club. What we always said is we will try and give them a career. I worked as hard as I could for every player to have a career.”

It takes this writer’s mind back to Beale’s unveiling at Ibrox, where specific focus was placed on how he’d revitalise Ryan Kent. Was it a free role? Less defensive responsibility? More time in the centre? Questions were posed in search of a magic answer but the reply was grounded in reality.

“People think it’s all about tactics but it’s actually about the relationships you have, and the feeling you have towards the other person in that relationship.”

Banfield’s now in a new chapter and relishing each moment. Describing himself as possessing responsibility for driving standards in training, with a specific focus on the back four, his determination to win and develop that’s carried him this far is as clear as ever.

“The intensity of the crowd every home game stands out. The fervour of fans who live and breathe Rangers. You hear about it but it’s not until you sample it that you really feel it.

“I think you look at yourself and how fortuitous you are. I’ve got Arsenal and Glasgow Rangers. Massive clubs.”

It’s a long way from the tumult of 2018. On the training pitch, right in the midst of it. Banfield is where he belongs, continuing a journey with Beale that started long ago.