As head of intermediate academy for just over three years, Mark Spalding knows the Rangers youth set-up like the back of his hand. 

He's familiar with every player, every coach and every blade of grass at the training centre. 

Now Assistant coach at Memphis FC to former Aberdeen manager Stephen Glass, he looks on from afar after leaving Auchenhowie for America in January. 

Since then, there has been sweeping change across the club, not least the departure of long-serving Craig Mulholland and the appointment of 29-year-old Zeb Jacobs as academy director.

Spalding and Jacobs were close across the year they worked together in Milngavie, often continuing the working day into calls on their respective commutes, both men fuelled by a passion for developing elite talent. 

While some might have been taken aback by the club appointing someone in their twenties to such a key role, Spalding has zero doubts about the standard of the individual that’s taken the reins. 

He said: “Was I surprised? Absolutely not. I loved working with Zeb. He brought an enthusiasm and a different way of thinking. An internal appointment is one that makes sense. Zeb knows every single player in the academy, all the staff and how they work. That’s really important but similarly, the fact that he's had an opportunity to assess and see things is significant.  

“He's also got his own ideas. He's astute, he's a thinker. He's somebody who takes best practice from not just football regarding player development. He's got a fantastic relationship with the young players that are in there, particularly the most talented ones.  I think he knows what these guys need in order for them to take the next steps. 

“He can get the best out of everybody. He has a way of working which is all in. Absolutely all in. Everything he does, he's got a buzz, he's got a smile. We used to phone each other. He used to drive to the West End and I would drive back to Stirling and be on the phone for half an hour. All we did is talk about people. What about this one? What about that one? What does he need? Are we giving him everything? It was always exciting.” 

Jacobs arrived in 2021 with a reputation as an innovator in his previous role at Antwerp in Belgium and he’s not been slow to try new things in Scotland.  

Spalding explained: “There were times where we talked about different surfaces to create new challenges. So for instance, you take goals and put them in the car park and play there. It’s to provide different stimuli. You've got to remember they’re kids and they learn in different ways.  

Rangers Review: Mark Spalding with former Ranger Ian Murray Mark Spalding with former Ranger Ian Murray (Image: SNS)

“We went to Croatia with the 2007s and the kids had the day off. We were thinking ‘what are we going to do?‘ We created a tournament that we called ‘Extreme Head Tennis’. It was Padel, so you could play off the backboards, you could play off the side. It's enclosed, tennis in a box. The kids loved it. So again, taking different sports, different ideas.  

“One of the things I liked Zeb introduced was attention switches. So you would do an exercise, you would go away and do something completely different and go back to the same exercise. So it was like switching on, switching off, switching on again. It's like a different challenge.” 

And while many coaches from abroad have come to Scotland and tried to impose their ideas with a ‘my way or the high way’ zeal that chafes our national character, Spalding insists that’s not the Rangers’ academy director’s way. 

“That was one of the things, as a leader, that impressed me about Zeb," he said. "You could say ‘I'm not sure about that because of this’ and the next minute you'll be on the couch, pen at the ready, and he’d be saying, ‘Let's go. Let's chat about it.’

"As a leader, he was really open to hearing other ideas. Not every idea had to be his, nor did he have to be the smartest man in the room. Everybody was contributing. He’s a big one for contribution, whether you're in for an hour a week or you're full-time, everybody has a voice. Everybody sees something. And it gave you the platform to feel comfortable in actually saying ‘Could we try this? Could we try that?’ Nothing was taboo if it had a thought behind it.  

“Zeb is open-minded and he’s also taken real care to understand Scotland the best he can. It's not about him trying to replicate what Belgium does. He can't. It's impossible. Scotland's different, you know? 

"Rangers are built on a tradition and have certain ways that you do things. And it's important that you be progressive but within those traditions. Zeb has understood that over his time. That 18 months that he's been in has allowed him to grasp that, you know, get that feel for the club. To get that understanding of what it's like at Rangers and then see where he can push the boundaries.

"Going back to that bit about reflection and Zeb's relationship with the staff, you've got numerous guys with a variety of different experiences that he can bounce off. So when we talk about innovation, Zeb drives the innovation, but the innovation doesn't always come from him. It comes from people within the building as well.  

“There's a really good mix of a variety of different experiences, guys that have played the game, guys who have taken different routes of coming to Rangers and that can add to that kind of innovation melting pot and ensure that Rangers keep being forward-thinking.

"One of the things I learned from Zeb, is understanding what boundaries in Scotland you can push and what ones take longer. Some have to be a little bit more subtle, some have to be much more radical.

"One of the things I would say about Zeb is he has phenomenal emotional intelligence. He can read a room and build relationships. I think that becomes really, really important. Take away his knowledge - emotional intelligence is probably his greatest asset because he can build relationships, understand situations and read rooms really well. That means he can start to affect change through relationships and not just innovation."