RANGERS have won the race for highly-rated 16-year-old Zak Lovelace.

The forward will trade The Den for Ibrox this summer after months of speculation. Having made his Championship debut at the age of 15, coming off the bench against Coventry in December, Lovelace is a player who boasts real potential and his acquisition represents a smart piece of business.

A number of Premier League outfits had been credited with having an interest in the attacker, including Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City.

But as revealed by the Rangers Review yesterday morning, Lovelace will head north of the border when his contract in London expires at the end of the month.

Who is Lovelace?

Having scored an impressive number of goals at youth level, Lovelace was handed his opportunity by Gary Rowett aged just 15, after a Covid-19 outbreak decimated Millwall’s squad before a 1-0 win over Coventry in December 2021.

“Of course at the end the little icing on the cake was to bring Zak on. I could’ve made it easy and brought a senior player on, but I just thought he’s deserved it,” Rowett said.

“Now we’ve seen Zak, the second-youngest player ever for Millwall. I don’t know who the youngest was, he must’ve been about 14! We had to get him out of school, he was doing his homework on the way up in the car.

“It topped off a fabulous three points. As a club the only way we can get someone of that sort of value is to produce them ourselves, produce a pathway, and maybe accept sometimes we may lose a game by trying to do it. But long term hopefully we’ll be stronger.

Lovelace would go onto make a further four appearances for the side before the end of the season, but his lack of gametime isn’t cause for concern.

“He’s been excellent in training,” Rowett said in March of this year.

“It’s a difficult one in games like this when you’ve got to find a goal with 15 minutes to go. I think it’s hard to look to a 16-year-old to be the one to bring you back in when there are senior players on the bench with that experience.

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“But what he has done in training has shown that he is going to be a very good player for us. All these little experiences will make him a better player in the next 12-18 months.”

How can Rangers sign him?

Rangers will only be due Millwall compensation for the signing of Lovelace because of cross-border rules, which allowed Ross Wilson and Steven Gerrard to sign Calvin Bassey for £230,000 in the summer of 2020.

Head of Academy Craig Mulholland spoke about “exploiting” this model earlier this month on RangersTV.

He said: “I think we will always have interest in our players from down south. At times, we accept that those guys will move on to EPL or other leagues.

“But, at the same time, our own recruitment team, headed by David Stevenson, have done a fantastic job and this summer will see a lot of recruitment come the other way using the Fifa cross-border model to make sure we exploit that as well.

“It used to be that players in the academy came through and stayed with the club all the way through, that won’t always be the case now.

“Even in youth football, with the change in Brexit rules, change in Fifa regulations, means the player trading piece becomes more important.

“Rangers can not only be a club that wins, and that is always what we need to be about, but actually we can go and develop talent for a return on the investment as well.”

Rowett had addressed the possibility of losing Lovelace last season, outlining Millwall's efforts to keep him at the club.

“The club have made it clear that we would love Zak to be part of what we do next year and on a full-time basis,” the manager said.

“There is an inevitability, unfortunately, that some of your better young players get poached by other clubs. To a certain degree, those fees are a little bit out of your hands.

“For those types of players there is a structure in place with the likes of Premier League teams or other teams trying to sign those players.

“Until they have signed professional contracts you are always open to them coming in and pinching them, like they have with some of the other youngsters that have been well-documented over the years."

What type of player is he?

We can’t learn all that much from Lovelace’s first-team appearances. Millwall play a direct brand of football that doesn't appear all that suited to the youngster upon first viewing. 

Additionally, given he didn’t make a start for Rowett’s side, his minutes usually arrived when his team were chasing a goal or protecting a lead.

Given his goalscoring record of 19 goals in 21 youth games prior to a debut at first-team level, we can assume that the forward is an impressive finisher. While boasting sufficient ability to play in the Championship before the age of 16 demonstrates his quality.

His manager highlighted two areas of the attacker's game after his debut when speaking to the press.

He said: “He chased someone about 50 yards, he’s absolutely lightning by the way. He didn’t have to do that and I said before he came on, if you run back and make a tackle that might be just as important as getting us up the pitch.”

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There are brief dashes of quality evident in his professional outings, here he displays that pace his manager references to break the line.

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And intelligent defensive contributions from the front are also visible in all his appearances.

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It remains to be seen what level of involvement Lovelace will have in the Ibrox first-team next year.

But, in signing a 16-year-old already capable of playing men’s football before he has reached his development peak, Rangers look to have secured themselves a bargain.