Tommy Wilson felt the relentless demands of being a winner at Rangers weighing on his shoulders throughout every day of seven testing years in the Ibrox Academy.

He thought he’d relish a break from that pressure-cooker environment when he was given the chance of an American Dream escape from the financial turmoil of the Craig Whyte era nine years ago.

Yet, sitting down in the hub of Philadelphia Union’s superb training complex, Wilson admits he has created a mirror-image mentality at the forward-thinking Major League Soccer franchise.

At the age of 61, former Scotland Under-19s boss Wilson is at the top of his game in the States.

Union’s Academy is rated No.1 in America and they have reared assets like £25million Leeds United midfielder Brenden Aaronson amidst a conveyor belt of talent that is produced in a unique football environment fashioned by the shrewd Scot.

Tommy confesses: “As time moved on in my days at Rangers I took the reserve team and if you lost two matches in a row the legendary kitman Jimmy Bell would be glowering at you in the corridor and you’d be wondering if you had long left in the place!

“It toughens you up that place and it was an uncomfortable environment. When I left I thought I didn’t want to work in that sort of environment anymore but you know what? I have created one here in Philadelphia.

“We are now the No.1 Academy in the States and we are expected to win all of our games, maybe I brought that with me from Rangers. Rangers changes you and how you think as a football man, I know that.”

Rangers Review: Philadelphia Union Academy Director Tommy WilsonPhiladelphia Union Academy Director Tommy Wilson (Image: Rangers Review)

Wilson’s arrival at Rangers coincided with the ill-fated appointment of Paul Le Guen who would see his reputation as one of Europe’s brightest emerging coaching talents shredded in a period of just seven months.

Tommy, ever the passionate student of the game, was keen to learn how the Frenchman approached his process. As it all unravelled, though, he would have little chance.

“I was back in Glasgow recently and I met Ian Durrant and we had a chat,” he adds.

“It took my mind back to how I learned so much from him and Ally McCoist about what it meant to be inside an institution like Rangers. Durranty always said to me: ‘You need balls of steel to work for this club'.

“What he meant when he said that was that you have to realise the magnitude of every game and what they mean to so many people. Paul Le Guen and his staff had no idea what to expect.

READ MORE: 'Most days I think of Walter': David Weir on Smith's Rangers influence

"I remember I asked Paul if the youth coaches could come and watch first-team training and he was fine with it. Then he sidled up to me and said: ‘If they are here they must not have their hands in their pockets’. He had that level of detail.

“I liked Paul and his assistant Yves and it was interesting to see that different approach, he was bringing the players back in after the morning work for 3pm training sessions. That went down like a lead balloon.

“Then he fell out with Barry Ferguson which was not a good idea, it would have been OK if he was winning games and doing that but he wasn’t. It was challenging for us to be going into the Academy at that time, when the first team at Rangers is not winning then the perception is that everything is s*** whatever you are doing.”

Wilson and his former SFA colleague Jimmy Sinclair were highly respected coaching figures with the national body when they moved to Rangers in 2006.

“That Rangers team had eight Scottish internationals in it, players like Danny Wilson, John Fleck, Gordon Durie’s son Scott and other up-and-coming talents,” Wilson continues.

“We went through the season unbeaten and I loved that campaign. We never lost a game and if we weren’t two or three up at half-time then I was wondering what was happening.

Le Guen’s departure left Rangers at a crossroads. David Murray’s experiment with the French coach was branded a failure amidst all the culture clashes and the breakdowns in communication with key players.

Rangers had significant internal injuries, they needed a healer. They turned to the late, great Walter Smith and Tommy will always treasure the time he had with the legendary architect of nine-in-a-row.

He reflects: “When Walter came back for his second spell he brought Kenny McDowall, who was a friend of mine from the SFA, and Ally McCoist with him and things changed immediately.

“Working with Walter was an incredible learning experience, he made me the scout for the big European games. I remember scouting for a clash with Barcelona and being in the office to give my report.

“Walter turned to the coaches Ally, Kenny and Durranty and asked them one by one to name the team they would pick. He looked down the lists and then looked back up at everyone in that way he had. Then he sighed: ‘THREE goals those teams have between them, THREE goals those players have scored all season.

“I ask you gentlemen: ‘How the **** am I supposed to win a game when my team has three goals in it?’

“Such simplicity and he would pick teams with these little tweaks in them, he put chess pieces in the right places. I remember one day before a Champions League game we were doing shadow play and he walked onto the pitch. He moved three players around then walked off and things clicked. It was all simple in his head.

“At Rangers I made the mistake of one day asking him what his coaching philosophy was. When he was Scotland manager he had given me this clear explanation of how his 3-6-1 formation worked in practice.

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“He was brilliant with me sitting and explaining subtle tactical moves within the formation that meant it worked for Scotland. I was filling my notebook. Now we were at a club together and I thought I’d ask again.

“He turned and said to me: ‘My philosophy here? At this place? Are you ****ing stupid? This is Rangers, at this place the philosophy is to find a way to win games. That’s it. End of story.'

"Walter’s greatest quality is that this is a simple game and he kept it simple. Brilliantly.”

Tommy is a true citizen of the football world now, the head of the MLS Technical Director’s group. We are sitting 3300 miles away from the city where we both once shared a weekly five-a-side field at Goals in Shawlands, during hotly contested SFA v The Media matches.

It occurs to me that the feverish surroundings of the place we were both embroiled in back then meant I had never really asked that killer Scottish question. Who do you support?

Tommy grins ruefully and explains: “I was brought up in a mixed family, my mother’s family were mainly Celtic supporters and my dad’s were Rangers. My brother is an Ibrox season ticket holder to this day.

“I grew up playing three games every weekend and I never really had time to go to games but my mates were Partick Thistle fans and if ever I went to a match it was the Jags.

“I guess my family leaned more towards Rangers but I was always playing and I went to Queen’s Park and then St Mirren and Dunfermline.

“I would have loved to play for a club like Rangers but I didn’t make it although I played against them often enough. Yet until you are inside that club you will never realise the size of it.

“Look, I was in charge of the Academy and we’d look at results at the end of every weekend and I remember we had a team that was losing too many games. We had to move quickly to strengthen that Under-14 team immediately because Rangers simply can’t have the embarrassment of losing.

“Those seven years were a huge part of my life but Craig Whyte came in at the tail-end of my time and the club were under financial strain. I didn’t have to leave then but I had the opportunity to come to America and the MLS and I decided to take it.”

That approach came from Philadelphia Union where co-owner Richie Graham oversees his family’s investment in the club.

Graham founded the YSC Academy which is constructed for young players and the American discovered a kindred spirit in the Scot who qualified as an engineer before carving out his career as a footballer.

Together over the guts of the last decade, they have built a superb home for Philly’s developing talents.

The training complex is impressive but what makes this club special is the on-site school alongside it where 85 players from the Under-15, Under-17 and MLS Next squads are educated.

READ MORE: Rangers transfer scouting: Morgan Whittaker's Ibrox profile assessed

Tommy is not the only Scotsman with a Rangers past to be woven into the fabric of Philadelphia Union now. Iain Munro who managed Dunfermline, Dundee, Hamilton Accies, St Mirren and Raith Rovers and spent a season at Ibrox as a player was also hugely influential in the growth of the Academy in its formative years.

He has retired back home in Scotland but leaves behind a plaque at the door of the complex hailing the impact he had on the club. Tommy has carried on his legacy.

Rangers Review: Iain Munro Hall's plaque at the Philadelphia Union Academy Iain Munro Hall's plaque at the Philadelphia Union Academy (Image: Rangers Review)

Wilson took the decision to move his office away from the training ground and into the school so the players understood fully the importance he places on framing them as people as well as players.

The school is a unique place, the national flags of the players hang in the hallway to give them a little taste of home.

Tommy stays in constant touch with the players during their study and football days.

The fruits of his labours have seen the club produce talents like current Leeds United and US Men’s National Team midfielder Aaronson.

Wilson adds: “My boss here said you can stay at Rangers and make five percent of a difference or you can come to this club and change their world.

“It has taken nine years but I feel we have made a significant difference here now. My key highlights are selling players like Brenden to Leeds and Mark McKenzie to Genk in Belgium for a combined £30m.

“I’m proud that they come through our system here to be sold to Europe, play in the Premier League and the Champions League.

“I had Brenden’s dad in the office here once telling me his son was in tears on the car ride home because he wasn’t playing enough. Look at the journey he went on after that and it has been part of my own journey watching the game change in this country.

“The World Cup is coming here in 2026 and if the US gets it right then watch out. All bets are off.”

Rangers Review: National flags at the Philadelphia Union Academy National flags at the Philadelphia Union Academy (Image: Rangers Review)

Rangers will always have a huge place in Wilson’s heart and he is intrigued to see how the next era pans out with Michael Beale in charge.

The new boss has a refreshing honesty and willingness to share his thoughts on the game with coaching colleagues.

And Tommy revealed: “I have met Michael a couple of times and I have done some stuff online with him. I was interested in his philosophy and he is quite happy to share that.”

When Beale took over from Giovanni van Bronckhorst many reckoned a coaching figure with Ibrox experience in the backroom staff would be part of his thinking.

Options like Kelty Hearts title-winning boss Kevin Thomson, who had impressed in his time in the Academy under Steven Gerrard, seemed possible but so far the new gaffer is content with the staff he brought with him from Queen’s Park Rangers.

Beale is in his second spell at Ibrox, of course, but Tommy points out: “When we went in we had figures like John Greig, Sandy Jardine, Ian Durrant and Ally McCoist who let us know what it meant. Every day.

“It’s an institution that club and Michael is in his honeymoon period and they have won games they might have lost.

“Rangers look to me like a club that needed the sort of direction Michael can give them but I believe that in time they do need people who know the club near them.”