Despite spending most of his childhood travelling the world with his illustrious father, Ianis Hagi admits he couldn’t help but feel a little starstruck when he received a phone call from the Rangers manager last January.
“Obviously I was really hyped to be speaking to Steven Gerrard,” he remembers. “I just tried to keep cool and ask the right questions to find out where I fitted in his plans. We talked about small tactical details and how he wanted to take the club back to the highest level where they belong. I just fell in love with Rangers.” Six months earlier, Hagi Jr had signed for Belgian side Genk from Viitorul Constanta but was already looking for a new challenge. “It felt like I needed to move on and Rangers were knocking at the door,” he adds.
His instinct to make the move has paid dividends as Gerrard’s side finally ended Rangers’ long wait to be crowned champions after a decade in the wilderness, with Hagi finishing the campaign as the Scottish Premiership’s top creator with 11 assists and scoring seven league goals. While he is not convinced by Scotland’s weather and is just about coming to terms with the Glaswegian accent, the 22-year-old seems thrilled to be developing his game under the former Liverpool midfielder.
“The accent was difficult in the beginning but now I’m starting to understand almost everything. It took me a while but I’m still not using any Scottish phrases like ‘wee’ just yet,” he laughs. “The weather is different compared to what I’m used to – it’s very rainy but the life we have here, playing every three days, you don’t really have time to think about the weather!
“I’ve enjoyed every second of being here because the coaching staff are unbelievable and I’ve grown so much in the past 18 months. It’s a really good environment for a player to grow into because I’m learning about the mentality of winning. Every person at this club pushes you to discover yourself as a player and that has helped me to keep improving.”
Rangers will face Arsenal on Saturday at Ibrox in front of 2,000 supporters in a friendly to mark their 150th anniversary and Hagi admits that Gerrard’s squad are looking forward to building on last season’s success. “It’s amazing because you create bonds with people and you could see how close we all are when we celebrated winning the title,” he says. “It’s been nice but it’s history. Now we are so focused on what we have to achieve next season. Trying to compete in the Champions League and domestically is going to take a massive effort but there is so much hunger in this team and we can’t wait for the season to begin.”
The star pupil of the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy based in Ovidiu in Romania’s far south-eastern corner, Ianis has long been tipped to follow in his legendary father’s footsteps. The man who won 124 caps for his country and played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona was managing Viitorul Constanta when his son made his debut at the age of 16. Yet after moving to Fiorentina a year later and being nominated for the European Golden Boy award, Hagi barely featured and returned to Romania for another 18 months before joining Genk.
“I wouldn’t say it was a setback – in a year and a half I learned so many things,” he says of his time at Fiorentina. “Making the step to Italy at that age was huge for me and it was good to be in a dressing room with 15 international players and train with them every day. The players in my position as No 10 were Mauro Zárate, Federico Bernardeschi and Josip Ilicic, who have all had great careers at a very high level so I learned so much from being around them.
“It was part of my process of being a football player. When I returned to Romania for a year and half, I was the best player in the play-offs for two years in a row so it just shows how much I had improved. By then I felt really mature because of everything I had been through. If you know how to take positives out of anything negative then that’s the most important thing.”
Born in Istanbul in 1998 when his father was playing for Galatasaray, Hagi has already lived in several countries despite his tender years and speaks flawless English. He believes his maturity stems from the experiences that have been passed down the generations.
“I’ve always travelled with my family to different countries because of my father so I have learned to adapt to new environments, new people and a new culture. Coming to Rangers and having an immediate impact shows how fast I adapted here,” he says.
“My sister is older than me so she was always staying back home and I was the guy who always traveled with the family. I was the small kid so my parents carried me everywhere they went. I’m blessed to have the name Hagi and have a father like him. Obviously there’s advantages in it but it’s important just to try and concentrate on what you are doing. Playing the same sport that he was so good at means I can ask him anything I have doubts about – he’s my dictionary. He knows everything and went through this path already so it’s good to have him to guide me.”
Romania’s failure to qualify for Euro 2020 meant Hagi was able to watch the tournament without cheering for a specific team. But he would have preferred to have been representing his country having helped knock England out of the European Under-21 Championship finals in 2019 with a goal in a thrilling 4-2 victory as part of a side featuring several graduates from his father’s academy. “He would be really proud to see his own players succeeding, it’s a dream of his and for us,” he says.
“I really have faith in the generation that is coming through. We are in the process of building a new national team and hopefully we can find ourselves to create a perfect team to compete at the highest level. We showed with the under-21s that we have the quality so now have to try and achieve success at senior level. I’m sure that we will be at a World Cup or Euros soon.”