written by – Jordan Campbell
On the day Lee McCulloch unfurled the League One flag in recognition of Rangers’ 36 game unbeaten domestic season and in turn commencing stage three of Rangers’ journey back to the summit of Scottish football, there was a far more poignant moment before the game.
As the twenty-two maroon and royal blue jerseys gathered around the centre circle to pay respect to Rangers and Hearts legend Sandy Jardine who sadly passed away in April after a prolonged battle with cancer, it felt like fate that the newly christened ‘Sandy Jardine Stand’ be unveiled in front of the two teams he served with such immense pride and distinction. A more fitting fixture to mark the occasion you could not have made; his boyhood club Hearts where he would later play for and go on to co-manage taking on the Rangers where he made 451 appearances, won 14 major honors including the European Cup Winner’s Cup and achieved true legendary status not only for his exploits on the park but for being at the forefront of defending the club in the darkest period of their history.
With both teams vying for automatic promotion from the Championship this season – a false representation of the two clubs when you consider their heritage and standing in this country’s footballing hierarchy – the game was always going to be viewed as an early indicator of which team were favourite to clinch the title. Even after Hearts grabbed a last gasp winner to steal the three points from Ibrox today, it’s far too early to suggest that these 90 minutes could prove decisive in such a highly competitive division.
Rangers switched back to their more comfortable 4-4-2 formation after rather unsuccessfully experimenting with the 3-5-2 set up against Hibs. David Templeton, who impressed on Tuesday as an impact sub replaced Darren McGregor in the home side’s only change, one of four ex-Jambos to be included in the starting line up.
Hearts youthful side was boosted by the experience added in the centre of the park as former Dundee United midfielders Morgaro Gomis and Prince Bauben made their competitive bow for the Gorgie side. Hearts also boasted three ex-Rangers players in Neil Alexander, Scott Gallacher and Danny Wilson. Wilson, captain of the Edinburgh club at the tender age of 22, led his side out onto the pitch where he plied his trade before sealing a big money move to Liverpool in 2010. He was to have a major impact on the outcome of the game scoring the opening goal as well as being named man of the match Sky Sports.
The game got underway with Rangers kicking off facing the Copland Road Stand (a rarity at Ibrox) and after today’s result they will be deeming it a curse. A frantic pace was set in the opening encounters as both teams weren’t shy in putting in their fair share of full-blooded challenge early on. This set the tone of the game as Rangers aggressively pressed Hearts in possession, a tactic which nearly saw the away side concede a self inflicted goal when Alexander tried to play his way out after a short back pass. Kenny Miller and Templeton hounded the 2008 UEFA Cup finalist but he redeemed himself, diving to the feet of Kris Boyd to collect.
The best chance of the half came in the 18th minute after some trickery out wide from Lewis MacLeod managed to see him evade the pressure of three maroon jerseys before slipping in Kenny Miller who’s deflected shot bounced kindly to David Templeton at the far post. With the goal gaping and Alexander scurrying across his line he somehow managed to divert his diving header over the bar when it looked easier to score. Only four minutes later, Templeton was presented with another opportunity after Lee Wallace managed to retrieve the ball from Ozturk who was attempting to shepherd the ball out of play but the left back refused to give up and managed to wrestle the ball into the path of the diminutive winger. Kris Boyd, the solitary figure in the penalty box, awaited a delivery for what looked like a certain goal. But after trying to dink the ball over the incoming defender and into the former Kilmarnock striker he scuffed his left footed cross onto the roof of the net. The Dutch defender breathed a huge sigh of relief but the subsequent volley of abuse from his teammates served as a warning. Templeton didn’t fair much better, he had 50,000 people who, put it this way, made it clear they weren’t too pleased with his efforts. Rangers continued to dominate and Marius Zaliukas came close again after a delivery from Ian Black saw his glancing header sail wide of the far post.
After weathering an early spell of pressure, Hearts did begin to assert themselves on the game. Danny Wilson’s cultured left foot almost teed up an opener for the visitors but his teasing cross flashed across the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ without any takers. After the ball trickled out of play, four Hearts players stood in front of the goal frame rueing the decision to not gamble on the early delivery from their skipper. Dangerous on the counter attack, Hearts broke down the left wing after the influential Sow and Carrick combined well. The former guided a cross onto the head of Nicholson who had ghosted in front of Wallace but his tame header was straight down the throat of Cammy Bell.
A fiery opening half to the game produced four yellow cards – three of those belonging to Hearts – as they made their presence felt with a series of hefty challenges from Kevin McHattie and Jordan McGhee in particular. Having shared a similar amount of possession it was Rangers who created the best chances but as for clear cut opportunities, they were few and far between. Robbie Neilson would have been looking for his team to utilize the ball better but would be encouraged by his team appearing to have grabbed a foothold in the game shorty before the half time whistle.
Three minutes into the second half, Rangers were forced into a substitution as Ian Black hobbled off injured to be replaced by Kyle Hutton. This disrupted Rangers’ flow as Hearts started the second half brighter, a familiar case for the Ibrox side over the past few years. Hearts took full advantage of the apparent lull as they took the lead through a Danny Wilson header. Billy King’s driven corner was misjudged by Lee McCulloch who got caught under the ball but Wilson shrugged off the close attention of Wallace to fire a header – courtesy of a deflection off of the disorientated left back – into the top corner of the goal. His well timed jumped sent the 1,700 traveling Hearts supporters into a frenzy, who were in good voice throughout the match.
A couple of minutes after the goal, Nielson, a rookie manager, took the bold decision of sacrificing right back McGhee as a precaution to ensure that he didn’t make the same mistake as Hibs did just five days previously; give up a man advantage. His plan was almost instantly cancelled out though as his replacement’s first action was to foul Templeton which saw referee Craig Thompson brandish another caution.
Just before the hour mark, Rangers came agonisingly close to leveling the scoreline. MacLeod’s corner, driven low to the front post, was flicked on by Kenny Miller into the six yard box. In the ensuing scramble Rangers saw hurried attempts from McCulloch and Boyd blocked on the line by a combination of last ditch defending and a desperate sprawl from Alexander. Whether it was luck or judgement, they put their bodies on the line and eventually cleared the ball to safety – for the time being.
There was a nasty stoppage when Alexander came through a ruck of bodies to claim Nicky Law’s flighted free kick. He collided with the back of Ozturk’s head and was subsequently stretchered off to a chorus of applause from both sets of fans. Scott Gallacher, recently released by Rangers, took his place in what must have been a nerve racking debut which had the potential to become a scarring baptism of fire.
Rangers lacked the inventiveness to open up the Hearts back line as their one paced build up play was predictable and uninspiring. Ally McCoist made an effort to change this with the introduction of Dean Shiels on the left wing but with MacLeod on the opposite flank they lacked any natural width as both players are more adept to central roles. Fraser Aird must have wondered if he had been forgotten about.
Hearts were content with sitting back and soaking up the pressure in hope of nicking another goal on the counter attack, a ploy which had looked threatening in several occasions. Similarly to the first 45 minutes, Rangers saw a fair amount of the ball but when they reached the final third, a hopeful cross was the best they could conjure up.
Moments after Nicky Law was named man of the match, decision which was greeted with a torrent of boos from the home support, he turned those groans into cheers. Almost in synchronisation with the fourth official who announced that there was to be six minutes of additional time, he equalised. Wallace launched a long ball into Kris Boyd who used his body well to beat Wilson to the flick on which was met by Miller who nodded it into the path of Law who made an intelligent run from the edge of the box. A difficult bounce meant he had to readjust but he was able to get his knee over the ball and volley into the net even though Gallacher managed to get a hand to it.
The home support must have believed that they could go on and claim all three points as the momentum was well and truly with them.
But 62 seconds after Law had made it one a piece, Hearts restored their one goal advantage much to the disbelief of the Ibrox faithful who were just returning to their seats. Jason Holt ran at Darren McGregor who had just entered the fray replacing Richard Foster before cutting inside where he was surrounded by blue jerseys. He managed to slip the ball to Sow who ghosted pasted McCulloch with a sublime first touch – it may be cynical but the Rangers captain may have been better to bring him down and ‘take one for the team’ as they say – before firing an even more impressive shot across the helpless Bell and into the far corner. Silence filled the stadium apart from the one corner where the Hearts fans went berserk for the second time today. It was a show of tremendous character for a largely inexperienced team which can only bode well for the rest of their promotion push.
It was too much to ask for Rangers to respond once again but Miller did attempt to restore parity when Lee Wallace – who was arguably Rangers’ strongest player today – burst down the wing and pulled back a cross. It was met by McHattie but his scuffed clearance came at Miller too quickly for him to readjust his body in time and his instinctive reaction saw the ball fly over the bar.
Barry Ferguson, who was in attendance presumably to take a closer look at what Rangers have to offer before his side Clyde visit Ibrox in the Petrofac Training Cup won’t have been intimidated by the mediocre display.
Rangers will have to increase the tempo of their play from the pedestrian pace they have been operating at for the last two yearsiIf they want to be back playing in Old Firm games next season. It might have got the job done in the first two stages but for the final stage it is going to take a lot more than superior fitness to get the three points week in week out.
For now, Hearts strike first blood in the race for the Championship title.