Aidan Smith: Big drama on a day of second best

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STRANGE as it may seem given the lack of campness that was going to be on display in this game, but I couldn’t help thinking about Graham Norton, TV chat shows and the wheeze of making the established order look silly.

Confused? Stay with me: when Channel 5 was launched one of its bright new stars was Jack Docherty, host of a daily teatime talk programme. The show got off to an indifferent start and then Docherty went on holiday. Enter Norton who was only supposed to be a stand-in – but for his brief stint he was nominated for a British Comedy Award and up against Docherty he duly walked off with the prize.

Adam Eckersley, left, and Callum Paterson challenge Bilel Mohsni Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Adam Eckersley, left, and Callum Paterson challenge Bilel Mohsni Picture: Lisa Ferguson

This Championship clash was the same kind of embarrassment to the Premiership yesterday, the second tier usurping the supposedly more meaningful division. With the calibre of fallen giants in it, the Championship was always going to be capable of doing this but the truth is that with Celtic sluggish, Aberdeen not at their best and Motherwell mildly tragic, the Premiership on any given Saturday would have had to bow down to the power and drama of this fixture.

It was big. The biggest match of the domestic season. Rangers’ biggest match since liquidation. Hearts’ biggest since administration. The biggest the managers had faced. And so it received the big build-up from Scott Wilson, MC Tynie: “Another sell-out in this incredible season…make some noise!”

The first quarter was tentative, almost polite, with just the one glimmer of a chance, the highly-rated Lewis Macleod shooting high over the bar. The game needed to come alive, to vaguely live up to its billing, and then it did, Steven Smith tackled big, as if he’d never tackled in his life before and didn’t know how. Red card.

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Rangers’ reduced circumstances were mirrored in the stands. Instead of the entire away end, as is traditional on trips to Edinburgh, their fans were only given half of it. “You can stick your independence up your arse,” they sang. This brought the Jambo retort: “Rangers die and the Hearts survive.”

The Ibrox men were in all-white, a skin-tight ensemble that suited some players better than others but which Graham Norton would surely have loved. But neither this nor the numerical disadvantage restricted their desire. As is often the way with ten men, they contrived to look the more dangerous side with a few near things before Lee Wallace, hurtling like a train, boomed one over the bar.

Nicky Law came closest with a free-kick turned away by Neil Alexander and finally Hearts responded. Alim Ozturk’s free-kick needed saving and then Steve Simonsen tipped a Brad McKay header onto the bar. With the chances and whizzing near-things came thunderous challenges and a stream of bookings which would develop into a small torrent. A goal was sure to come – that or another red card.

Jason Holt’s fine, drilled shot was cruel on Rangers who’d been the better team. To reassert this they went straight up the other end where Law battered a shot which Alexander could only parry to Macleod, the latter’s header bouncing off the top of the bar.

Presumably by this point the Ibrox men were cursing the sent-off Smith for leaving them short at their time of need. They tried to battle back but Hearts, without being spectacular, were playing with confidence and a togetherness. Ozturk would take a pass across the back from Brad McKay which carried a slight degree of risk, but still have the time and the inclination to applaud his team-mate.

On the touchline Robbie Neilson was his usual imperturbable self, his only gesture being a pressing down of the hands to calm his players. Ally McCoist, arms crossed, took some abuse from the Rangers fans when he withdrew Macleod. Others in the away end tried to drown this out with a chorus of “Super Ally,” with the Hearts support joining in ironically.

Maybe Rangers didn’t deserve to lose, although they almost lost more men, with Kris Boyd and Ian Black, whose foul on Jamie Walker brought the Hearts man’s penalty, being the most fortunate to see out the 90 minutes. McCoist can curse his luck. Hearts, not for the first time in games with their biggest rivals, perhaps rode theirs.

By the way, if you want a more highbrow reference for the Championship propping up the Premiership than Graham Norton then how about Cyrano de Bergerac, the play and the film, where a handsome but dim fellow is supplied with lots of winning lines by an ugly but shy one in his pursuit of a girl. Maybe the football at Tynecastle wasn’t beautiful but you’d never call Rangers or Hearts shy. The Jambos’ lead, though, now stands at nine. Any more of this and it’ll all be over and the Championship will be as boring as the next league.

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