Rangers saw their procession towards the Championship title hit an unlikely road bump as Falkirk staged an astonishing late fightback to hand Mark Warburton’s side their first defeat in 16 games.
A record attendance at the Falkirk Stadium witnessed a Friday night classic as three goals in the closing phase of the game, crowned by substitute Bob McHugh’s 92nd minute winner, wiped out a 2-0 lead Rangers had forged inside the opening 10 minutes.
The Ibrox side remain odds-on favourites for automatic promotion but their lead over Falkirk at the top of the table has been cut to 11 points. More significantly for Peter Houston’s gutsy team, the win lifts them six points ahead of third-placed Hibs in the play-off equation.
It was a remarkable turnaround on a night when Rangers, being watched by Celtic manager Ronny Deila ahead of next month’s Old Firm Scottish Cup semi-final, had looked in complete command.
Even before the rapid early strikes from Kenny Miller and Barrie McKay, their turbo-charged start to the contest had seen them have a goal contentiously disallowed in the fifth minute.
James Tavernier swept a shot beyond Falkirk ‘keeper Danny Rogers after being played in by Miller but the celebrations were curtailed by the assistant referee’s raised flag. Tavernier was certainly onside and while team-mate Andy Halliday was in an offside position, it was debatable whether he was significantly influencing play.
It mattered for little as far as the visitors were concerned, however, when they plundered their early two-goal lead in clinical fashion.
Tavernier’s licence to roam saw the right back lay the opener on a plate for Miller in the seventh minute. Latching onto Andy Halliday’s pass, the right-back charged towards the byline and drove the ball into the six yard box where the unmarked Miller slammed it beyond the helpless Rogers.
Falkirk were similarly exposed at the back when Rangers scored again two minutes later. This time, it came down the opposite flank as Miller’s clever pass set left-back Lee Wallace scampering clear. The Rangers captain rolled the ball across the face of goal to provide McKay with a simple close range tap-in.
The shell-shocked home side tried to respond quickly, forcing a corner which Rangers defended less than convincingly before Blair Alston curled a shot just wide of Wes Foderingham’s left hand post.
But Rangers remained largely in the ascendancy and should have put the match firmly out of Falkirk’s reach before half-time.
McKay contrived to pass up a chance for his second goal of the evening when he collected Billy King’s pass, rounded Rogers but then dallied inexplicably with his shot which was scrambled off the line.
Falkirk were struggling to cope with the accuracy and movement of Rangers in their half of the pitch and Rogers did well to turn a Halliday shot behind for a corner after one especially incisive move from the champions-elect.
So long as Falkirk could dig in, however, they retained the possibility of altering the balance of the match by scoring the next goal. They threatened to do so in the 28th minute, only for Will Vaulks to drive his shot straight at Foderingham after a good break by John Baird.
But although the hosts had gathered their composure after such a dreadful opening from their perspective, Rangers remained the more forceful and dangerous side with Rogers making a fine save to touch over a dipping shot from Wallace.
Rangers’ pursuit of a third goal was unabated at the start of the second half as Miller curled a shot narrowly wide from 16 yards, then Halliday came close with an effort across the face of Rogers’ six yard box.
Falkirk began to provide regular reminders that Warburton’s side might yet need the insurance of a bigger lead. Foderingham produced a trio of eye-catching saves in fairly quick succession, first denying Luke Leahy’s long range shot, then keeping out a powerful effort from Vaulks and finally getting down low to his right to keep out an effort from substitute Myles Hippolyte who had injected greater vibrancy into Falkirk’s attack.
Foderingham was powerless to prevent the stunning goal which sparked Falkirk’s recovery in the 72nd minute. Alston pounced on a loose defensive clearance to curl a magnificent shot with the outside of his right boot high into the top right hand corner of the net.
Rangers were suddenly rattled and the home fans, silent for so long earlier in the evening, were roaring their delirious approval of an equaliser five minutes later. Hippolyte took advantage of some uncertain defending by Rangers to take the ball wide of Foderingham and slam home a low shot despite the efforts of Danny Wilson on the line.
Those celebrations were tame in comparison to those which greeted McHugh’s winner as he turned home a cross from fellow sub Kevin O’Hara in the second minute of stoppage time.
FALKIRK: Rogers, Muirhead, Watson, McCracken, Leahy; Alston, Taiwo,Vaulks, Sibbald (O’Hara 74); Baird (McHugh 80), Miller (Hippolyte 50). Subs not used: Deniz, Smith, McCann, Gallacher.
RANGERS: Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson, Wallace; Halliday, Ball, Holt; King (O’Halloran 68), Miller (Clark 68), McKay (Forrester 60). Subs not used: Bell, Law, Shiels..