When a timid Rangers were taken apart at Tynecastle 11 days ago, their “games to follow” were presented in the context of Mark Warburton potentially being put to the sword. Instead, the Englishman and his team have slain a few shibboleths on two consecutive Saturdays.
Against a Hearts side that caused new head coach Ian Cathro to grimace as they proved indecisive, inaccurate and, frankly, inept, an aggressive and urgent Rangers added the Gorgie side’s scalp to that of Aberdeen the previous week and so lay to rest all the blether about them being unable to beat leading top-flight sides, or cement second place in the Premiership. They have achieved the latter by moving five points ahead of Hearts in fourth, and four ahead of a Pittodrie side that have played a game fewer.
Moreover, if it wasn’t exactly route one, it was notable that Rangers’ two goals – a tally they might have easily doubled – came from balls hoisted into the box. A willingness to be direct, to drive at their opponents, made Warburton’s team unrecognisable from the side beaten at Tynecastle in Robbie Neilson’s send off.
His successor’s arrival into frontline football management has provoked a frenzy of comment in newspaper columns, blogs and Twitter. Yesterday, though, wasn’t an occasion to rush to any judgments. Hearts haven’t won away from home since September. The erratic nature of their defending yesterday, with centre-backs John Souttar and Igor Rossi, and full-back Faycal Rherras brittle in the face of a front-footed Rangers, told why.
Barrie McKay, back to his tormenting best after being restored to the starting line-up the previous week following a month of substitute appearances, profited from a calamitous moment to make it 2-0 six minutes after the interval. A throw-in on the left from Lee Wallace seemed to bounce up over the head of Rherras after being missed by Souttar and Rossi, dropping at the feet of the 21-year-old winger who lashed it in at the near post. The opener was the product of James Tavernier dropping a free-kick on to the head of Rob Kiernan to nod in, which he did with precision despite the close proximity, again, of Souttar and Rossi.
Hearts will lament the disallowed goal in the 17th minute which drew parallels with the effort Rangers had chalked off at Tynecastle last month. After a bout of bagatelle – the ball breaking to the edge of the area once Wes Foderingham had blocked from Bjorn Johnsen – a miscued shot from Callum Paterson was poked in almost on the line by Don Cowie. Television evidence suggested the Hearts man had been played on by Wallace.
Hearts were allowed to take off and celebrate by referee John Beaton, but a flag raised after a matter of seconds by assistant Stuart Stevenson put paid to their joy.
“I was pleased it went our way,” said Warburton. “It showed a good level consistency and if you get consistency you don’t mind do you?”
The Rangers manager had much to be pleased about, with an Ibrox that rocked in appreciation of his team’s effort.
“I thought we were good today as a team,” the 54-year-old said. “Physically we were good, tempo-wise we were good, quality on the ball was good. We wanted to switch the ball because we thought they were vulnerable on the flanks and Kenny [Miller] got in behind twice so we were pleased with that. We occupied good areas of the park.
“You can see the team is starting to gel. Joe Garner was excellent, another strong performance from him so we now have an aerial outlet, a physical outlet when we need it. We had players who could play in different positions. Tav did well in midfield, I was delighted for him.”
Warburton’s most effusive praise was rightly reserved for McKay. “Almost all of last season he was first choice and got a national call up. For a young player a lot came very early,” he said. “Young players have dips.
“The old saying is that form is temporary and class is permanent and I have no doubt Barrie McKay can go to the very top level. It was great to see him back to his best today.”