THERE have been many in the Rangers ranks who have questioned Hearts’ stomach for life at the top of the league table, but the lofty status sits very well with the capital side.
They hammered that fact home at Tynecastle yesterday, when they held their nerve to move nine points clear of Ally McCoist’s side and extend their unbeaten record in the Championship.
It made a mockery of the recent musings emanating from the Rangers players, where it was suggested that Hearts could choke on the six-point lead they had manufactured over their Glasgow rivals. Instead, it is Rangers who are crumbling under the pressure, with their manager’s employment status under constant review by those in the stands and, undoubtedly, in the boardroom.
Their cause was not helped yesterday by the rashness of Steven Smith, who got himself sent off midway through the first half. At that stage in the game, the home side had shown little attacking intent, penned into their own half by a hungrier Rangers team. But as the Glasgow side have reminded observers throughout their charge up the divisions, you can only beat what is in front of you.
And rather than complain, the
losing team can consider themselves fortunate that their hosts were not handed an even greater numerical advantage, with one or two others perilously close to a red card.
As well as that first-half sending off, when Smith lunged at Callum Paterson, the teams shared another nine yellow cards between them on a day when referee Craig Thomson actually showed a degree of leniency.
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If the robust challenges left their mark on the Hearts players – Kevin McHattie was carted out the arena on a stretcher and a few others sought out ice packs – it was Rangers who were more bruised by the encounter. The opportunity to rattle through the lower tiers of Scottish football on their way back to the highest echelons was undermined by their own inadequacies and punished by a Hearts side full of determination and a thirst for superiority.
Rangers were on the front foot in the early stages. They went about things fairly well. They set the tempo and pressed their hosts, allowing them little of the space they like to charge into or pass their way through.
It stifled Hearts and, while the clear-cut chances were limited, the pressure Rangers exerted suggested they would find a way through the stubborn Hearts rearguard eventually.
Alim Ozturk and Brad McKay had to keep a close eye on Kenny Miller and Jon Daly, but the final ball into the strike-pair was sloppy at times, and while they tried to dictate the pace and tempo of the game, taking quick set pieces that kept the Tynecastle side on the back foot, they couldn’t find the killer move.
It may have come in time, but they lost their momentum in the 29th minute when Smith was sent packing. It led to a lot of frustration in the away ranks, with needless challenges attracting more yellow cards as the match progressed and influencing substitutions, with McCoist admitting he had feared more red cards and had eventually taken the likes of Miller off as a precaution after the forward took out McHattie.
Miller was far from pleased to be forced from the scene, gesturing to his gaffer as he sulked into the dug-out, but it was a worthwhile move as frustration took a grip.
By that time, the opening goal had already found the net. It came in the 56th minute when an initial shot ricocheted off Lee McCulloch and then the unfortunate McGregor before falling to Jason Holt, who hit his drive sweetly beyond Steve Simonsen.
With the lead and the extra-man advantage, Hearts started to
dictate, with Miguel Pallardo the composer of events. He didn’t baulk at the physicality of the play and chose to rise above it, keeping possession and forcing Rangers to chase. In a storm of rash challenges, he was a calming force.
This is a Hearts side that has proved itself mentally tough and having got their noses in front, they played a more patient game in the search for a second to wrap things up. Again, when that came, Rangers had a charitable part to play. It was from an 88th-minute penalty kick, after former Hearts midfielder Ian Black toppled jamie Walker. It was another that could have led to a second yellow card and a sending off, but he was allowed to stay on the pitch as Walker converted.
The home fans burst into a chorus of “Championees”, the latest
from a songbook which included chants of “You used to play for a big team”. It was assumed that the intended targets were the likes of Black and Lee Wallace. But given the ongoing chaos and stumbles on and off the park, it could just as easily have been directed at those who had been at Rangers long enough to remember the days when they used to carry some real clout in the Scottish game.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, Ozturk, McKay, McHattie (Eckersley 51), King, Pallardo, Holt (McGhee 84), Gomis, Walker, El Hassnaoui (Keatings 55). Unused subs: Gallacher, Buaben, Buchanan, Nicholson.
Rangers: Simonsen, McGregor, McCulloch, Mohsni, Wallace, Macleod (Boyd 80), Black, Law, Smith, Miller (Foster 52), Daly (Clark 83). Unused subs: Robinson, Aird, Shiels, Templeton.
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