HIBERNIAN 3 Sproule 66, 86, 90
DAYS like the extraordinary one Ivan Sproule enjoyed yesterday don't come along often. Only, it seems, when the whippet-quick Hibernian striker is given the opportunity to place the Old Firm in the doghouse.
A 24-minute second-half hat-trick from the Irish substitute had the Ibrox legions barking mad to the point they were foaming at the mouth over a humiliation at the hands of visitors who played them on the counter-attack and handed them a lesson in making chances tell.
In Hibs' first win at Ibrox for a decade there were echoes of their shock victory at Celtic Park at the tail-end of last season. In both, it was Sproule's entry into the fray that prompted a spectacular climax. All four goals scored by the Castlederg-born forward for Hibs have been against the Old Firm. As the man who cost 5,000 from Irish League side Institute grinned later:
"I seem to be saving my goals for these games."
Rangers manager Alex McLeish described the defeat as a "fairy tale" for Sproule in which "everything he touched went in." The player, however, countered that it was method more than a sprinkling of magic dust that transformed him into a match winner and the first visiting player to bag a treble at Ibrox since Allan Johnston gave Hearts a 3-0 win in January, 1996. Yesterday was Rangers' heaviest non-Old Firm home defeat since then.
For Sproule, the Champions League exertions against Anorthosis Famagusta on Wednesday made McLeish's men vulnerable to his pace.
"It seems Tony has a game plan for me and puts me on as teams tire," he said. "Their legs weren't the strongest and he told me to get the ball between the sticks and have a pop."
While McLeish bemoaned chances that were allowed to go a begging because of a lack of incisiveness the young Irishman was sharp as a tack from his first intervention in the 66th minute. This took the form of him nipping in front of Jose Pierre-Fanfan to fasten on to a ball knocked forward from David Murphy before cutely chipping it over the advancing Ronald Waterreus.
It was a goal that left Rangers reeling and Hibs supporters doing eightsome-reels. The celebrations grew wilder when Sproule put the contest beyond any doubt four minutes from time. The architect of this strike was Scott Brown, who practically ran the length of the field before feeding the striker, who produced an imperious finish to crack the ball into the far corner of the net.
By the time Sproule completed his hat-trick the home supporters not streaming from the exits were hurling abuse in the direction of their team. They look bedraggled as the Hibs striker motored forward and shrugged off a challenge from Fernando Ricksen before rounding Waterreus and tapping the ball into an empty net.
Sproule is a self-confessed Rangers supporter and reckoned about 20 of his pals would have been cursing him from the Rangers stands.
"I got about 41 text messages and they all said 'well done' but with a few words x'd out," he revealed.
The result offered vindication for Tony Mowbray's decision to leave out Derek Riordan to allow him to mull over Cardiff City's 1m offer. This call proved, said the Hibs manager, "that we have ready-made replacements". Yet, Mowbray himself took a mouthful from Garry O'Connor when replacing him with Sproule.
"I said to him I was taking him off because he hadn't have any tries at goal. He asked me how many Ivan would have. In the dressing room I told him about three."
Mowbray made no apologies for setting out to "frustrate" Rangers with O'Connor a one-man strike force in front of a five-man midfield. McLeish was equally unwilling to accept that he had frustrated his team's own ambitions by deploying Old Firm and Famagusta goalscorer Dado Prso out wide on the left to allow Steven Thompson a first start of the season.
"Dado had two great chances in the first half. Is it because I played him in a wide area that he missed them?" the Rangers manager countered.
He defended this tactical tinkering by stating, as he has previously, that Prso had played there many times for Monaco and favoured the position. Yesterday's loss McLeish attributed to nothing more than passing up of opportunities. These came at regular intervals with Thompson, after only three minutes and Prso, at the break, both shooting straight at keeper Zbignien Malkowski with the goal gaping.
"I thought we played well in the first half and lost 3-0 when we should have won 3-0. Hibs dug in and kept men behind the ball but I didn't think they posed any threat whatsoever until we pushed forward late on. It was smash and grab. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to work that out," McLeish said tersely.
There appeared a weariness about McLeish's men at the end of a week in which they had come up trumps in the physically and mentally draining encounters at home to Celtic and the Cypriots. But this was a card the Rangers manager resolutely refused to play.
"I didn't think there was any kind of hangover because of the way we started the game and the fact we made two chances in the first 10 minutes that should have been dispatched."
Instead it was Rangers who ultimately were ruthlessly dismembered. The circumstances may have been somewhat freakish with sloppy passing from the visitors going regularly unpunished> But the fact is they now find themselves five points behind league leaders Hearts. The Ibrox legions began the day chattering excitedly about the prospects of progressing from Champions League group stages. The events that followed, however, will have driven a horse and cart through this optimism. With Sproule at the reins.