WHEN a victory such as this follows a poor result, the convention is to state that the winners got back on track.
Given that Rangers picked up three points on Saturday after being humbled by Hibernian five days earlier, it is fair enough statistically to say that they made progress.
But, to continue the transport metaphor, while they may be back on track, the vehicle in which they are travelling has a couple of shoogly wheels. And the driver’s sense of direction remains questionable.
It was just as well for Rangers that Lewis Macleod conjured up an exceptional piece of individual skill to score the only goal, because they were never going to win this match with superior teamwork. Macleod and Lee Wallace once again displayed an excellent understanding down the left wing, but such cohesion was lacking in most other areas of the game.
They have suffered this problem since beginning their climb back up the divisions two years ago. Man by man they are more gifted than almost all of their opponents, and that was enough for them to win automatic promotion twice. But if they are to do it a third time, their key players will surely first have to rediscover something close to their top form, and then remember how to play together to best effect.
Ally McCoist’s team produced a handful of good goalscoring chances and merited their narrow win, but Livingston’s play was more intelligent and attractive. Already down several first-choice defenders because of injury, the home team were further hampered when centre-half Craig Sives had to be carried off in the first half, apparently concussed after taking a ball to the face.
But they reorganised intelligently, and, while living dangerously for a spell at the start of the second half when Rangers should have killed the game off, they had several chances of their own to get back into the game. The best of those came with less than 20 minutes to play, when a back-post header by Kyle Jacobs was cleared off the line by Ian Black, and, in the time that remained, Livingston continued to threaten.
On another day, Rangers might have conceded a goal and dropped two points, but they can take some solace from the fact that, while playing well below themselves in many of their games, they are still only six points behind Hearts. That could become nine before they play again, as the leaders visit Alloa on Saturday while Rangers are inactive, but, with just under a quarter of the season gone, no-one at Ibrox is pushing the panic button yet.
Asked if that potential nine-point gap was a concern, full-back Richard Foster said: “No, it’s too early. We’ve still to play Hearts and Hibs three times. Come March, if they’re still nine points ahead, then it will be a concern then, but not at the moment.
“[The 3-1 loss to Hibs on] Monday was disappointing in more than one way, so it was important to bounce back. Everyone in the squad had to take a look at themselves. We all did that and took a bit of time. It was a sore one to take for everyone, and then you dust yourself down and get back on with it.
“We were very poor and Hibs were good and deserved their win. It was a bit of a wake-up call for us. But we got the win today and that’s all you can do as we head off into the international break.”
After Macleod’s superb bicycle-kick strike from a Black lob, the first half was more eventful off the park, as scuffles broke out between a small section of the away support and police. Five arrests were made.
In the first minute of the second half, Kris Boyd was given the perfect opportunity to end his goal drought and make the points safe, but the striker’s fresh-air shot from a Foster cutback summed up his current hapless form. Boyd’s replacement Jon Daly later sidefooted over the bar when it looked easier to get a shot on target.
Besides those deficiencies up front, Rangers’ defence was hesitant at times, particularly in the opening stages, while Black and Nicky Law never displayed the authority which their ability should give them. In this division, such problems will not prevent them from finishing in a play-off position, but they will need to be ironed out if the leaders are to be overhauled.
Having said that, Livingston’s significant improvement from their own previous result should not be discounted. Fortunate to lose only 5-0 to Hearts six days earlier, John McGlynn’s team struck form which should steer them well clear of their present lowly position.
“We needed a response from last week. We knew it wasn’t good enough,” said substitute Gary Glen. “We were on top for spells and maybe could have nicked a goal.
“We get our heads up now. Getting nothing from the game is disappointing, but I thought we did well in spells. It was a wonder goal that the boy scored.”
Asked to compare his club’s last two opponents, the former Hearts striker agreed with Foster that a definitive judgement at this stage of the season would be premature.
“I wouldn’t say there’s an awful lot between them. We never showed up when we played Hearts and we got the response today. If we had shown that commitment and desire against Hearts, we might have got something out of that game.
“I think it’ll be tight. I don’t think either one of them will run away with it. It’ll be close.”