HEARTS struck the first telling blow of what promises to be a compelling Championship campaign as they stunned Rangers to claim a remarkable stoppage-time victory at Ibrox.
Scorers: Rangers - Law (90 + 1); Hearts - Wilson (53), Sow (90 + 2)
Seconds after Ally McCoist’s men appeared to have salvaged a point from an absorbing contest when Nicky Law cancelled out Danny Wilson’s opener for the visitors, Swedish striker Osman Sow capped a fine individual display by firing Hearts back in front.
It was the perfect start to Robbie Neilson’s bid to guide Hearts back into the Premiership at the first time of asking and a painful setback for McCoist whose position as Rangers’ manager is set to come under ever more intense scrutiny in the weeks and months ahead.
He has immediately been proved right about one thing. As he stated on the eve of this game, there would be “double no chance” of Rangers going unbeaten in the second tier of Scottish football this season.
There was an emotionally charged prelude to kick-off for the home club as the unfurling of last season’s League 1 flag was followed by the formal re-naming of the Govan Stand as the Sandy Jardine Stand in tribute to the former Rangers and Scotland defender who died at the age of 65 in April.
It was fitting that Hearts, where Jardine enjoyed a distinguished spell at the end of his playing career, should provide the opposition on the day his memory was celebrated in such a manner. The occasion was also sufficient to persuade John Greig to return to Ibrox for the first time since his departure from the Rangers board of directors in the wake of Craig Whyte’s disastrous purchase of the club.
When Greig’s image appeared on the giant screens at either end of the stadium, it was greeted with one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon.
On a day when both teams were seeking to lay down a marker in a title race which should see them both as leading combatants, it was Rangers who made the more purposeful and threatening start.
They were determined not to allow Neilson’s men to settle into any kind of rhythm, pressing and harrying them high up the pitch. It caused some uncomfortable early moments for Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander on his return to one of his former clubs.
When he miscued a sharp pass back from Jordan McGhee, Alexander had to scramble desperately to retrieve the situation and prevent both Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd from making a telling connection with the ball.
Hearts responded to the breathless pace being set by Rangers, posing their first questions of the home defence through the power of new centre-
forward Sow whose clever through ball had Cammy Bell rushing off his line to deny Billy King.
McCoist had made just one change to the side which defeated Hibs in the Petrofac Training Cup on Tuesday night, David Templeton replacing Darren McGregor in a return to a 4-4-2 formation. The former Hearts winger should have put Rangers ahead in the 19th minute. Lewis Macleod showed poise and skill on the right to create an opening for Miller whose shot was deflected towards the far post off Alim Ozturk. It presented Templeton with a free header from six yards which he contrived to direct over the top.
When McGhee, Sow and Kevin McHattie picked up bookings in quick succession – all of them merited – it looked as if Neilson’s pre-match preparations for the scenario of playing with ten men might prove prescient.
Hearts gradually began to find some composure and attacking belief, however, and finished the first half on the front foot. Ozturk was unable to connect cleanly with a Wilson pass across the six yard box, then Sam Nicholson missed a glorious opportunity to put them ahead three minutes before the interval, tamely sending a header straight at Bell after being picked out by Sow’s cross from the left.
Neilson was then at the edge of his technical area screaming for a penalty when King went down under Law’s clumsy challenge, although there were no appeals from the Hearts players.
Rangers were forced to make a change four minutes into the second half, the largely ineffective Ian Black limping off to be replaced by Kyle Hutton. The home side were struggling to rediscover their earlier tempo and were certainly guilty of some leaden-footed defending when Wilson made the breakthrough for Hearts.
The defender was given all the room he needed to time his run and leap onto the end of King’s corner from the right, his firm header taking a slight deflection off Lee Wallace before the ball found its way into Bell’s top left-hand corner of the net.
As Hearts looked to protect their advantage, Neilson wisely withdrew McGhee from the fray with the young defender teetering on the edge of a second yellow card. Ironically, his replacement Brad McKay was booked just seconds after coming onto the pitch for a crude foul on Templeton.
Rangers lacked imagination and fluency in their quest for an equaliser, with Hearts generally comfortable at the back. But there was a desperate scramble to clear their lines from a Macleod corner, with neither Lee McCulloch or Boyd able to force the ball home from close range.
Hearts had to change their goalkeeper in the 68th minute, Alexander carried off on a stretcher after a sickening clash of heads with his team-mate Ozturk. He was replaced by another former Rangers ‘keeper in Scott Gallacher.
There was little for Gallacher to do until he was unable to prevent Law’s equaliser in the first of six minutes added on because of Alexander’s injury interruption. Wallace’s long ball from the left was knocked back across goal by Miller for Law to hook home a volley which Gallacher got his hand to but could not keep out.
Rangers’ sense of relief lasted less than a minute. From the restart, before which McGregor had replaced the injured Foster, their reshaped defence were out of position as Gomis and Nicholson combined to send Sow racing into the penalty area where he held off Marius Zaliukas’ challenge and guided a precise low shot beyond Bell’s left hand into the corner of the net.
Rangers: Bell; Foster (McGregor 90), McCulloch, Zaliukas, Wallace; Macleod, Black (Hutton 49), Law, Templeton (Shiels 71); Miller, Boyd. Subs not used: Simonsen, Smith, Aird, Clark..
Hearts: Alexander (Gallacher 68), McGhee (McKay 55), Wilson, Ozturk, McHattie; Nicholson, Buaben, Gomis, King; Carrick (Holt 81), Sow. Subs not used: D Smith, Oliver, Keatings, L Smith.