SATURDAY is not the first time Rangers have come to the capital only to be let down by those who should know better. It happened as long as ago as the start of the 1986-87 season, when player-manager Graeme Souness’s thinking became muddled by red mist and he was sent off in the opening half of his debut versus Hibernian at Easter Road.
Hearts 2-0 Rangers
Scorers: Hearts - Holt (56), Walker (88pen)
It was much the same movie here again. A player red-carded in the first half, a defeat that felt deeply significant. Whether or not Rangers can recover to win the title as they did in 1987 – although of course, it was a different league – remains to be seen.
If they do not, Ally McCoist will be the one taking the heat, providing he is still in position. He might well reflect on this rumbustious afternoon and recall being poorly served by several players. They were not just any players. They were all experienced. They were all players who, to a greater or lesser extent, owed him something.
Steven Smith’s career was going nowhere fast before being signed by Rangers for a second time last year. Brought back into the side recently, his moment of rashness after 21 minutes changed the course of a game in which the visitors looked initially comfortable.
Even Hearts manager Robbie Neilson conceded it would probably have been a very different outcome had the match remained 11 versus 11 for its duration. At the end, McCoist was simply relieved that it had remained 11 v 10.
Rather than consider the points gap (nine) that has opened up between Hearts and Rangers, Neilson was more interested in reflecting upon the body count (two).
“We need to get Kevin [McHattie] scanned. It looks like his medial ligament,” the Hearts manager said later. “Fingers crossed it’s not.” The initial prognosis about Brad McKay, who played well at centre-half, is more hopeful.
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“Brad will be fine, he should make next week’s [Scottish Cup v Celtic] game,” said Neilson. “He probably just didn’t see the tackle coming from the side and took a sore one.”
McHattie was the victim of a lunge by Kenny Miller that once might have passed unnoticed by crowd and referee. Now, however, it must be considered to veer close to the edge of what is acceptable, despite the Rangers player having managed to get the ball.
The fact McHattie was stretchered off offers a clue as to whether the tackle was dangerous or not. Coming as it did near the touchline in Hearts’ own half, it was not even a challenge Miller needed to make – just like Smith, who saw red for flying into Callum Paterson, again in the Hearts half of the pitch.
Smith’s challenge might even have been the least dangerous of the three that caused consternation, with Kris Boyd’s poor tackle on McKay towards the end completing a very disappointing afternoon’s work by three experienced players.
Boyd had only been on the park a matter of minutes before he was risking a red card for leaving McKay in a heap. Miller was also fortunate to escape with only a booking.
McCoist took the probably sensible precaution of replacing him almost immediately. It was going to be hard enough trying to keep Hearts out with ten men, never mind nine.
Having already given Paterson a verbal volley for making the most of the Smith challenge, Miller was giving a good impression of a man on the edge. Considering the significance of the game, this is not what McCoist would have expected of a senior professional.
As with Smith, McCoist brought Miller back to the club, against the better judgment of some. And the same goes for Boyd, another whose second spell is not going quite as well as hoped, hence him starting among the substitutes on Saturday.
Jon Daly was selected instead, and he later admitted that the players have to bear responsibility for the current situation in which Rangers are lagging so far behind the leaders. He admitted they need to start bailing out their under-fire manager.
“Once we go out on the park we need to provide performances and wins and in the last couple of weeks we’ve not done that,” he said. “We need to start doing that for the manager to start helping him out.
“All the boys really like the manager and the coaching staff. You have to look close to home as players and ask ourselves: ‘are we doing enough to help him out when we go out there?’ ”
McCoist is already fielding the type of abuse that he admitted on Saturday afternoon is hurting him. He was given a blast from the past when a pocket of away fans began chanting “Ally, Ally, Get tae f**k!”, the way they did during a Scottish Cup game against Dundee 30 years ago, when he had yet to show the form which made him one of the club’s greatest strikers. On that afternoon, he later burst into tears in the team bath. He is made of sterner stuff now. He needs to be.
Hearts have to take much of the credit, even given Rangers’ misadventures. They were the ones who rattled Rangers. They were the ones who answered the question posed by at least one Ibrox player about whether they could handle the pressure of leading from the front.
Miguel Pallardo was one of the few on Saturday who sought to uphold football’s reputation as the beautiful game. He was the antidote to the helter-skelter play that was occurring all around him. He got the ball, took a touch and then passed, more often than not finding one of his own team-mates.
It was hardly revolutionary, but, amid the bedlam, it felt like the application of a soothing balm each time Pallardo intervened.
He deserved to be named man-of-the-match by at least one sponsors group, with the other sponsor’s award going to Jason Holt, whose fine drive, hit with the outside of his boot, gave Hearts the lead after 56 minutes.
Jamie Walker then made the win safe with two minutes left from the penalty spot, after a clumsy challenge from behind by Ian Black – yet another supposedly experienced player who was found wanting on this of all afternoons.
Interesting how it is Rangers’ mettle that must now be questioned after a build-up dominated by doubts about whether Hearts could take the heat.
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