AT A time when it is by no means certain Rangers will secure a future with an unbroken link to its past, the prospect of writing a piece of unwanted club history may be of relatively minimal concern to Ally McCoist.
But, as he awaits news on the extent of job losses facing his squad, it will nonetheless bruise the pride of the Rangers manager to discover he is on the verge of presiding over the worst sequence of home results recorded since the club was formed in 1872.
During their 140-year existence, now seriously threatened by the prospect of administration becoming liquidation, Rangers have never lost four successive competitive fixtures at Ibrox.
Saturday’s defeat against Hearts, following on from reverses against Kilmarnock and Dundee United in their previous two home games, leaves Rangers facing a doubly unpalatable scenario in their next Ibrox fixture against Celtic on 25 March. For if McCoist’s team fail to win against Dundee United at Tannadice the previous weekend, then Celtic will travel across the city knowing victory will clinch the SPL title.
There appears no end to the gloom descending on Rangers and their supporters at the moment, with administrators Duff and Phelps admitting at the weekend that meeting the 31 March deadline to achieve a Uefa club licence from the SFA for next season is “highly problematic”.
It would render Rangers’ final league placing irrelevant in terms of securing European football, although the difference of around £900,000 in SPL prize-money for second and third place means holding off Motherwell’s robust challenge for runners-up spot remains significant. If Rangers are barred from Europe, it would widen the scope for the rest of the top six clubs to qualify. From Hearts’ perspective, that makes their first win at Ibrox for eight years all the more precious.
They achieved it with considerable resilience, recovering from a poorly-conceded goal to Rangers captain Steven Davis in first-half stoppage time to deliver a far more purposeful display after the break. Ian Black, whose stunning 58th-minute equaliser provided the platform for Hearts to claim their first SPL win in six games, remains hopeful the Tynecastle side can achieve European qualification on their own merits.
The combative midfielder caused a stir earlier this season when it emerged he was putting his alternative skills as a painter and decorator to good use in order to sustain his income during the period when Hearts players did not receive their wages on time. It was an experience which made Black sympathetic to the circumstances currently facing the Rangers squad.
“I feel sorry for them. It’s people’s jobs we are talking about,” said Black. “They could be out of work soon and they have families to support. We went through it at Hearts and I just hope the Rangers lads come out the other side okay.
“We certainly don’t want to benefit from anyone’s problems. We want to qualify for Europe by what we do on the pitch ourselves, not because of problems other people go through. We just focused on ourselves in the build-up to the game. We don’t look at anyone else. What team Rangers put out was irrelevant because we know they have quality throughout, from youths to first team and those waiting to go into the first team. We just prepared how we prepare for every game and tried to enjoy ourselves.
“The atmosphere wasn’t any different in the game because of Rangers’ situation. It was great, it always is at Ibrox. They are always behind their team, but the Hearts fans were outstanding and really willed us on.”
There was little for either set of supporters to enthuse over in a dismal first half which saw both teams ragged in possession and lacking in imagination. Rangers did hold an edge in possession and territory and plundered the opener on the stroke of half-time. Davis met Andrew Little’s cross with a low right foot shot which squirmed under Jamie MacDonald, the Hearts goalkeeper badly at fault.
Rangers, with 19-year-old Rhys McCabe showing some neat touches as he made his debut in central midfield, almost doubled their lead six minutes into the second half when Carlos Bocanegra narrowly failed to convert the teenager’s fine free-kick from the left.
But Hearts carried a greater threat following the half-time introduction of Craig Beattie for Darren Barr. The former Celtic striker held the ball up well and unsettled the Rangers defence as he made his first appearance for Paulo Sergio’s side.
“Craig is experienced and did well for us,” observed Black. “He works hard and will surely score a few goals for us, so he’s a good addition to the squad. Fingers crossed, he can give us more of a cutting edge for the rest of the season.”
It was Black who displayed outstanding finishing to draw Hearts level, beating Allan McGregor with a terrific dipping volley from around 22 yards after Bocanegra had headed a Scott Robinson effort off the line.
The final half-hour of the match saw both tempo and tempers heightened. Rangers were angered by referee Crawford Allan’s denial of a penalty claim when Lee McCulloch seemed to be bundled to the ground by Danny Grainger, then incensed when the official pointed to the spot at the other end when Dorin Goian wrestled Andy Webster as a Grainger corner was delivered. “The referee saw what he saw and the rules state that if you’re pulling someone, then you’ve got to give it,” said Black. “He did stand up and show a bit of strength to award it, I suppose. We just needed a bit of luck and we got it.”
Jamie Hamill took the responsibility from the spot and, although his initial effort was blocked by McGregor, he followed up smartly enough to tuck home the rebound and spark wild celebrations among the travelling support. For the Rangers fans, there appears no end in sight to their present misery.