Rangers restored their five-point cushion at the top of the Championship but encountered more than a little discomfort and controversy on their way to doing so against a spirited Morton side.
Goals by Kenny Miller and Barrie McKay ultimately sealed the points for Mark Warburton’s team but the biggest talking point of the evening was the dismissal of Andy Halliday which forced them to play with ten men for the last 20 minutes.
Halliday, who had the red card he received against Hibs last month reduced to a caution on appeal, collected his second yellow card of this contest for what the officials apparently deemed as provocative celebration of McKay’s goal.
Rangers were both bemused and incensed by the decision but could leave Greenock consoled by a hard-fought victory which maintains their advantage over Hibs in the title race.
On a night when Jim Duffy’s team gave as good as they got for long spells, Miller would have experienced a combination of relief and delight when he made the breakthrough for Rangers midway through the first half.
For the veteran striker had earlier perpetrated a glaring miss when the visitors carved out their first opening of the night.
Martyn Waghorn and James Tavernier combined on the right to stretch the Morton defence out of position and the full-back delivered a perfect cross to pick out the unmarked Miller. From no more than six yards out, he contrived to screw his header horribly wide of Derek Gaston’s left-hand post.
Both sides were guilty of conceding possession cheaply in the early stages, although the hosts had settled to their task with real purpose as they tried to ensure the league leaders would not find it easy to settle into the passing rhythm which has proved so effective for much of the season.
Rangers duly struggled to create many clear-cut chances, although captain Lee Wallace might have done better than drag a shot across the face of the six-yard box after he had been played in by Miller following a quickly taken free-kick.
Morton did not lack any sense of enterprise and were not content simply to try to contain their opponents. There was a scare for Wes Foderingham in the 24th minute when he was almost caught out by Joe McKee’s sweetly-struck free-kick from all of 35 yards, the Rangers goalkeeper fumbling the ball unconvincingly behind for a corner.
But any concern in the Rangers ranks at the manner in which the evening was progressing was soothed two minutes later when Miller atoned for his earlier miss.
The goal was something of a collective calamity for Morton’s central defensive partnership of Lee Kilday and Thomas O’Ware, albeit both of them suffered a significant slice of ill fortune. Following a patient and probing bout of passing by Rangers, a 20-yard shot by Halliday deflected off O’Hare towards the lurking Miller. In attempting to intercept the ball, Kilday could only help it into Miller’s path and he stabbed his 12th goal of the season beyond Gaston from close range.
Waghorn came close to doubling Rangers’ advantage when he hooked a shot narrowly wide with his back to goal and Warburton’s men looked poised to assume total control at this point.
Morton displayed admirable determination to force their way onto the front foot, however, and had loud claims for a penalty turned down in the 37th minute when Rangers defender Rob Kiernan fell clumsily on top of the ball as he cut out a dangerous cross from Declan McManus.
The home players and fans were convinced Kiernan had handled the ball but referee Barry Cook waved play on.
Gedion Zelalem, back in the starting line-up for Rangers in place of late injury call-off Jason Holt, then passed up a great opportunity to claim his first goal for the club. The on-loan Arsenal midfielder, who celebrates his 19th birthday today, sent a tame effort straight at Gaston when left unmarked on the edge of the box.
Morton made by far the better start to the second half and would have been worth the equaliser they pressed hard to find. McManus had Foderingham scrambling anxiously across his line when his 20-yard shot flew narrowly wide of the target.
Bobby Barr, who caused Tavernier real problems for much of the night, then set up an even better chance for McManus when he dispossessed the Rangers right-back and cut the ball back into the path of his team-mate whose shot was too close to Foderingham.
There was now a feeling that Rangers would require a second goal to make sure of the points and it was delivered by McKay with 20 minutes remaining. The winger, who had a previous loan spell at Morton, led a rapid counter attack and played a sharp one-two with Miller to slice through the home defence and guide a shot high beyond Gaston.
That should have comfortably settled matters but Rangers were immediately reduced to ten men by Halliday’s curious dismissal. Booked three minutes earlier for a trip on McManus, he was shown his second yellow on the advice of assistant referee David McKniff for his exuberant gesturing to the crowd while celebrating McKay’s goal.
Rangers could have added to their tally in the closing stages, substitute Harry Forrester denied by Gaston and then Waghorn blazing a shot over, but could feel content at a job done well, if not spectacularly.
Referee: B Cook
MORTON: Gaston, Pepper, Kilday, O’Ware, Russell; McCluskey (Tidser 77), McKee, Forbes, Barr (Scullion 84); McManus; Johnstone (Samuel 82). Subs not used: McGowan, Lamie, Miller.
RANGERS: Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson, Wallace; Zelalem (Forrester 58), Halliday, Law (Shiels 58); Waghorn, Miller (Ball 75), McKay. Subs not used: Bell, Ball, Clark, Hardie, Thompson.