THE preservation of Scottish Premiership status is firmly within Motherwell’s grasp after they claimed their first win at Ibrox for 18 years in a pulsating first leg of the play-off final.
Scorers: Rangers - McGregor (82) - Motherwell - Erwin (27), McManus (40), Ainsworth (47)
Stuart McCall’s hopes of leading Rangers back to the top flight were dealt a severe blow by his former club who shocked a raucous home support by establishing a commanding 3-0 lead in the opening 47 minutes.
Darren McGregor’s late header allows Rangers to cling onto a sliver of belief they might turn the tie around at Fir Park on Sunday but the odds are now firmly in favour of them remaining a second tier team next season.
On an evening when tension vied with expectation as the dominant feature of a fevered atmosphere inside Ibrox, the 950 Motherwell fans gathered in a corner of the stadium could scarcely have dreamed of the way the contest would unfold for their team.
Having lost nine of their previous ten away matches, Ian Baraclough’s men found themselves on the back foot for much of the opening period, giving little indication of their capacity to engineer such a dominant position in the tie.
Rangers had attempted to harness the decibel levels created by a sell-out crowd as they took the contest to Motherwell and initially looked the likelier side to make the breakthrough.
Probing on both flanks, the home side managed to bring full-backs Richard Foster and Lee Wallace into their attacking work regularly.
It was Wallace who caused the first moment of concern for Motherwell, his surge down the left allowing Nicky Clark to nip in and dispossess the dilatory Louis Laing on the edge of the penalty area. But the Rangers striker, recalled to the starting line-up by McCall, was denied a shooting opportunity by Josh Law’s covering challenge.
The early momentum was maintained by Law’s elder brother Nicky for Rangers, picking out another Wallace run on the left which produced a fine cross no-one was able to connect with along the six yard box.
Marvin Johnson, who would become increasingly prominent as the evening went on, provided the first evidence of Motherwell’s attacking threat with some bright play down the left, his dangerous cross clutched by Cammy Bell just ahead of Lee Erwin.
Rangers responded quickly through Kenny Miller, the veteran striker picking the ball up around 35 yards out and sprinting forward a few paces before curling a fine shot narrowly wide of George Long’s left-hand post.
The Motherwell ‘keeper was called upon to make his first telling save of the evening in the 21st minute, reacting well to beat away a powerful Law shot after Keith Lasley and McManus had botched their efforts to clear a Foster cutback.
Just as it seemed Rangers were taking a firm grip of proceedings, Motherwell stunned them with their 27th minute breakthrough. Erwin, who was visibly growing in confidence after a tentative start, cut inside from the right beyond Marius Zaliukas and drove in a shot from the edge of the penalty area which beat Bell with the aid of a big deflection off McGregor.
The hosts were visibly shaken by the setback and were almost undone again two minutes later when Erwin’s header from a Lionel Ainsworth header was deflected just wide for a corner.
Rangers were now struggling to find any fluency or incisiveness at the other end of the pitch, although Long made another important contribution when he blocked a McGregor header then saved Clark’s follow up effort after a corner from Haris Vuckic.
Five minutes from half-time, Motherwell struck another potentially huge blow in their battle to retain Premiership status. It was a simple but effective goal, woefully defended by Rangers but perfectly executed by the visitors. Johnson’s corner from the right picked out the towering figure of McManus who out-jumped Zaliukas to glance a header beyond Bell’s right hand into the corner of the net.
Rangers desperately needed a rapid response but Clark was unable to provide it, sending a tame header wide from Wallace’s cross. The half-time whistle was greeted with a cacophony of jeers from the home fans for whom the prospect of another season in the Championship now loomed large.
It crystallised even more just two minutes into the second half as Motherwell sent their own support into a fresh bout of delirium when they made it 3-0. It was a fabulous counter-attacking move from Baraclough’s men, laying Rangers bare at the back as Stephen Pearson and Erwin combined to set up the chance for Ainsworth who drilled a powerful low right-foot shot through the hapless Bell.
It was unravelling badly for McCall who responded with a couple of substitutions, Tom Walsh and Kris Boyd replacing Dean Shiels and Clark, in a desperate bid to regain some kind of foothold in the tie.
It looked likelier that Motherwell would add to their tally, however, and Ainsworth should have done so in the 66th minute when he blazed over from close range after being set up by the excellent Johnson.
McCall’s final throw of the dice was to send Shane Ferguson, the Northern Ireland international on loan from Newcastle, on for his debut in the closing stages. It paid a dividend to give Rangers some hope for the second leg as Ferguson’s corner was headed home by McGregor eight minutes from time.