IT was edgy, it was nervy, and it was largely devoid of any quality.
Scorers: Queen of the South - Lyle 64; Rangers - Smith 44, Shiels 75
Far more important to Rangers, though, last night’s Premiership play-off quarter-final first-leg ended in victory for the visitors that should provide them with a platform to complete the first stage of a three-level attempt at earning top-flight promotion in a week’s time. A first success in Dumfires in three attempts this season, Rangers were professional where previously they have been pitiful at Palmerston this season.
In truth, they were helped by the fact that James Fowler’s side, perhaps inhibited by the occasion, could not produce the slick counter-attacking football that had made them such a thorn to a Rangers team they will meet again at Ibrox next Sunday. However, maybe that does an injustice to Stuart McCall’s men, who earned their win with a neat first-half free-kick from Steven Smith and a second-half header from Dean Shiels that sandwiched Derek Lyle nodding in from a header. Queens weren’t able to play because Rangers did not let them.
McCall’s tactical approach might have been considered a measure of how the mighty have fallen, but ultimately it was the right one. In unfamiliar fashion, Rangers lined-up 3-5-2 with Marius Zaliukas flanked by Darren McGregor and Lee Wallace. Not only was captain Lee McCulloch missing from this backline, he didn’t feature in the squad. The five-man midfield this allowed McCall to send out meant his team were able to match-up directly to a Queens side for whom the 3-5-2 has become an orthodoxy in Fowler’s eight-month tenure.
McCall was sufficiently concerned about the control their Dumfries opponents had been able to exhibit against them in previous Palmerston encounters that he set out his team to nullify Queens instead on seeking to impose their style.
Yet, even if they boasted two home wins and a draw against Rangers in the past five months, it was a bit fanciful to make Fowler’s side favourites. The dynamics of pressurised encounters do tend to work to the benefits of clubs with players who have contested such occasions. And even without McCulloch, in such as Kenny Miller, Wallace and Zaliukas they had a smattering of such performers.
Of course, Rangers’ personnel hadn’t prevented them taking poundings on their previous two visits to a ground where the modernity of a tidy stand meets and mixes with terracings to create a fizzing, crackling atmosphere on occasions good numbers pack in. Crowds, though, respond to noteworthy incident and it took the dullness of the contest in the opening period giving way to more recognisable cup-tie football for the volume to be cranked up.
A Derek Lyle header comfortably grabbed down to his left by Cammy Bell after only 90 seconds was one of few goalmouth incidents in the opening half hour in which both sides seemed content to play risk-averse football. Rangers weren’t exactly scintillating in the first period either and Haris Vuckic clipping wide after being released by Dean Shiels was their one chance manufactured from open play.
However, a foul given for Andy Dowie pulling Vuckic seconds before the break provided McCall’s men the set-piece chance to make a crucial breakthrough in the tie.
Queens’ players were furious that referee Alan Muir hadn’t hauled up the Slovenian for his challenge on Dowie seconds before he blew. And when Steven Smith arced the subsequent free-kick from 22 yards out over the home wall and in-off the underside of Zander Clark’s crossbar, they resumed haranguing the official when he soon sounded for the end of the first 45.
Muir received more grief, but this time from Rangers players, when he failed to act on blocking of Richard Foster by opponents as he attempted to cut out a corner from Ian McShane that found an unmarked Lyle at the back post and allowed the forward to claim a 64th-minute equaliser with a downward header.
However, after betraying a fragility in the immediate aftermath of this set-back, Rangers showed that they have been toughened up by McCall when Shiels powered in a header from a Foster left-wing cross to secure a winner in the 75th minute that would appear to put Rangers firmly in position to be facing up to Hibernian a week on Wednesday in the play-off semi-finals.
Queen of the South: Clark; Durnan, Dowie, Higgins; Kidd (Russell 83), McKenna (McKenna 59), Carmichael, McShane, Holt; Lyle, Reilly. Subs not used: Aitkinson, Hooper, Miller, Pickard, Paton, Smith.
Rangers: Bell; McGegor, Zaliukas, Wallace; Foster, Murdoch, Shiels, Law, Smith (Crawford 62); Vuckic (Clark 82), Miller. Subs not used: Robinson, Black, Boyd, Streete, Walsh.
Referee: Alan Muir. Attendance: N/A