“What’s the meaning of this?” said Dean Shiels, as he was shoehorned into the tightest space underneath the main stand at Palmerston to talk about how he’d just won Rangers some early play-off advantage with a fine goal. “Has Fowler only given us a corridor?”
Just then, James Fowler, the Queen of the South manager, tried to pass through but unsurprisingly got stuck. “A corridor?” repeated Shiels before a bearhug between the pair which in the circumstances might have been unavoidable. “What’s he been saying?” asked Fowler. “I hope he’s been telling you he was lucky.”
Fowler and Shiels are friends and former team-mates, members of the Kilmarnock team which won the 2012 League Cup. This was a nice moment between them, and a fleeting chance to let down guards in the desperate scramble for the last available place in the Premiership. But don’t think this tie wasn’t an intense affair, or that it won’t be again.
Witness the look of controlled thunder on Fowler’s face when he was asked in a larger room – well, Palmerston is his stadium – if he thought Queens could play better in next Sunday’s second leg. “Don’t you think we played well in this one?” he challenged.
So, were Rangers lucky? Only up to a point. On the Dumfries plastic, Queens played bright football throughout, dominating the second half. But Stuart McCall’s men did a job on them, a professional job. They went five across the middle to cope with the 5G and a team which had banged five goals past them in the two previous meetings here, stunning victories going a long way to bringing Queens this far.
There was a meanness to Rangers all over the artificial surface. It was in Lee Wallace, switched into the middle of the defence in Lee McCulloch’s absence and a flinty character all game long. It was in Haris Vuckic, a strapping figure up front with a Gigantor stride even if this time he couldn’t quite muscle his way into position for one of his trademark sweeping left-foot goals. These are muscles which are shown off to good advantage by the superhero spray-on shirts Rangers have been wearing this season. The outfits are less flattering on some of the Scots in the team, however, and these guys must be hoping that wherever the team play next term, there will be a re-design.
In its meanness and the manner in which Rangers broke up the flow of a better-passing side, there were similarities with the 2-0 victory at Easter Road which ended Hibernian’s winning run against them. Maybe Stevie Smith didn’t gallop forward quite as often as Wallace on the flank had done that day but, like the latter, he did score the all-important first goal, and what a cracker it was.
If there was some controversy about the award of the free kick – just as there would be about what Rangers claimed was systematic bumping at the corner which led to Derek Lyle’s headed equaliser – the accuracy and power of Smith’s left-foot boomer from 25 yards was not in doubt.
Before Saturday night the Rangers hordes had not enjoyed their trips down to Palmerston. It would have been very difficult, and probably pointless, to try to convince them that this is the most charming ground in all of Scottish football.
But after this important victory, secured with Shiels’ athletic leap and angled header for the winning goal from Richard Foster’s cross, you would like to think they would be waxing lyrical about the Hole I’ the Wa’ Stand and the Terregles Street End with its painterly jumble of roofs and spires. Who knows, the faithful may now be planning a fourth trip to Palmerston, for Status Quo’s gig there next month. In the capital of the constituency which had sent Scotland’s sole Conservative and Unionist MP to Westminster, they were singing Rule Britannia lustily by the end.
But: tie over? “No one in our dressing room is feeling like that,” said Kevin Holt. “I thought we played really well. Right from the start we tried to pass the ball and we all think we should have come away with a draw and maybe even the lead.”
The adventurous full-back was one of Queens’ most eye-catching performers on the night and must have run man-of-the-match Danny Carmichael close for his award. The latter is the Doonhamers’ Xavi when they attempt their version of tiki-taka while Holt is all gangly legs and irrepressibility, and with the score locked at 1-1 he almost turned the quarter-final Queens’ way with a rasping right-foot shot which Cammy Bell had to paw round a post.
“I didn’t even see if it was going in as I was face down on the ground but I heard the reaction of the crowd,” he said. “Obviously I’m disappointed we didn’t get a better result. Give credit to Rangers but hopefully we can go to Ibrox next week and come through. We’ll lift ourselves up in training and we’ll go again.”
The £5 match, as it has been called, could see Big Hoose sold out but Holt is unconcerned about facing a vast crowd stirred by cheap admission and Rangers’ lead in the tie.
“A full house is going to be great for us as well,” he said. “We can go there and quieten their fans and try to get them on the Rangers players’ backs and make it harder rather than a big crowd being to their advantage.”
He admitted Queens would have to score the first goal. “That’s going to be vital but we won’t be going gung-ho and running the risk of putting ourselves out of the tie. There’s no pressure to do that and we can go there and play the passing game we like to play and see what happens.”