RANGERS’ nerves were tested to the full by the play-offs yesterday – and they are only a third of the way through the process that they hope will lead them back to the Premiership.
Rangers - 1
Queen of the South - 1
Rangers won 3-2 on aggregate
Referee: K Clancy
The Ibrox club will host Hibernian on Wednesday following a tense draw with Queen of the South in which the Dumfries team only failed to take the tie into extra time after Rangers’ best attacker, Haris Vuckic, had managed to head the ball off the goal-line.
It was just like old times at the beginning. A thunderous welcome from Rangers’ biggest crowd of the season who found the offer of £5 admission irresistible. But the cheers were silenced when Derek Lyle levelled the tie for a Queens side who contributed a lot to both games but ultimately just fell short. Lee Wallace levelled the match and restored Rangers’ advantage and they held on to the end – just.
For Stuart McCall beforehand, there was the temptation to stick with the 3-5-2 which prised a lead from the first leg, and has worked elsewhere on Rangers’ travels. But would the faithful – and especially this 48,055 representation – be receptive to such a mean and stuffy performance in Govan?
Queens, on the other hand, were seeking inspiration from Hamilton Accies. Like Accies against Hibernian at the halfway stage of their play-off last season, the Doonhamers were behind from the home leg but generally happy with the performance. The hope was that up against a bigger team whose fans were sniffing a successful outcome, they could score first and spread tension right round the ground.
McCall did go bolder. Nicky Clark for Stevie Smith, scorer of a spectacular free kick in the first game, was the personnel change. The ripple-effects of this through the team pushed Kenny Miller forward in support of Haris Vuckic and Lee Wallace out left, to get up the flank as often as possible.
This he did. The first shot at goal came from one of his surges in the eighth minute, Clark firing wide from his cross. Thereafter, Wallace continued to have the freedom of the flank and, if his final ball wasn’t always the best, he was one of the chief reasons Rangers dominated the opening quarter. The closest they came to scoring was when Vuckic wriggled in the box to create space for Nicky Law, Zander Clark saving well.
The Queens keeper had an even better stop in the 27th minute, diving low to his left to palm away a rasping Vuckic drive after Dean Shiels had found the Slovenian with an artful pass. By that stage, Queens manager James Fowler had taken action to stop Wallace, switching from three at the back to four and giving Lewis Kidd the detail out wide.
Queens had not been able to get forward but, in the 34th minute, in their first attack, they scored. Clark gave the ball away, Chris Higgins fed Mark Millar who strode forward with real intent, feeding Danny Carmichael on the right. Last week’s star man crossed high and deep and Derek Lyle bulleted his header past Cammy Bell.
In the first game, Lyle had been involved in “barge-gate” with his goal at Palmerston being mired in controversy and accusations that Rangers defenders had been taken out at the crucial moment. No such problems this time: there was nothing wrong with the striker’s prodigious leap.
With the left flank no longer so available to them, Rangers needed a plan B. The only other meaningful action of the first half was a shot by Kevin Holt after slack play by Shiels. The full-back had also been prominent last week but his attacking contribution had been curbed until this moment. Still, Queens had the first goal they so keenly wanted.
The Doonhamers settled into the second period better, prompting grumbles and groans from the stands. Rangers’ response was a powerful Miller header from a Richard Foster cross. If Clark knew anything about it, then he produced another great save.
Queens had the next chance, Gavin Kelly being put clear by a flick from Lyle. But as he ran towards a full stand holding its collective breath his touch was heavy and Bell gathered. How he and Queens would rue the missed opportunity. On the hour, Vuckic crossed from the left and Clark cushioned the ball with his chest for Wallace – inactive for a while – to fire home.
Queens appealed for offside but replays appeared to show the full-back was level. Now they had to go for it. Fowler sacrificed a defender, Mark Durnan, for a forward, Iain Russell.
Then Aidan Smith, scorer of the late equaliser in the 1-1 draw Queens achieved at Ibrox in March, joined the action. The pair tried to rescue the game and some Russell trickery led to a corner. Ian McShane’s kick found Lyle whose shot beat Bell but Vuckic on the line headed away.
Queens would win a few more corners. They had all the play in the last 15 minutes and Rangers, who had started the match with three at the back, faced up to the last-gasp effort with a six-man defence.
Even then, Marius Zaliukas sliced horribly and, thankfully for him, Bell was in the right place to gather the ball. There was still time for a comedy moment from Bilel Mohsni. The Tunisian substitute wouldn’t have been most people’s choice as a calming presence and when the right thing to do was a dash to the corner to waste time, he elected to shoot from an outrageous distance. But Rangers survived.
Rangers: Bell, Foster, McGregor, Zaliukas, Wallace,
Murdoch, Shiels (Smith, 86), Vuckic, Law, Miller, Clark (Mohsni, 86). Subs not used: Black, Boyd, Crawford, Simonsen, Walsh.
Queen of the South: Clark, Durnan (Russell, 69), Dowie, Higgins, Kidd, McShane, Carmichael, Millar (McKenna, 62), Holt, Lyle, Reilly (Smith, 73). Subs not used: Atkinson, Hooper, Pickard.
1st leg: Rangers v Hibs, Ibrox, Wednesday (7:45pm).
2nd leg: Hibs v Rangers, Easter Road, Saturday (12noon).
1st leg: Semi–final winner v Motherwell, Thu 28 May (7:45pm).
2nd leg: Motherwell v semi–final winner, Fir Park, Sun 31 May (3pm).