EVEN as part of a saga which should no longer hold the element of surprise for anyone, this latest episode in the unravelling of Rangers was startling to behold.
Scorers: Rangers - Vuckic 62; Raith Rovers - Conroy 54, Nade 75
For the first time since 1959, when a certain Jim Baxter was at the heart of Raith Rovers’ midfield, the Kirkcaldy club celebrated a victory over Rangers at Ibrox.
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While much of the focus will inevitably be on the wretched state Rangers currently find themselves in, Grant Murray’s Rovers side fully merited their win, earned through goals by Ryan
Conroy and Christian Nade, as they claimed a place in today’s Scottish Cup quarter-final draw.
In front of the second-lowest attendance of the season at Ibrox – only the Challenge Cup fixture against Clyde was witnessed by fewer than the 11,422 inside the stadium yesterday – Rangers delivered a level of performance which lent credence to the view expressed by former captain Richard Gough last week that they are the worst team in the club’s history.
Not even a debut goal by midfielder Haris Vuckic, one of the five loan signings imported from Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United, could spare Rangers from their latest bout of cup misery. Defender Remie Streete was the only other one of the quintet fit enough to play but he limped off before half-time.
Rovers had suffered a 6-1 defeat on their previous visit to Ibrox on league business back in October but they would have arrived for this tie with no fears of a similar drubbing against opponents whose form has diminished significantly since then.
The increasing lack of confidence and conviction among the Rangers players has come in tandem with the interminable turmoil off the field, as caretaker manager Kenny McDowall’s side operated in front of such sparsely populated stands yesterday.
The low-key atmosphere was punctuated occasionally by chants of “sack the board” and the unveiling of a banner depicting the current regime as “vermin”.
The action on the pitch was very much of the slow-burning variety but it was the visitors who created the first real opening in the 14th minute when Dougie Hill narrowly failed to connect with Conroy’s well-delivered corner from the right.
That sparked Rangers into a response in which Richard Foster and Nicky Law combined effectively down the right. Law’s cutback was inviting for Kenny Miller but the veteran striker could only execute an embarrassing fresh-air swipe as the chance slipped away.
The two loanees were keen to make an impression, Streete earning the approval of the home fans with a crunching challenge to dispossess Nade, while Vuckic displayed some elegant touches and intelligent movement.
Foster’s raiding runs from right-back were providing Rangers’ most threatening moments and it needed a brilliant defensive header by Paul Watson to deprive Jon Daly of a simple chance inside the six-yard box. Foster’s next cross was equally menacing, this time picking out Daly whose close-range header was well saved by David McGurn.
But Rovers continued to look every bit as likely as their hosts to make the breakthrough. They were unfortunate not to do so in the 27th minute when Watson met Conroy’s corner from the left and saw his firm header rebound off the inside of Steve Simonsen’s left-hand post and straight back into the goalkeeper’s arms.
A powerful run by Vuckic got Rangers back on to the front foot, feeding the ball to Daly whose lay-off teed up Miller for a 20-yard shot which McGurn gathered comfortably.
Streete’s debut came to a premature end when he pulled up with a groin problem and was replaced by Darren McGregor a minute before the interval.
Rovers made a purposeful start to the second half, perhaps with a strengthening sense that this tie was theirs for the taking. That belief hardened when they took the lead in the 54th minute through Conroy’s superb free kick.
Kyle Hutton conceded the set-piece with a trip on Ross Callachan just outside the penalty area and Conroy’s technique was exemplary as he curled the ball up and over the defensive wall and beyond Simonsen’s left hand into the top corner of the net.
McGurn made a smart save to deny Law as Rangers tried to hit back immediately, but the visiting goalkeeper was powerless to prevent the home side’s 62nd-minute leveller. Following a forceful run by Hutton, he picked out Vuckic’s run into the penalty area and the Slovenian international drilled a precise left-foot shot across McGurn and into the far corner of the net.
The goal might have been expected to give Rangers the initiative and they looked to take it. Kris Boyd, on for Daly, forced a save from McGurn as he got on the end of Law’s pass inside the area.
But much of Rangers’ work remained ragged and directionless. There was no bigger culprit than Ian Black and the midfielder was subjected to ironic cheers from the home support when he was replaced by young Andy Murdoch with 16 minutes remaining.
Rovers seized their opportunity for a memorable victory with a goal which was something of a calamity for Simonsen. The goalkeeper was weak in his attempt to gather the ball as Mark Stewart tried to get on the end of Jason Thomson’s cutback at the near post. It spun loose into the path of Nade who gobbled up the tap-in from a couple of yards out.
Murray’s men saw out the tie with a degree of comfort. Boyd should have salvaged a replay for Rangers when he wastefully headed Murdoch’s cross wide from close range in the 90th minute before five minutes of stoppage time were safely negotiated by the jubilant Rovers players.
Rangers: Simonsen, Foster, Streete (McGregor 44), McCulloch, Wallace; Law, Black (Murdoch 74), Hutton, Vuckic; Miller, Daly (Boyd 65). Subs not used: Robinson, Aird, Clark, Shiels.
Raith Rovers: McGurn, Thomson, Watson, Hill, McKeown; Anderson, Moon, Callachan, Conroy; Carrick (Stewart 51), Nade (Scott 86). Subs not used: Cuthbert, Fox, Scott, Vaughan, Matthews, Barr.