ON A night when the heat being generated by Rangers supporters protesting outside the stadium was in stark contrast to the wintry conditions which brought the action on the pitch to a premature end, Hearts manager
Robbie Neilson backed the abandonment which denied his team the chance to move 16 points clear at the top of the Championship.
After just 24 minutes of often farcical action on a snow-covered playing surface, referee Bobby Madden called a halt to what had been built up as a potentially decisive contest in the race for automatic promotion this season.
Although the match official was greeted by jeers when he picked up the ball and signalled for both teams to head up the tunnel for an early night, there were no complaints from either side.
Hopes that the conditions would impove as the match progressed proved unfounded, the signs of how much of a lottery it would be evident from the opening minutes when a promising run from Rangers left-back Lee Wallace came to a comical end when the ball held up in the snow and left him swiping a boot at thin air on the edge of the Hearts penalty area.
While it was Neilson’s men who came closest to scoring in the action that did take place, most notably when Alim Ozturk’s thunderous free-kick was touched on to the bar by Rangers goalkeeper Steve Simonsen, he took no issue with Madden’s handling of the situation.
With Ozturk leaving Ibrox nursing a shin injury, Neilson was simply relieved to avoid what he claimed could have been serious physical damage to any of his players as a consequence of the treacherous pitch.
“At the end of the day, you need to respect the players as well,” said Neilson. “You can’t say the game’s got to go ahead because it’s live on TV or because there are people inside the stadium.
“Players’ careers are on the line as well. There are young guys there who have got 15 years ahead of them in the game – if they had kept the game going, it could have ruined a career.
“I don’t think the fact the game was live on TV had any influence on it. No matter what pitch you are on, you do need to give it a try. I think Bobby made the right decision putting the game on and he made the right decision cancelling it eventually.
“You get different types of snow when you play. Some will break up, some will melt, some will turn to slush and some will turn to ice. Nobody knows beforehand, so you need to take that chance.
“I watched a bit of the pre-match warm-up and the ball was probably running better then, when there was actually more snow on the pitch. But during the game it started to pack down and turn to ice. It was getting worse as the game went on.
“It would take a lot of manpower to clear a whole pitch before the game. I don’t think you would be able to do it.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
“Bobby made the right call at the start and we could have had a decent game. But tonight it just turned to ice. It was soft underneath and then hard on the top and it becomes a shambles.
“Bobby came over and asked what our thoughts were and I said I felt it was getting dangerous. It was only a matter of time, if the game had gone on, that someone got a bad injury.
“Players were missing the ball and others were falling over it, but the real worry is that someone gets injured. Alim took a bad one on his shin with a 50-50 tackle when both players missed the ball.”
Rangers caretaker manager Kenny McDowall was left frustrated by the call-off but echoed Neilson’s support for Madden.
“A lot of preparation went into this week and the players were looking forward to the match so it’s a pity,” said McDowall. “It’s easy in hindsight but I think the referee hoped that with the players on it, and the undersoil heating on, that the pitch would thaw out.
“But the temperature was pretty cold so it didn’t allow it to thaw out at all and it turned into ice. The players couldn’t pass the ball or turn when they tried to run so it became very difficult and it was the correct decision in the end to call it off.
“It was difficult in the warm-up. You could tell it was pretty heavy and right away we had to say to the players to be careful with their passing. It was slowing up so you needed to get the ball in the air to get any kind of distance on it at all. It made us think about one or two different ways to play in it.
“I was inside until it was time to do the warm up and I couldn’t believe the amount of snow despite our ground staff working hard. They were never going to clear it in that time. The undersoil heating was on full blast but just too much fell in a short time.”
McDowall insisted he was oblivious to the pre-match protests against Mike Ashley and the current Ibrox board outside the ground by around 600 Rangers supporters. “I was on the park at 7pm for our warm-up so I don’t know what was going on outside,” said McDowall. “I know what you’re talking about but I didn’t hear it. This isn’t new – we’ve had three-and-a-half years of this but I don’t know exactly what happened tonight.
“It’s my job to prepare the team and try to get them to focus on what was a massive match and we put a lot of work into it all week. I need to keep the players focused on what we are trying to achieve.”
Rangers: Simonsen, Foster, McGregor, McCulloch, Wallace; Aird, Law, Hutton, Smith; Daly, Miller. Subs not used: Robinson, Black, Templeton, Clark, Boyd, Faure, Shiels..
Hearts: Alexander, McGhee, Ozturk, Wilson, Eckersley; Gomis; Nicholson, Buaben, Walker; Zeefuik. Subs not used: Gallacher, Holt, King, Pallardo, Keatings, Sow, McKay.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS