ALAN Stubbs secured the most significant result yet of his fledgling managerial career with a victory for Hibs which places fresh and intense scrutiny on Ally McCoist’s position in charge of Rangers.
Scorers: Rangers - Law (55); Hibernian - Cummings (25, 39), Gray (31)
Three goals in an astonishing 14-minute spell in the first half, two of them from 19-year-old Jason Cummings either side of David Gray’s first for the Easter Road club, put Stubbs’s men in complete control of a match which was already pivotal to their hopes of igniting a promotion challenge.
It leaves them still ten points behind early pace-setters Hearts in the Championship but now just four adrift of a Rangers outfit who saw a nine-match unbeaten run come to a shuddering halt. Nicky Law’s strike was all they could produce in response last night and it was insufficient to quieten the discontent of their supporters who can see what was once an unchallenged path back to the top flight of Scottish football strewn with daunting obstacles.
Stubbs had caused something of a stir in the build-up to the match with calls for a strong performance from referee Calum Murray and a clear inference that visiting teams at Ibrox consistently get a raw deal from those in charge of proceedings – although he made a point of playing down those comments immediately before the game.
His team certainly required no assistance from the match officials to storm into their remarkable half-time lead – there was help in abundance from the wretchedly weak defending by a shell-shocked Rangers side.
There had been little hint in the opening 20 minutes of what was to come. It was generally tepid stuff from both teams during this period with Rangers perhaps looking slightly the likelier to make the breakthrough. When Jordon Forster was caught in possession, Lee Wallace and Steven Smith combined down the left to set up the first chance of the evening for Kris Boyd, whose shot on the turn was well blocked by Liam Fontaine.
Smith then threatened with a free kick from around 20 yards, conceded by Paul Hanlon’s clumsy foul on Boyd, which he drilled low under the defensive wall. It almost caught out Hibs’ goalkeeper Mark Oxley, who could only parry the ball out, before Hanlon stepped in to clear.
Hibs gradually worked their way into some dangerous attacking positions of their own and if Cummings’ first touch had been better, his 23rd-minute shot might not have been blocked by Ian Black, who also crowded out Liam Craig’s follow-up attempt.
But Cummings made amends two minutes later when he plundered the opening goal. It came from a Rangers free-kick on the right which Smith struck tamely into the grasp of Oxley. The goalkeeper quickly launched the ball upfield where Arnold Peralta remained on guard duty for Rangers. The hapless Honduran was muscled out of possession by Cummings who bustled forward to plant a firm shot beyond the advancing Steve Simonsen, with the leaden-footed Peralta failing in his attempt to get back and clear it.
Rangers were still trying to come to terms with that setback when Hibs doubled their lead in the 31st minute. Once again, McCoist’s men were a shambles at the back. Darren McGregor’s attempted clearance fell to Dominique Malonga who held the ball up smartly on the left for Lewis Stevenson. The wing-back’s cross found Gray at the far post and he out-jumped Smith to plant a firm close-range header beyond Simonsen.
While confidence almost visibly surged through the Hibs players, Rangers were reeling as they also found themselves on the receiving end of a furious response from their own supporters. Even the jubilant visiting fans were finding it hard to credit what they were witnessing when Hibs made it 3-0 six minutes before the interval.
Malonga was involved again, showing great footwork to carry the ball towards the penalty area and then find Stevenson’s overlapping run down the left. Another fine cross picked out the unmarked Cummings, who stabbed in his second goal of the match from close range.
There were angry scenes as the teams left the pitch for the interval, Rangers defender Bilel Mohsni remonstrating forcibly with the protesting home fans.
McCoist’s response was to replace Peralta with Fraser Aird in a bid to inject greater attacking width and pace into his side. Hibs also made a change, Callum Booth taking over from Gray.
The situation could have become irretrievable for Rangers four minutes after the restart when they were fortunate not to concede a penalty when captain Lee McCulloch diverted the ball behind for a corner with an arm under pressure from Malonga.
The home side took advantage of that reprieve as they pulled a goal back in the 55th minute. Smith’s corner from the left was cleared only as far as Law, who struck a sweet half volley from just inside the penalty area, the ball seeming to take a deflection before eluding Oxley and hitting the roof of the net.
Suddenly there was some impetus in Rangers’ work as they looked to hem Hibs into their own half. But they struggled to fashion any clear-cut chances and it was the visitors who should have scored next in the 62nd minute when Forster contrived to send a free header wide from around eight yards. Rangers introduced Jon Daly and then David Templeton, at the expense of the ineffective Dean Shiels and Smith respectively, as they sought to re-ignite their salvage operation.
But a Boyd header disallowed for offside was the closest they came, while Hibs substitute Alex Harris should have put the icing on the cake for his team when he shot straight at Simonsen after racing free on goal.
Rangers: Simonsen, McGregor, Mohsni, McCulloch, Wallace, Peralta (Aird 46), Black, Law, Smith (Templeton 70), Boyd, Shiels (Daly 64). Subs not used: Hutton, Foster, Robinson, Zaliukas.
Hibernian: Oxley, Forster, Hanlon, Fontaine, Craig, Gray (Booth 46), Robertson, Scott Allan, Stevenson, Malonga, Cummings (Harris 81). Subs not used: Stanton, Heffernan, Handling, Kennedy, Perntreou.