SKIPPER Lee McCulloch helped himself to a first-half hat-trick as Rangers clinched the Scottish League One title with a convincing 3-0 win over Airdrie at Ibrox.
Rangers 3 - 0 Airdrie
SCORERS - Rangers: McCulloch 3′ (pen), 21′ (pen), 41′
BOOKINGS: Rangers - Foster; Airdrie - Adam, Buchanan, McAleer
Referee: B Colvin
Rangers completed the second phase of their projected elevation to the top flight of Scottish football last night with the kind of minimum fuss and maximum efficiency which was in the starkest possible contrast to their Scottish Cup struggle against bottom-tier strugglers Albion Rovers three days earlier.
Redemption for that performance and result will only be secured with victory in Monday night’s replay, but this was an occasion Ally McCoist’s team and their fans were able to enjoy without anxiety.
Rangers’ dominance of
League 1 has been apparent from the opening weeks of the campaign and a first half hat-trick from captain Lee McCulloch – two of the goals came from the penalty spot – eased them to victory and the title with eight games to spare.
Their unbeaten run in all competitions now stands at 35 games, an impressive statistic regardless of how unconvincing their football may have been at various stages of the campaign. With 25 wins and two draws from their 27 league games so far, little more could reasonably be expected of McCoist’s team in earning passage to the Championship for next season.
It is the earliest a title has been clinched in Scottish football since Partick Thistle wrapped up the second tier in February 1976, although in that season their league programme ended in March.
Criticism of Rangers’ least impressive displays this season, most forcibly made in the wake of their grim Scottish Cup quarter-final toil at Ibrox on Sunday, has focused on a shortage of pace, intensity and invention from McCoist’s side.
But as they cruised through the League 1 winning line last night, they could certainly not be accused of lacking vibrancy or desire. The accuracy of their passing and movement off the ball was also significantly improved as they overwhelmed their visitors.
Airdrie had arrived at Ibrox in buoyant mood, on the back of a seven-match unbeaten run which has lifted them off the bottom of the table.
But they were simply overwhelmed in the opening stages as Rangers produced the kind of response to their weekend woe that both their manager and supporters were looking for.
It was the perfect start for the home side as McCulloch opened his account from the spot in the third minute. There was no doubt about the award, Andy Little racing onto a through ball from David Templeton and being taken down inside the penalty area by outrushing
Airdrie goalkeeper Grant Adam.
Referee Brian Colvin pointed to the spot immediately and decided a yellow card was sufficient additional punishment for Adam who must have feared the prospect of an early end to his night’s work.
McCulloch stepped up to send Adam the wrong way from
12 yards, blasting the ball high into the net to set Rangers on their way.
The momentum was maintained as they dominated possession and stretched Airdrie down both flanks. Bilel Mohsni nodded a Fraser Aird corner over from close range, then Jon Daly glanced an effort wide as he got on the end of a Richard Foster cross. It was one-way traffic, Airdrie struggling to get out of their own half.
Daly passed up another opportunity when he lofted a shot over after excellent build-up play from the lively Templeton but the second goal arrived in the 21st minute when Airdrie conceded another penalty.
While not as clear-cut as the first one, there were only half-hearted complaints from the Airdrie players when Gregor Buchanan was penalised for a rash challenge on Templeton as the winger cut inside him after being released down the left by Lee Wallace. McCulloch duly stepped forward to produce
almost a carbon copy of his
first penalty, Adam once more going the wrong way. How comprehensive this victory would be depended simply on Rangers’ ruthlessness in front of goal as they carved out a regular supply of opportunities. Nicky Law squandered two of them, the midfielder driving a shot straight at Adam after being set up by Foster, then stubbing another effort into the clutches of the goalkeeper after Little and Daly combined to create the chance.
But Rangers claimed the third goal which reflected their superiority when McCulloch completed his hat-trick four minutes before the interval. Little and Law combined smartly to find their skipper inside the box and he stabbed a shot beyond Adam’s left hand from around 14 yards.
There was a double setback for Rangers on the stroke of half-time, Little and Templeton both limping off to be replaced by Nicky Clark and Arnold Peralta. But no change in personnel was going to prevent their mission being accomplished at this stage.
Rangers were less fluent after the break but maintained a high degree of urgency as they looked to add to their tally. Mohsni was unfortunate not to get his name on the scoresheet in the 55th minute when he struck Adam’s right hand post with a low shot then dragged the rebound wide of the target.
While it was now a damage limitation exercise for Gary Bollan’s side, they were able to pose the occasional threat at the other end where Cammy Bell was called into action to deal with a shot from Jim Lister.
As the match petered out in the closing stages, both teams were content to run down the clock. Airdrie’s players departed the scene hastily at the final whistle, leaving Rangers to take a lap of honour in front of the jubilant home fans
Rangers: Bell; Foster, Mohsni, McCulloch, Wallace; Aird, Black, Law, Templeton (Peralta 45); Little (Clark 45), Daly. Subs not used: Simonsen, Shiels, Faure, Crawford, Smith.
Airdrieonians: Adam; Barr (Stewart 62), Buchanan, Milojevic, Boyle; McAleer, McCormack, Watt, Bain; Parker (Coogans 80), Lister (Cadden 75). Subs not used: McCluskey, Coult, Evans, Ward..