LET’S be honest: the current Rangers defence is no Iron Curtain. They say – and this is the fans talking – that Marius Zaliukas always has one big clanger in him while Lee McCulloch, creaking at 37, was recently booed by a home crowd when his slip led to a goal.
Richard Foster suffered the taunts of an underwhelmed supporter while at a celebrity Q&A (though impressively for a footballer the celeb wasn’t a reality-show flibbertigibbet but the great Al Pacino). And then there’s Bilel Mohsni, a superstar but only in his own head, much like Lorenzo Amoruso was, and one of Scottish football’s great comedy turns.
Maybe this bunch aren’t going to be revered or even much remembered like the redoubtable backlines of the late 1940s and early 1950s featuring George Young, Willie Woodburn and Jock Shaw, but the truth is that Stuart McCall’s men are getting the club through its first experience of the play-offs.
They will have expected an onslaught from the opposition in the last 20 minutes – this has happened in every play-off game – but here they got one in the first 20 as well. There was Zaliukas, though, heading clear. Or McCulloch would boot one high into the stands. What they couldn’t reach, Cammy Bell would paw away. When all else failed, McCulloch would tumble dramatically – Pacino would be proud – to win a free kick, relieve the pressure and buy more time.
Afterwards, their relieved manager could look forward, sort of, to a final against his old club, Motherwell. McCall admitted it had been a slog, that pure adrenaline had got his knackered players through the game, and would have to do so again come Thursday. But the team, much-derided this season, deserved some positive words for dragging the club this far.
“The players would be the first to admit it’s been a disappointing campaign, but they are turning it around themselves and credit goes to them because they are showing. We weren’t great [against Hibs], obviously, but there are different ways to win and that was about resolution. It’s good to look around the dressing room and see you have that because it’s what you need.”
Hibs fairly battered Rangers in that spell with Scott Allan flashing crosses and dead balls at the unsung defence. Hibs didn’t need to score right away but they will look back on that spell as being when they definitely should have done. Jason Cummings and Dominique Malonga could have an interesting argument over who spurned the best chance.
Malonga was barely involved in the opening period, matching Rangers’ more advanced players for fewest touches and some of them got none, until being put through by Allan. He hadn’t got himself ready and the attempt was pretty woeful. Cummings’ problems were the usual ones of bad contact and bad decision-making. He sclaffs a lot of his shots and some turn into goals, but not early on. This causes frustration, and he will then try to score a wonder goal when already closed down.
In the second half, to challenge this assessment, Malonga had to work to get his shots away and this he did, coming closest with a right-foot drive which stung Bell’s hand. And there was nothing wrong with the contact Cummings got on the left-foot dink for Hibs’ breakthrough, only that it came too late.
For Rangers, the play-offs pressure-cooker will now be turned up to full, although McCall reckons it’s been like that from the beginning. “We’ve come through four really, really tough games and the lads are shattered,” he said. “There were no favourites between us and Queen of the South, especially with our record at their place, and there were certainly no favourites between us and Hibs because they’ve got a very good side. There will be no favourites either between us and Motherwell.
“We’ve got what everyone talks about – momentum – and we’ve got togetherness but, no doubt about it, I’m sure these will be two tight, tight games with Motherwell. Obviously I managed Motherwell at Ibrox a few times and their record wasn’t good there, although in my last one they managed to get a 0-0 draw which was their best result in a while. Comparing us, things balance out. Over this season we’ve won more games and they’ve had a wee struggle, hence them finishing 11th, but we’ve just had those four really difficult games. The good part for us is at least it’s not until Thursday.”