Jostling for position in the chasing pack may be uncomfortable for Rangers but as they slowly come to terms with the challenges posed by their first season back in the top flight, it is a reality they simply have to grasp.
This victory over an Aberdeen side who established themselves as the best of the rest behind frontrunners Celtic during the Ibrox club’s four-year absence from the Premiership was the first significant result achieved by Mark Warburton’s men in pursuit of the runners-up spot which chairman Dave King has demanded as the minimum requirement from the campaign.
It was a win secured through resilience and desire, rather than any sustained spells of the cohesive and progressive football Warburton has sought to implement at Rangers.
But although Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes begged to differ, it was a deserved outcome for Warburton’s players who earned the approval of a raucous home crowd for a more prosaic and essentially “needs must” approach to the game.
It was enough to take Rangers back into second place in the table, eight points adrift of runaway leaders Celtic who have three games in hand. The real battle for Rangers is staying ahead of Hearts and Aberdeen, with another crucial assignment up next when the Gorgie men visit Ibrox this Saturday.
As well as seeking to avenge their 2-0 loss at Tynecastle last Wednesday, Rangers must find the kind of momentum which has eluded them so far. They have not yet managed more than two consecutive Premiership victories under Warburton, an issue which winger Michael O’Halloran (pictured inset) admits is top of their agenda.
“It is going to be tough to pull away in second place,” he said. “But we have been talking about that. It is about finding consistency within us. We are good one week and then we pull off it a bit. We are going talk about that and discuss it this week – how we can become more consistent and push on. Hopefully, we can take confidence from this performance. It is another big week, another chance to play Hearts again. That is what you want, the big games coming thick and fast. The boys are delighted with the result against Aberdeen. The main thing is the result and we got it. We had a wee bit more grit and determination about us. We knew we had under-performed against Hearts in midweek and it was all about making it right in front of our own fans.
“We had talked about it and analysed it. We are a pretty blunt group among ourselves and we knew it wasn’t good enough at Tynecastle. We let the club down and let the fans down, so it was good to send them home happy again by beating Aberdeen.
“From start to finish, we were determined. We had to match Aberdeen physically, win the battle and then the football would take care of itself.”
After a generally desolate first half, in which Rangers captain Lee Wallace missed the clearest scoring chance for either side, the turning point came when Aberdeen striker Jayden Stockley contrived to send a free header wide from about six yards, three minutes after the restart.
Rangers were jolted into a period of increased intensity, taking the lead four minutes later when Kenny Miller snaffled up a back-post chance from a Joe Garner cross. A first Rangers goal for Northern Ireland international Lee Hodson – far more solid at right-back than the benched James Tavernier – doubled the lead from the best move of the match in the 71st minute.
In a frenzied period of stoppage time, Rangers defender Clint Hill and then Aberdeen captain Ryan Jack were both dismissed for second bookable offences, before Andrew Considine’s 94th-minute header provided scant consolation for the visiting fans who endured another dismal afternoon in Glasgow following their team’s League Cup final defeat by Celtic at Hampden six days earlier.
Their long wait for a win at Ibrox continues. Aberdeen have now lost 32 of the 41 matches they have played at the stadium since their last victory in Govan back in September 1991.
Of more immediate relevance to McInnes and his players is getting their season back on track, with three consecutive home fixtures – starting against Kilmarnock tomorrow night – offering them the opportunity to do so.
While they are now five points behind Rangers, they have two games in hand and defender Mark Reynolds insists they are ready for what he believes will be an attritional scrap for second place.
“It will be a fight all season and we have been used to that in the last couple of years,” said Reynolds. “Hopefully, we have got that experience to fall back on. We know it will be tough, but we have a changing room full of boys who can push on and secure second, as well as hopefully push Celtic as hard as we can for as long as we can.
“We have quality right through the squad and that will show over this next month, when we have eight games. We have strength in depth and we can change the team up a bit. We’ve got goals in it and on our day we have pace in the team that nobody can live with. It’s just about finding consistency.”