Before kick-off, Rangers manager Mark Warburton was on the big screens talking about wrapping up the Championship title. He said the club could smell and taste it, and wanted to waste no more time in making promotion back to the top flight a reality.
Defeat by Falkirk last weekend had prolonged matters but should results go their way next weekend, they could get the celebrations under way. The leaders will be crowned champions if they can grab a victory over Raith Rovers and Hibs don’t claim three points from their visit to St Mirren.
But Rangers almost denied themselves that opportunity. Cruising 4-1 thanks to a blistering start to the second half, they looked like they were coasting, but in the final few minutes they might have had to settle for a draw.
“We had seven clean sheets in nine, we had only conceded two in ten – to concede six in two games is not us,” insisted the Rangers gaffer, annoyed that for the second week in a row, his men had fallen short of the standards they have set this term. “We were sloppy and poor in possession. We didn’t get to the ball and that was very un-Rangers-like. But we had a chat at half-time and our aim was to come out, play hard and fast, and move the ball. We did that. We scored three and could have scored three more. At 4-1, we were in a good place.”
But there was a slackness that undermined all that good work and both managers know that things could have ended differently. “We ran them very close at the end,” said Queen of the South boss James Fowler, who admonished the referee at the end for not adding on more time, aware that his men had been finishing strongly. “We were fearing the worst at 4-1 down and we were discussing the subs and wondering whether to shut up shop or try and go for it. We felt the next goal, which we got, would be important.”
With the teams level at the interval, after Harry Forrester’s 13th minute burst of pace and clinical finish was cancelled out by a 25th minute spot-kick, earned and well-executed by Iain Russell, the home side re-emerged with a real sense of purpose.
In the aftermath of the loss to Falkirk, Warburton had said the players just needed to learn from it and move on. A rat-a-tat quickfire rally at the start of the second half this week proved they had done so.
Fowler’s men had been growing into the game, with Ryan Conroy unfortunate not to add a second goal to the visitors’ tally in the 34th minute. His free-kick into the area had failed to beat the first defender but as it was cleared, he was the first man onto it but his curled shot crashed off the bar.
Minus the attacking options of Barrie McKay and Billy King, who are both preoccupied with Scotland Under-21 duties, Rangers had opted to leave space on the bench, no doubt believing that the players at their disposal posed a big enough threat. They did but a tawdriness in defence prompted some late jitters.
Camped in their guests’ box from the beginning of the second half, they got into their stride quickly when Michael O’Halloran was gifted space and time to shoot past Robbie Thomson. Five minutes later Danny Wilson dinked a ball over the backline, Kenny Miller squared it and Halliday acrobatically hooked it past the goalkeeper.
James Tavernier added another in the 55th minute and Queens must have feared a roasting, but Gary Oliver offered a quick rebuttal, making fools of the Rangers rearguard as he cut inside and reduced the deficit. Substitute Mark Millar ate into that lead even further as the visitors threw everything at Rangers. But with 90 minutes on the clock, they just ran out of time.