Rangers struggled past ten-man Hearts in a match between two sides who are desperate for the season to end. Joel Sked gives his take on the encounter.
Wake us up when the season ends
First thing’s first. This was a game between two teams who can’t wait for the final whistle next Sunday afternoon, signalling the end of the 2016-2017 season. There have been fleeting moments of promise but for both sides it has turned into a slog just to get over the line.
That was shown on a wet, grey, dreary Glasgow afternoon. With pockets of seats unoccupied at Ibrox the atmosphere was subdued. Those in attendance were there because it is what they do, turn up and support their team. Even if it makes an afternoon of furniture shopping or even carrying out the unenviable task of scrubbing the toilet appealing.
Both sides started the season with high hopes. Hearts were back in Europe having finished third on their return to the top flight and were aiming higher. Rangers were finally back in the Ladbrokes Premiership after four seasons away. They had defeated Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final in the season prior.
What has transpired is a season which will be instantly forgettable in Govan and Gorgie. In years to come fans of both sides will for whatever reason have brief memories of the 2016-2017 season which will send a chilling shiver down the spine.
Windass a key player
Last season Josh Windass netted 17 times for Accrington Stanley from a predominantly attacking midfield role. He looked a shrewd acquisition. Despite what some may claim, the step up from League 2 in England to the Ladbrokes Premiership is significant, especially when the move is to one of the country’s biggest clubs.
With two games of the season remaining Windass is getting nowhere near that total at Ibrox, having netted only once, although he has played well under half the minutes he did last season. The 23-year-old was starting only his third game since New Year’s Eve.
He was a constant threat for Pedro Caixinha’s side throughout with his forward runs, breaking from deep, beyond Joe Garner. Early on he latched on to a Barrie McKay through-ball before playing a key role in what appeared to be the game’s turning point.
With Hearts in the ascendancy a long ball was nodded on by Garner and Windass read it expertly to get goal side of a vacant Prince Buaben before being tugged back as he headed towards goal, resulting in a red card.
His direct runs forced Hearts defenders into difficult decisions and last-ditch blocks and tackles. With no Lee Wallace, his runs are ideal for Barrie McKay’s passing quality and vision. It was a surprise when he was replaced early in the second half.
Positive signs from Hearts
Those who travelled through from Edinburgh must have been fearing the worst, already picturing themselves with a pint in hand, when Rangers took the lead with little over five minutes on the clock. It was set to be a long afternoon.
But then Hearts started to play and impose themselves on proceedings. Just when those same fans were thinking about the possibilities – a first win away from home since February 4, a first goal since February 22 – they were left with another gut-punch when Prince Buaben’s afternoon ended after 25 minutes. The peaks and troughs, the hope and despair of a football fan.
Yet, what was to follow was the team’s best performance under Ian Cathro since these sides last met at the start of February. For the first time in several weeks there were consistent, rather than fleeting, signs of what Cathro wants to achieve.
The 30-year-old met fans on Monday and explained what he was aiming to do, how he wanted his side to play. Even down to ten men, there were many positive signs, especially in possession. The ball moved around with confidence at an increased tempo.
As well as that, despite a weak defence and a man short, Hearts were relatively organised, preventing Rangers from putting them under a sustained period of pressure. It was aided by a positive and brave change in system by Cathro, switching from a 4-4-1 to 3-4-2 in the second-half.
However, the aspect which will have most pleased both Cathro and the fans was the team’s application and resilience. The players have had their spirit, their attitude and their character questioned by many, but even after the early concession, the red card, the goalkeeping error to hand Rangers the lead for the second time, the players stuck to their task. They worked for each other, kept fighting and pushing until the end.
READ MORE - Ian Cathro: The team deserved more
The curse of Kurskis
Ten years ago, 15 December 2007 to be precise, Hearts were heading to a respectable 1-1 draw at Ibrox under the management of Anatoly Korobochka and Stephen Frail. Then Eduardas Kurskis went up to claim a cross. The ball came down a lot quicker than the goalkeeper. His fumble allowed Lee McCulloch to net an 87th minute winner.
Ten years on an eerily similar happening took place in front of the Copland Road Stand. A harmless ball was swung into the Hearts box by James Tavernier only for debutant Viktor Noring to inexplicably punch the ball. Despite being under no pressure he punched it straight into the Glasgow sky before, under pressure, failing to catch the ball as it came back down, flapping it as far as Barrie McKay who netted what proved to be a runner.
For weeks and months Hearts fans had been asking themselves, each other and anyone who would listen: ‘Just how bad is Viktor Noring?’ They’ve watched Jack Hamilton struggle through the second half of the season. Indecision, poor kicking and an increasing number of mistakes leading to goals.
Twice, the Hearts number one was booed at Tynecastle in the club’s defeat to Aberdeen. Once after pushing a shoot straight to Adam Rooney to net the Dons’ opener and then in again in the second half following a throw that went into touch.
Hamilton, in his defence, has been hung out to dry. In the first instance by the club’s summer juggling of the goalkeeping position. No matter what Robbie Neilson and the club say, originally there was no plan for Hamilton to be number one. Then, when his form deteriorated, he seemed undroppable, playing every minute of the season until now.
Noring had a strong first half, making two solid saves. He was active off his line and his kicking was sharp. Then, Hearts were given their answer when Tavernier’s harmless cross entered the Hearts box.
A new goalkeeper is high on Hearts fans’ wish-list.
What is Caixinha trying to do?
It is a question that has been asked incessantly of Ian Cathro and will be one which Caixinha will have to answer. Fortunately for him he has had less time between being appointed and the end of the season.
There are two schools of thought. First, it is unfair to be too critical of either manager due to the situation they took over. Second, they should be getting more out of their team. The decibel levels of criticism increased after the 5-1 home defeat to Celtic.
No matter if the players aren’t his, Caixinha should have had more of an effect on preventing Celtic running up such a score in such a dominant performance. Any early optimism had been lost.
They’ve responded with a late win at Partick Thistle and a stuttering three points at home to Hearts. But in both 2-1 victory there were few concise signs of what Caixinha wants from his team, the ethos, an identity.
It appears the Portuguese manager wants a high-tempo approach. He is often seen on the touchline encouraging his players into closing down opponents and when Rangers have the ball he wants it moved forward quickly, directly if necessary – ie hitting it long to Joe Garner.
But in two games against Celtic it seemed Caixinha was clouded in his judgement and that showed on the field. Against Thistle Caixinha was chopping and changing with little direction. The opening goal in the defeat was met by effusive praise by Caixinha. But other than that Rangers were pedestrian and disjointed.
The Portuguese manager has a big job on his hands. He will need to have clarity to take substantial steps at Rangers.