A day that began with the Ibrox legions dreaming ahead to possible Champions League group progress ended with a humbling and humiliating defeat.
Setting out his team as they would for the away leg of a tie in a continental competition, after comfortably containing their opponents and controlling possession for long spells, Tony Mowbray’s master stroke was to switch Sproule for Garry O’Connor in the 63rd minute of an afternoon when he had made the bold decision to drop last season’s top scorer, Derek Riordan.
This, Sproule demonstrated with knobs on, setting up Hibs for victory at a venue where they had last triumphed in 1995 with the first treble netted by an opposing player at Rangers’ home since Allan Johnston for Hearts in January 1996.
Rangers should have gone ahead after only two minutes. Hibs’ central-defence was pulled out of position and Steven Thompson was offered an open invitation to smack the ball past exposed goalkeeper Zibi Malkowski. Instead, the striker hit a firm drive that the Pole was able to beat away.
The champions’ attempts to put pressure on the Hibs centre-back pairing of Gary Smith and Chris Hogg were undermined by the curious decision to post Dado Prso out wide on the left. The Croatian appeared neutered in a wide area, though this should not have prevented him opening the scoring nine minutes from the interval.
An effort slammed towards goal by Alex Rae merely cannoned off a Hibs defender and straight into the path of Prso, who wastefully shot straight at Malkowski with the goal gaping wide.
The keeper was a composed and agile figure throughout and when he tipped over a fizzing, dipping drive by Barry Ferguson shortly after the interval, a feeling began to grow that his efforts in goal might not prove in vain.
Sproule’s arrival sparked an incredible ending to an encounter in which the counter-attacking approach of Mowbray’s side had allowed them to grow in confidence as Rangers struggled for a cutting edge.
In contrast, the young Irishman was sharp as a tack from his first intervention, which saw him nip in front of Jose Pierre-Fanfan to fasten on to a ball knocked forward by David Murphy before cutely chipping the ball over Ronald Waterreus.
It was a goal that left Rangers reeling and Hibs supporters doing eightsome reels, which gave way to wild celebrations when Sproule put the contest beyond any doubt four minutes from time.
The architect of this strike was Scott Brown, who practically ran the full length of the field before feeding the striker, who produced an imperious finish to crack the ball into the far corner of the net from the right-hand edge of the box. By the time he completed his hat-trick, the home supporters who were not streaming from the exits were hurling abuse in the direction of their team, who looked bedraggled when Sproule motored forward and shrugged off the challenge of Fernado Ricksen before rounding Waterreus and tapping the ball into an empty net.