On an afternoon when most of the attention was focused on Steven Gerrard’s first league fixture as Rangers manager, it was an Aberdeen debutant who stole the headlines to deny the former England captain a winning start in the Premiership.
Bruce Anderson, a 19-year-old striker who spent part of last season on loan at Elgin City, struck three minutes into stoppage time to cancel out James Tavernier’s 30th minute penalty kick for Rangers.
The teenage substitute’s dramatic contribution earned Aberdeen a point they scarcely deserved. Playing against 10 men for most of the match, after Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos was sent off after just 12 minutes, they were second best to Gerrard’s short-handed side for long periods.
It was a breathless introduction to Premiership football for Gerrard who can take encouragement from many aspects of his team’s display. Despite the late concession of an equaliser, Rangers again provided evidence of backbone and resilience which have not been evident under Gerrard’s predecessors.
Derek McInnes, who has overseen just one victory over Rangers in nine attempts as Aberdeen manager, can at least take pride in the refusal of his players to give up the ghost on a day when they were far from at their best.
Hostilities were briefly suspended before kick-off when players and supporters of both clubs joined in a heartfelt minute’s applause in memory of the late Neale Cooper, the combative midfielder who relished this fixture and represented both clubs during his career.
It didn’t take long for that sense of unity inside the old stadium to dissipate. The early dismissal of Morelos ensured the atmosphere was soon as intense and acrimonious as has become the norm when these two sides lock horns.
The Colombian striker was bewildered by referee Kevin Clancy’s decision to reach for his top pocket and show him the red card for the 12th minute incident. Having been barged off the ball by Scott McKenna, Morelos flicked out a retaliatory boot at the Aberdeen defender. It was sufficient to constitute violent conduct in referee Kevin Clancy’s opinion and Gerrard found himself facing the first mini-crisis of his management career.
His reaction was calm and composed as he quickly relayed instructions for a tactical reshuffle to his team who had started the match brightly with their full complement of players, Jamie Murphy wasting a good chance after just four minutes when he shot tamely at Joe Lewis after being sent clear by Connor Goldson’s excellent through ball.
Rangers took a few minutes to come to terms with being reduced to 10 men as Aberdeen, sensing potential vulnerability, managed a flurry of pressure which saw Nikola Katic’s superb tackle deny Graeme Shinnie inside the penalty area before Niall McGinn then headed wide from Stephen Gleeson’s through ball.
But Aberdeen were unable to sustain the initiative and it was Rangers, with Ryan Jack and Lassana Coulibaly commanding the midfield battle, who regained their poise and were the more cohesive and dangerous side for the rest of the first half.
Their breakthrough from the penalty spot was the consequence of a rash decision by Dominic Ball, the on-loan Aberdeen defender who previously had a temporary spell on the books at Ibrox. Ball needlessly pulled down Josh Windass who had appeared unlikely to secure possession as he raced into the area.
Windass and his team-mates appealed for Ball’s dismissal but the referee insisted the spot-kick was the sole punishment. Tavernier stepped up to drive the ball home from 12 yards despite Lewis guessing correctly and diving to his right.
Aberdeen were forced into their first change of the afternoon as McKenna, injured in the build-up to the penalty award, was unable to continue. He was replaced by Chris Forrester, necessitating a shuffle in personnel which saw Dons captain Shinnie move to left-back.
The Rangers defence, unfussily marshalled by Goldson, were rarely troubled as Aberdeen struggled to find any attacking momentum. But there was finally some significant work for Allan McGregor to do on the stroke of half-time when the Rangers ‘keeper did well to cut out a dangerous cross from McGinn ahead of the lurking Sam Cosgrove.
McInnes made another change early in the second half, replacing Gleeson with Stevie May in an effort to give his side greater penetration up front. But Rangers continued to look comfortable at the back and also threatened to increase their lead on the counter attack. Windass came close in the 56th minute when he headed just off target after getting on the end of a good cross from the energetic Coulibaly.
Aberdeen switched to three at the back in order to push Shinnie back into midfield as they sought to press the game higher up the pitch. There were headed opportunities for both Mikey Devlin and Anderson as the match ticked into the closing stages but neither effort troubled McGregor.
Even the addition of six minutes of stoppage time seemed likely to provide any encouragement for the home side who had laboured so badly for so long to make their numerical superiority count.
But just as Rangers appeared poised to see the game out and mark Gerrard’s league bow with all three points, they were forced to settle for just one when Anderson marked his debut in fairytale fashion.
When Devlin lofted a pass into the area, Andrew Considine won an aerial duel with Tavernier and the ball broke towards Anderson. The youngster showed admirable composure to steady himself and guide a low left foot shot beyond McGregor’s left hand from around 15 yards.
ABERDEEN: Lewis, Ball, Devlin, McKenna (Forrester 31), Considine; Gleeson (May 52), Shinnie, Ferguson; McGinn, Cosgrove (Anderson 71), Mackay-Steven. Subs not used: Cerny, Wright, Campbell, Harrington.
RANGERS: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan; Jack (Ejaria 82), Coulibaly; Windass, Arfield, Murphy (Kent 70); Morelos. Subs not used: Alnwick, Halliday, McCrorie, Candeias, Sadiq.