Steven Gerrard has warranted little criticism since arriving in Scotland in a blaze of media attention. But he broke one of the ten commandments of football management yesterday by making a change just before his side defended a corner. Rangers paid a heavy price.
Peter Hartley swept in an equaliser to deny the Ibrox side their first away league win of the campaign. Aberdeen struck almost as late on the opening weekend of the season to frustrate Gerrard’s hopes of securing a victory on the road in his first league outing. They have another chance on Sunday – at Celtic Park.
This was breathless fare and probably the last thing Rangers needed at the start of such a challenging seven days. A crazy first half ended with Rangers leading after Motherwell were twice in front. Kyle Lafferty’s double on his first start since returning to Ibrox had strengthened the impression that Gerrard can do little wrong. His side seemed to have returned to their more resilient and disciplined ways in the second half after conceding twice for the time this season. Rangers’ resolve weakened once more at the crucial moment.
Hartley of all people secured a deserved draw for Motherwell with almost the last kick of the game.
He had come close just minutes earlier with a flying header. The drama was only delayed. The Rangers fans spent the preceding 90 minutes jeering the Motherwell skipper following injudicious comments he made about relishing seeing Fabio Cordoso “weeping” after the then Rangers player broke his nose in a game last season. These words, delivered in a pre-match press conference, were swiftly retracted. But the fall-out lingered.
Most predicted Hartley would feature prominently. Booked three minutes into the second half, it seemed likelier he would merit headlines for a red card. The yellow card he received was for an innocuous offence; kicking the ball away. But his blood was definitely up. Hartley clearly sensed there was something there for him in the final seconds in a crowded box.
Gerrard added to the confusion by deciding to make a change just prior to Gael Bigirimana taking a corner after an intense period of late Motherwell pressure. The identity of the player coming on was significant in itself; Lee Wallace, making his first appearance for the side since September and while still the subject of an internal disciplinary inquiry for comments made following last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Celtic.
Gerrard will have wished for Wallace’s return to go under the radar. What unfolded in the few seconds the defender was on the pitch meant much of the post-match discussion fell on why, of all times, the manager chose this point to reintroduce him to the fold.
It isn’t something Gerrard will have picked up in the old Anfield boot room, where the instruction has probably been daubed on the wall since Bill Shankly’s days: Do Not Make A Substitution At A Defensive Corner.
Gerrard explained that sending Wallace on at such a delicately poised moment was because he wanted to get more height into the box. Ovie Ejaria, who made way for Wallace, is about the same size. According to Gerrard, however, he doesn’t have Wallace’s defensive expertise.
Bigirimana’s corner cleared Wallace in any case. Hartley was the one showing the most determination to get on the end of it. He connected with his left foot from just inside the six-yard box and the ball went into the net off Glenn Middleton, another Rangers substitute. Hartley ran towards the visiting fans in the main stand and then pointed to the name on the back of his jersey; as if they didn’t know.
Three-quarters of the way through a match report and barely a mention of Lafferty, whose first start for Rangers since a 3-0 win over Motherwell in January 2012 seemed set to enter the realm of dream returns. It sums things up that his contribution is relegated to something of a footnote in the final analysis.
The striker bailed his defenders out by striking twice in the first half after Rangers reverted to their old, careless ways. In truth, there was only misfortune to blame for the concession of an opening goal after three minutes. Connor Goldson slipped on the wet turf on a dreich August afternoon. It was not the last time he would do so either.
Danny Johnson, another of these gnarly strikers from the English lower leagues Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson seems to specialise in unearthing, made sure Goldson suffered to the maximum. He latched on to Chris Cadden’s long ball down the middle while Goldson stumbled and lifted the ball over Allan McGregor.
Gerrard was sympathetic. As he acknowledged afterwards, he suffered a much more damaging slip in terms of its ramifications while playing for Liverpool against Chelsea at the tail end of the 2013/14 season, and with the Anfield side vying with Manchester City at the top of the league. “I’ve been there myself, I felt for Connor on that one,” said Gerrard afterwards.
Lafferty’s deflected volley after a strong run down the left flank by the excellent Borna Barisic restored parity after 15 minutes. Two minutes later Motherwell were ahead again. Once more, Rangers rued defensive failings. On this occasion it was harder to propose mitigating factors such as wet grass. Carl McHugh was not picked up at the far post from Bigirimana’s free-kick and he powered a well-directed header back into the other corner of the goal.
Lafferty’s header from Tavernier’s cross drew Rangers level – the former striker did well to get in front of Tom Aldred. The visitors then edged ahead three minutes before the break after Ejaria finished off a thrilling break from Motherwell’s corner with a shot that Trevor Carson got a hand to but could not prevent going in.
That it took until the dying seconds of the game for another goal to be scored was a surprise. The identity of the player who ended up having the final say was not.