Rangers ease past Ayr but Scott Brown v Willie Collum is main flashpoint - 'some people can deal with it, some people can't'
Slow and steady wins the race. Rangers are yet to make any dazzling impression on this year’s Scottish Cup but, after grinding out a hard-fought victory against Dumbarton in the previous round, this was another occasion where the outcome mattered more than the aesthetics. Three more like this and they’ll have the trophy.
Ayr United provided plucky but limited opposition as you would expect from a mid-table Championship side and Rangers did just enough, scoring once in each half to atone for missing a glut of chances that give their opponents a glimmer of hope before the hosts extinguished it entirely with a second goal 13 minutes from time.
Those Rangers fans among the 43,454 crowd had arrived with three wishes, to boo Scott Brown, jeer Willie Collum and cheer a welter of goals. Two out of three ain’t bad. Clement’s only regret was that he had failed to reward those who made it out on a murky night with more to get excited about but beyond that he was a picture of satisfied contentment. “I would have wished to give the fans more goals,” said the manager. “That is the only thing. If I look for perfection, that would have been even better. We tried to do that.”
Clement had wanted the subplot of Brown’s role reduced almost to an after-thought, wary of external distractions that could potentially knock his team off course. The Ibrox crowd, though, had other ideas, with the former Celtic captain jeered when first strolled down the tunnel and again when he appeared on the big screens ahead of the second half.
This was the place where he first unveiled “The Broony” celebration in the same round of the same tournament 13 years ago, arms raised and staring with a combination of malice and mischief in the direction of El Hadji Diouf after rescuing a draw for his team. He looks a much less intimidating presence these days with an impressive head of hair instead of the shaved-in-the-wood look he tended to sport in his playing days.
How Brown would have loved to have been given a platform for more crowing on his occasion but Rangers never looked like succumbing to an upset from the moment they forged in front early on, even if they never really put the game to bed until Fabio Silva scored their second goal fairly late in the game.
The Ayr manager was not the only figure to be targeted by the home support. Collum got it in the neck too predictably, the referee taking charge of his first Rangers game since the club, but not Clement, asked to have him removed from taking charge of their fixtures after the VAR furore at the last Old Firm game. There was an undoubted irony, then, that the biggest talking point of the tie stemmed from Collum’s decision not to send off Silva early in the second half. The forward was late on Ayr defender George Stanger while already on a booking but Collum, despite Ayr protests, chose not to flourish a second card. The only booking, in fact, at that incident was shown to Brown for complaining too much, believing the Ibrox crowd had influenced Collum in his non-decision making.
“The second goal comes from a man who probably shouldn’t be on the park,” said the Ayr boss. “It was a big decision, a pressure decision and probably was not the right decision. I knew he was never going to get sent off, that it was never going to be a red card. I think if it had been the other way around it could have been. It was the pressure, coming into these big occasions. Some people can deal with it, some people can’t.”
Clement, though, defended his player, claiming Silva had been the victim rather than the perpetrator. “He got a kick on his leg in that action,” said the manager. “You need to look good at the images. He showed me also there were studs on his leg. On top of his leg. If I had a fear about [him being sent off] I would have made the change directly.”
Clement has developed a useful knack of rotating his line-ups without derailing Rangers’ momentum and handed first starts here to January recruits Cortes and Mohamed Diomande. Both are intriguing signings given their back stories, Cortes unable to make an impression in his first six months at Lens in France after creating a name for himself back home in Colombia while Diomande has arrived from the Ivory Coast via Ghana and Denmark where he had become an instrumental figure for Nordsjaelland.
It was Cortes of the two who caught the eye here and not just because of his illuminous yellow boots. Poor Nick McAllister, the Ayr right-back, will be seeing the Colombian in his nightmare given the number of times he sped beyond his marker before crossing or firing a shot on goal. The level of opposition ought to be taken into account when assessing Cortes’ debut but this was a very decent start to his life as a Rangers player.
He was involved in the first goal of the game after just 10 minutes, cutting the ball back to Barisic whose shot took a deflection off Roy Syla to end up in the net. That could have opened the floodgates but Ayr held firm in the face of Rangers profligacy. Clement turned to his bench and one of the replacements, Todd Cantwell, made the difference, his chipped cross striking the far post but falling for Silva who turned and finished well. Rangers were safely through to the next round without any great fuss. It is becoming a useful habit.