On the night they gathered at Ibrox to pay tribute to one of the greatest figures in their history, Rangers could not emulate that win over Aberdeen as they dropped two more points in a title race which is proving more tightly-contested than many had anticipated.
Steven Gerrard’s team had to recover from trailing 2-0 after just 16 minutes to goals from Christian Ramirez and Scott Brown, salvaging a point with James Tavernier’s late penalty after Alfredo Morelos had pulled one back before half-time. It’s the third time they have let two points slip away at home already this season.
The champions remain at the top of the Premiership table but now with only a two point lead over a Celtic side showing every sign of playing their part in the kind of challenge between the Old Firm rivals which Smith so relished.
His death on Tuesday had cast a long shadow over this game but it was played with the kind of passion and intensity of which he would certainly have approved.
A minute’s silence before kick-off was respectfully observed, while a giant banner was unfurled in his honour bearing the proclamation ‘For deeds done and glories won, thank you Walter’.
The chant of ‘Walter Smith’s Blue and White Army’, which accompanied him throughout his two trophy-laden spells in charge, was aired regularly on an emotionally-charged occasion.
Gerrard’s men could not deliver the win they wanted to honour Smith’s memory but Aberdeen, inspired by former Celtic captain Brown, deserve huge credit for a dogged performance which built on Saturday’s win over Hibs and further eases the pressure on manager Stephen Glass.
Rangers have established something of a pattern this season in starting games sluggishly and those bad habits manifested themselves again as Aberdeen found themselves enjoying that early two goal cushion.
Their ninth minute opener was all down to hesitation and uncertainty in the home defence, goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and midfielder John Lundstram tying themselves in knots trying to play the ball out from inside their own penalty area.
Aberdeen, pressing high up the pitch whenever they could with Ryan Hedges and Jonny Hayes supporting Ramirez, pounced as Lundstram was dispossessed. From Hedges cross from the left, Ramirez headed home his ninth goal of the season.
Morelos saw a close range shot blocked and Kemar Roofe had an effort deflected wide as a rattled Rangers side tried to find a quick response.
But instead they conceded again, Leon Balogun forced to concede a corner with a recovery challenge on Hedges who had surged in behind a flat-footed backline. Dylan McGeouch swung the ball in from the right and Brown wasn’t picked up as he sent a bullet of a diving header beyond the helpless McLaughlin.
Brown didn’t hold back with his celebrations in front of the Rangers supporters and at least one object was hurled in his direction from the Govan Stand.
It might have got even worse for the stunned home team when Lewis Ferguson was presented with a more than decent chance on the edge of the penalty area but his shot was tame and gathered by McLaughlin.
Gerrard’s men gathered themselves and halved the deficit in the 20th minute. Aberdeen were unhappy at the award of a free-kick for Ferguson’s challenge on Joe Aribo, the Dons midfielder protesting he had won the ball.
James Tavernier’s delivery from the right was delicious, picking out Morelos who headed firmly beyond Joe Lewis from close range.
Rangers began to move through the gears in pursuit of a leveller before half-time but were left frustrated. Aberdeen, with Brown flanked by ex-Rangers David Bates and Ross McCrorie in a three-man central defence, put their bodies on the line as efforts from Connor Goldson and Lundstram were blocked.
Goldson threatened again from a corner three minutes before the break but this time his powerful header was turned over by a smart Lewis save.
Rangers were more dominant in possession in the second half, Aberdeen forced to defend deeper and guilty of giving the ball straight back to the hosts whenever it did come their way.
That said, there were precious few clear sights of goal for Rangers as they struggled to pick the right pass in their attacking third of the pitch.
A resounding round of applause in the 73rd minute, marking Smith’s age at his passing, lifted an atmosphere that had become increasingly infused by frustration from the home fans.
Gerrard made a double substitution in the closing stages, introducing Scott Wright and Fashion Sakala, and nine minutes time Rangers’ incessant probing paid off.
Bates was caught on the wrong side of Sakala who went down under the defender’s clumsy challenge. Aberdeen felt Sakala had been offside but the penalty decision stood. Tavernier has been replaced as first choice spot-kick taker this season by Roofe but with the English striker having been replaced by Sakala, the captain stepped forward and found Lewis’ right hand corner despite the goalkeeper diving the right way.
It was all set up for a grandstand finish for Rangers but despite carrying all the momentum, they couldn’t find a winner. The closest they came was when Scott Arfield’s brave diving header from a Wright cross was deflected wide by Bates.
Rangers (4-3-3): McLaughlin, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Bassey; Aribo (Wright 77), Lundstram (Arfield 61), Kamara; Roofe (Sakala 77), Morelos, Hagi. Subs not used: McGregor, Davis, Simpson, Patterson.
Aberdeen (3-4-2-1): Lewis, Bates, Brown, McCrorie; Ojo, McGeouch, Ferguson, Campbell; Hedges, Hayes (Samuels 90+5), Ramirez (Watkins 62). Subs not used: Woods, McGinn, Emmanuel-Thomas, Gurr, Longstaff.