INSTANT reactions would have been misleading at Ibrox yesterday. There was understandable delight among the home fans at a two-goal comeback that produced an equaliser well into a healthy helping of added time.
Scorers: Rangers - Vuckic 82; Law 90+5; Falkirk - Baird 57; Taiwo 61
Yet the fact was that the draw against Falkirk was Rangers’ latest, potentially costly failure. Ahead of the final Championship fixtures, Stuart McCall’s men allowed their play-off destiny to slip from their grasp.
They started the day ahead of Hibernian in second place. They ended it one point and one place behind the Easter Road side. And so Hibs will remain out of reach of Rangers as long as they win at Falkirk, whatever happens on the Ibrox club’s visit to Tynecastle.
Ultimately, then, yesterday can be bracketed among the many inglorious occasions that Rangers have played out in the season of a thousand cuts – not least because of the shocking vituperation directed towards Lee McCulloch as the home side threatened to fall apart.
The excellent John Baird – four minutes after he had broken the deadlock by delightfully skimming in a low shot after he met a corner first time – hustled McCulloch to come away with possession and squared for Tom Taiwo to drill low beyond Cammy Bell for a goal that seemed certain to set Rangers on the way to a wounding, wince-inducing defeat.
The fact this was averted with a courageous late onslaught of out-on-their feet opponents was understandably what McCall elected to take away from the afternoon. The glancing header that brought them back into contention from Haris Vuckic was a smart conversion from an 81st-minute corner, and equally convincing was the precise low angled drive from Nicky Law in the 95th minute that followed Falkirk failing to clear their lines from a corner. McCall had plenty of straws to clutch after this climax.
“They scored from a set play, they scored on the break, and it was looking doom and gloom,” the Rangers manager said. “We kept at it and [Jamie] MacDonald’s had three outstanding saves; two of them I’d put in the world-class category. We also hit the post, and had two off the line.
“Going forward, I’m pleased with a lot of the game. We’ve made a lot of opportunities, but obviously we’ve made a lot of errors as well. Disappointment is an emotion because we haven’t won, but proud of the players that they stuck at it and kept going. There was the desire, the togetherness, the drive to keep going and not accept defeat. We’ll need that next week and in the play-off games that remain.”
McCall played down the setback of allowing the quest for second place to be taken out of his team’s hands in the penultimate league games of the season. “It’s a blow, but listen we thought we’d have to go to Tynecastle and win, we still have to do that. Obviously if Falkirk perform as they did today, when they were very good, Hibs will have it difficult, just as we’ll have it difficult at Hearts.
“Our focus doesn’t change and regardless of whether we finish third or second, it doesn’t mean to say it is cut and dried whether you get promotion or not.”
Rangers’ form is so patchy, it fluctuates so much within minutes of games, never mind between games, that it remains a stretch to see them being able to hold themselves together for long enough to see off Queen of the South, Hibernian and then, perhaps, Motherwell.
McCall has clearly succeeded in extracting more for his team. Their superior fitness levels showed up against an, at times, slick Falkirk and it is a long while since the condition of the Rangers players could have been considered a strength.
Moreover, with such as Ryan Hardie, who twice came close in a bright opening spell, and Tom Walsh, who curled a swerving shot on to the base of the post early in the second period, they have players with energy.
Yet, their defence provides a major concern. This simply appears a season too far for McCulloch, who must be commended for not going to pieces and, with his head, drawing a superb acrobatic save from MacDonald that provided the corner from which the equaliser ensued. The Falkirk keeper also showed elastic arms to slap away a header from Darren McGregor minutes before the comeback was started by Vuckic. As everything with Rangers as a football force this season, the latest efforts may prove insufficient.
Rangers: Bell; McGregor, McCulloch, Zaliukas (Crawford 46), Wallace; Vuckic, Law, Murdoch, Walsh; Miller (Shiels 63), Hardie (Clark 66). Subs not used: Robinson, Mohsni, Hutton, Gallagher.
Falkirk: MacDonald; Muirhead, McCracken, Grant, Leahy; Taiwo, Vaulks, Kerr; Alston, Baird (Biabi 80), Sibbald (Dick 82). Subs not used: Bowman, Smith, Maybury, Morgan.
Referee: E Anderson. Attendance: 35,566.