RANGERS manager Stuart McCall breathed a sigh of relief at the end, grateful that Hibs had not managed to break through his team’s defences sooner, and honest enough to admit that if they had forced his men to go the distance then he may not have been the one preparing his squad for a play-off final against Premiership second bottom side Motherwell.
SCORER: Hibs - Jason Cummings (94)
‘Today was all about character and determination’
“There’s all different ways to win football games, you can have a bit of luck or be brilliant,” said the man who is hoping to convince Dave King to extend his managerial reign. “Today was just all about character and determination to hang in there.
“Disappointed to lose the game in the end. Thankfully it wasn’t scored early, it was three or four minutes to go, because if it had gone to extra-time there would have been only one winner but there’s a desire and togetherness about that group now. They are all in it for each other.”
Three games in seven days have taken their toll on Rangers, and McCall has given his players today off, but he expects them to be refreshed for Thursday’s first leg against Motherwell.
“They have got all June to be tired. We’re not celebrating now, we’re too tired to celebrate. We’ve done nothing yet, we’ve just given ourselves an opportunity.”
Having survived a fraught 90 minutes, soaking up wave after wave of Hibernian pressure, Rangers left the pitch to the boisterous celebrations of an away support confident their side will be playing their football in the Premiership next term.
For the second season in succession Hibs headed up the tunnel, heads bowed, aware that they will start the new campaign in the second tier. Twelve months ago that same realisation resulted in the side being booed off. This time around they left to the sound of applause, the loudest cheer reserved for the manager, Alan Stubbs, who is already predicting he can take them up as champions next term. He doesn’t even care if it is Rangers or Motherwell who make up the numbers.
But he knows this was an opportunity lost. Given Hibs’ early pressure, intensity and tempo, his men should have carved Rangers open early in proceedings. If they had, for all the Ibrox side’s character, few, including McCall, would have bet against Hibs seeing the job through.
The Easter Road side had been in a hurry to make amends for the 2-0 defeat in the first leg and they battered at the door looking for a way back into the tie. On the offensive from the outset, the home side had the bonus of an in-the-mood Scott Allan, but for all the pressure and the obvious intent, they didn’t have the cutting edge.
Not many teams, especially at this level, can truly boast a starting line up where every single player, including the goalkeeper, has contributed to the goal tally throughout the campaign. Hibs could, but on a day when they needed goals more than ever, individually and as a collective they failed to deliver.
It’s not that they didn’t show the desire or even create the openings – in the first 20 minutes of the first half they mined more than enough to win any game and, given the efforts of their team-mates, both Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings should have made stronger connections to convert one of the many chances that came their way.
There was also a shout for a third-minute penalty after Dean Shiels handled but it would have been harsh. Liam Fontaine’s headed effort also came close and Rangers defenders Marius Zaliukas and Lee McCulloch both had to stage late interventions as balls were fizzed invitingly across the six-yard box.
Hibs swarmed all over a Rangers team which had been set up to soak it all up but when the Leith side started in that fashion, back in December, the Glaswegians were on the receiving end of a skelping. But McCall has worked hard in the interim. Organised and less prone to panic, Rangers may still lack the quality of past sides but they now have some of the self-assurance.
Two goals up from the first leg, they merely had to remain resolute and streetwise enough to break up the flow of Hibs’ play and frustrate with just enough time-wasting to run down the clock but not enough to invite punishment from the referee.
Unable to maintain the intensity for the whole 90 minutes, Hibs were occasionally tested on the break with Haris Vuckic forcing a save from Mark Oxley in the 39th minute but Hibs kept coming back at Rangers and threw on both Farid El Alagui and Franck Dja Djedje to bolster the striking options but the scoring chances continued to come and go without conversion.
Paul Hanlon hit the post late on but it was not until stoppage time when Cummings finally curled one into the net. With a little time added on for the gamesmanship, it gave Hibs a glimmer of hope. But Rangers saw out the remaining seconds and, as the whistle sounded to halt another Hibs forward push, their manager was finally able to exhale.
Hibs: Oxley, Gray, Fontaine, Hanlon, Stevenson (Djedje 69), Fyvie, Allan, McGeouch, Craig (El Alagui 53), Cummings, Malonga. Subs not used: Cerny, Robertson, Stanton, Handling, Dunsmore.
Rangers: Bell, Foster, McCulloch, Zaliukas, Wallace, McGregor, Shiels (Black 81), Murdoch, Law, Vuckic (Clark 73), Miller. Subs not used: Simonsen, Moshni, Smith, Crawford, Boyd
Referee: J Beaton.