For the second time this season, Rangers staged a dramatic smash and grab act in Maryhill to break Partick Thistle hearts.
Joe Garner’s goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time sealed a remarkable turnaround for Pedro Caixinha’s side after substitute Barrie McKay had cancelled out Kris Doolan’s first-half opener for the hosts.
It was a result which confirms the return of European football to Ibrox next season for the first time in six years and an outcome which left Thistle with a sickening sense of deja vu. Last November, they had also led Rangers 1-0 going into the closing stages at Firhill before Joe Dodoo scored twice to leave them reeling.
Their wait for a first victory over Rangers since 1993 goes on and they will reflect that they may seldom get a better opportunity than they did here. For much of a gloriously sunny afternoon, Thistle were the better side and passed up good chances to extend the lead provided by Doolan’s 15th goal of the campaign.
For long periods, it was a woefully ponderous display by Rangers, bereft of both imagination and conviction. Caixinha’s side were jeered off at half-time by their support and looked set to slide to another defeat in the aftermath of their chastening back-to-back Old Firm losses.
Rangers did gradually improve in the second half with the introduction of McKay towards the closing stages proving pivotal. The winger, whose future at the club remains uncertain with just one year left on his contract, sparked the late revival which provided evidence of a fighting spirit which had previously only been notable for its absence.
Caixinha, pictured, can certainly not be accused of being anything less than thorough in his assessment of the squad he inherited from Mark Warburton two months ago. This was his eighth game in charge and he has now used 22 different players without naming the same starting line-up in successive fixtures.
After some early encouragement for Rangers in a scrappy opening period, when Kenny Miller and Garner both came close, it was Thistle who took control of the match. They took the lead with a well-worked 14th minute goal, started and finished by Doolan. The striker held the ball up well to allow Steven Lawless to sweep it wide to Christie Elliott on the right. The full-back’s cross was perfect, picking out Doolan’s well-timed run to the edge of the six-yard box where he thumped a header beyond the helpless Wes Foderingham.
Rangers appeared rattled by the setback and were fortunate not to fall further behind in rapid order. Niall Keown headed over from Abdul Osman’s cross, then Ryan Edwards failed to convert a simple close-range chance which Foderingham managed to divert wide.
Elliott fizzed a 25-yard effort just off target as Thistle continued to press. Rangers, ragged and uncertain, could have no complaints about the negative reaction from their fans when the half-time whistle blew.
Caixinha made a tactical switch early in the second half, replacing the ineffective Martyn Waghorn with defender Clint Hill as he switched to a 3-4-3 formation.
It brought no significant change to the pattern of play and Thistle missed another chance to double their lead when Doolan headed wide from Callum Booth’s cross.
An injury to Danny Wilson forced another reshuffle upon Caixinha who sent 18-year-old Jamie Barjonas on for his debut. But it was his final change of the afternoon, Jason Holt making way for McKay, which made the biggest difference as Rangers adopted an aggressive 4-2-4 shape.
McKay immediately created an opening for Garner who blazed a shot over from 20 yards and Rangers were suddenly on the front foot, the team with momentum. McKay drew them level in the 83rd minute, showing excellent close control and composure as he gathered a loose ball, eluded a couple of defenders and stabbed a low shot beyond Tomas Cerny.
A point would have been enough to ensure Rangers’ place in next month’s Europa League qualifiers but they sensed all three were there for the taking.
As Thistle wilted, Dodoo came close in the 90th minute when he cut in from the left and flashed a shot narrowly wide of Cerny’s left-hand post.
Deep into the four minutes of stoppage time added by referee Crawford Allan, Rangers snatched what had for so long appeared the most implausible of victories. The tireless Miller worked his way to the right of the penalty area and floated over a perfect cross which Garner nodded home firmly from close range. The striker was booked for his part in the wild celebrations which ensued among the visiting fans, many of them spilling on to the field of play. For a few moments at least, in what has been an underwhelming season, Garner and the Rangers support could indeed feel glad all over.