Even for a team as low on self-esteem as Rangers must have been in the aftermath of their Scottish Cup semi-final capitulation, a visit from Hearts always offers them encouragement.
The Gorgie club’s wretched record at Ibrox - they have now won just one of their last 22 top flight fixtures at the ground - was duly extended yesterday as goals from Jason Cummings and Daniel Candeias earned Rangers the victory they needed to reclaim second place in the Premiership table.
It delivered much needed respite for Graeme Murty, although the embattled Rangers manager now faces the daunting prospect of another Old Firm clash at Celtic Park next Sunday when the champions will have the chance to wrap up a seventh consecutive title.
Murty and Rangers at least have something meaningful to play for in the remaining weeks of the season. For Hearts, whose captain Christophe Berra pulled a goal back in vain yesterday, there is little else but pride and what appears an inevitable sixth-placed finish.
There was an almost surreal atmosphere around the stadium as the normally raucous and persistently voluble Union Bears section of the home crowd held a silent protest as their response to the 4-0 defeat to Celtic at Hampden. They also unfurled a banner just before kick-off which left Murty and his players in no doubt about the level of discontent among the support and would also have caused some uncomfortable shifting in the seats of the directors’ box. It read ‘No Fight, No Pride, Nowhere to Hide. Incompetent On and Off the Pitch. We Deserve Better’.
Murty made four changes to the side swatted aside in the semi-final, one of them enforced as a shoulder injury to Wes Foderingham saw him replaced in goal by Jak Alnwick. The outfield trio of Jason Holt, Josh Windass and Cummings were also promoted to the starting line-up as Murty sought a positive reaction.
Andy Halliday, whose public strop to his substitution at Hampden captured so much attention, joined Greg Docherty and Alfredo Morelos in being dropped to the subs’ bench.
Rangers made a bright enough start against a Hearts side clearly content to play a containing game for most of the afternoon. Jamie Murphy split the visiting defence with a cleverly disguised pass in the fifth minute, picking out James Tavernier whose low cross was cut out by Aaron Hughes before Cummings could pounce.
A free-kick from Tavernier caused further anxiety for the Hearts defence but after a scramble on the edge of Jon McLaughlin’s six yard box, Cummings was unable to force the loose ball towards goal.
The former Hibs striker looked eager to impress in what was a rare starting appearance since he joined Rangers on loan from Nottingham Forest in January. He tried his luck from distance in the 12th minute, seeing his shot deflected off target when a pass to the unmarked Murphy might have been a wiser decision.
Windass did set up a decent opening for Murphy with a fine through ball eight minutes later but the winger’s low shot was kept out by a sharp save from McLaughlin.
Hearts then threatened for the first time in a counter attack which saw Ross McCrorie lose possession cheaply for Rangers, presenting Steven Naismith with a sight of goal. The former Rangers striker, subjected to the now customary jeers from the home support whenever he touched the ball, came close with a shot deflected wide of Alnwick’s right hand post.
The tempo of Rangers’ play gradually dropped for the remainder of the first half. As Hearts successfully strangled the flow of the contest, the closest the hosts came to a breakthrough before the interval was when Russell Martin headed just over from a Graham Dorrans cross.
But there was fresh energy and resolve about Murty’s side at the start of the second half which reaped a quick reward in the shape of Cummings’ 47th minute opener. Murphy wriggled his way into space down the left and his low cross was held up in the penalty area by Candeias who then shifted the ball into the path of Cummings who beat McLaughlin with a firm left foot shot from close range.
The goal lifted the mood in the stadium and Rangers sought to capitalise. Murphy saw a weaving run into the Hearts penalty area snuffed out by Connor Randall’s block, then John Souttar had to react smartly to get in front of Windass and cut out a dangerous low cross from Candeias.
The pressure paid off for Rangers when they made it 2-0 in the 64th minute. The excellent Murphy was again the creator, finding space on the left once more to whip in a fine cross which was met with an equally impressive and thumping header from Candeias which gave McLaughlin no chance.
When McLaughlin made a decent save to prevent Windass adding a third three minutes later, Rangers appeared poised for a comfortable and comprehensive victory. But Hearts suddenly discovered some ambition when, after Tavernier was booked for a foul on lively substitute Lewis Moore, a free-kick from Don Cowie was headed home by Berra with 20 minutes remaining.
The visitors then came agonisingly close to an equaliser when Moore burst away from Tavernier on the left and found Kyle Lafferty whose curling shot struck the outside of Alnwick’s left hand post.
In a nervy finale for Rangers, both Cummings and his late replacement Morelos missed chances to increase their lead. But if the final scoreline flattered Hearts somewhat, Rangers were simply grateful and relieved to secure any kind of winning response to the trauma they experienced seven days earlier.