Rangers re-asserted their authority at the top of the Championship as they brought Hibs’ long unbeaten run to an end in a tumultuous contest which lived up to the hype which preceded it.
In front of the biggest attendance anywhere in the SPFL so far this season, Mark Warburton’s side fully merited a victory which opens a three-point lead over their title rivals.
But they had to do it the hard way against Alan Stubbs’ men who struck first through Jason Cummings’ 15th goal of the season, remarkably his seventh in nine outings against Rangers.
Jason Holt, the game’s outstanding player, struck twice before half-time to wipe out that deficit for the hosts who made it 3-1 through substitute Nicky Clark midway through the second half.
But the outcome was placed in fresh doubt when Rangers’ midfielder Andy Halliday was sent off for a retaliatory lunge at Fraser Fyvie.
Hibs threatened to rescue the situation when Dominique Malonga netted in the 86th minute but the Easter Road side’s first defeat in 17 games – their previous loss also came at Ibrox back in August – was confirmed when Martyn Waghorn wrapped up the scoring.
After the relentless verbal sparring between the rival managers in the build-up to this contest, this was at last a more relevant tactical battle for them to engage in. It proved absorbing from start to finish.
Stubbs had identified Rangers’ full-backs as one of the biggest attacking threats in Warburton’s side and deployed Liam Henderson and John McGinn in the wide midfield roles, pushing on to try to restrict the scope for James Tavernier and Lee Wallace to cross the halfway line.
That left Fyvie and Dylan McGeouch in the deeper-lying, central positions for the visitors, who adopted a high-energy, pressing game.
It did not prevent Rangers captain Wallace finding the space to get forward and create his team’s first opening of the afternoon, his cross dummied by Kenny Miller into the path of Waghorn whose shot was comfortably held by Mark Oxley.
While Rangers dominated possession, there was also evidence of the defensive vulnerability which had contributed to their once healthy lead at the top of the table being reduced to just goal difference in recent weeks.
Cummings might have put Hibs ahead as early as the fifth minute when he found space to get on the end of a Henderson free-kick, only to glance his close-range header just wide of Wes Foderingham’s right-hand post.
Most of the action seemed to take place around 30 yards from Hibs’ goal, however, as Rangers passed and probed patiently. But their final ball too often lacked incision or imagination as Hibs mopped up the early pressure with little difficulty.
They then hit the home side with a counter punch which brought them the opening goal in the 22nd minute. Henderson sent David Gray free on the right and was then in position on the edge of the Rangers penalty area to receive his captain’s return ball.
Henderson’s shot took a deflection off Danny Wilson and the ball dropped invitingly into the path of Cummings who had held an onside position just outside the six-yard box. The striker showed great composure to clip a left-foot shot over Foderingham to extend his impressive scoring record against Rangers.
If there had been any debate over whether Warburton’s side were under real pressure coming into this match, there were no doubts now. The former Brentford boss badly needed a strong response from his players and they delivered it with Holt’s double to turn the game around before the break.
The 33rd-minute equaliser was sparked by a moment of slackness from Fyvie, who allowed Tavernier to nick the ball off his toes around 30 yards out. Rangers’ right-back found Waghorn, who shuttled the ball on for Holt to beat Oxley with an excellent first time shot from ten yards.
The transformation in tempo from Rangers had unsettled Hibs who were undone defensively again ten minutes later. Waghorn’s fine crossfield pass picked out Barrie McKay on the left and the winger threaded the ball to Holt inside the penalty area. A neat first touch and turn allowed Holt to fire off a shot which beat Oxley with the aid of a slight deflection off Paul Hanlon.
Rangers carried that momentum into the second half as veteran striker Miller squandered a couple of early chances to give them extra breathing space, first being let down by a poor first touch and then blazing over after terrific set-up play from McKay.
Warburton made a double substitution just after the hour, Miller and Nicky Law making way for Dean Shiels and Clark, and the switch paid an almost instant dividend when the two replacements combined for Rangers’ third goal.
Shiels lofted a cross towards the six-yard box, where Clark, whose run had not been tracked by Hibs, guided a right- foot shot beyond the exposed Oxley. The hosts seemed to be in total command now but the narrative changed again with Halliday’s dismissal in the 70th minute. Reacting to a foul from Fyvie, the Rangers midfielder squared up to the Hibs man who fell back clutching his head dramatically.
Referee Bobby Madden, who had been close to the incident, went immediately to his pocket for the red card and Hibs suddenly had renewed hope against ten men.
Their hopes of salvaging a point increased when substitute Malonga pulled a goal back in the 86th minute, stooping to head home from close range after Foderingham’s inexplicable failure to attack a hopeful punt into the box from Fyvie.
But Waghorn eased any late nerves for Rangers when he plundered his 21st goal of the season on the counter-attack, bustling beyond Fyvie into the box and beating Oxley with a smart left-foot finish.