RANGERS maintained their three-pronged pursuit of silverware with an ultimately facile Scottish Cup quarter-final victory over a Hamilton Accies side whose team bus must have had its path crossed by several black cats on the way to Ibrox yesterday.
If Ally McCoist had been spooked by the memories of Hamilton's famous triumph here in 1987, it was Billy Reid who wore a haunted look on an afternoon when anything which could go wrong for the visitors did so.
The Hamilton manager lost no fewer than four players to injury in the tie, forcing his team to see out the final 40 minutes with just 10 men, and also saw Rangers benefit from a controversial decision to retake the penalty kick from which Spanish teenager Aaron Niguez made it 3-1 for the cup holders on the stroke of half-time.
It removed any lingering doubt about the outcome and would have come as a relief to Rangers assistant manager McCoist who played on that day 22 years ago when Adrian Sprott wrote himself into Scottish Cup folklore. There was a brief threat of a fresh upset yesterday when Rocco Quinn equalised for Hamilton after Steven Whittaker's opener, but McCoist would maintain his unbeaten record in charge of Rangers in this tournament as the day unravelled cruelly for the underdogs.
The seventh-minute exit of Brian Easton, who has been influential for Accies this season, was compounded when Rangers' opening goal came from the left-back area. Whittaker cut in from the right flank and eluded James Gibson, who had been switched from right-back following Easton's departure, then brushed aside the challenge of Hamilton captain Alex Neil before guiding a low left-foot shot inside Tomas Cerny's left-hand post.
It was the early breakthrough the Rangers management team would have craved as they looked for a positive response to last Wednesday's SPL defeat at home to Inverness. Despite the goal, however, much of the home team's initial play was unconvincing.
Hamilton's David Elebert should have done better with a close-range header from Paul McGowan's corner just before Whittaker's goal and it was a sign of vulnerability to cross balls in the Rangers defence which would reappear when Hamilton equalised in the 26th minute. James McCarthy's 22-yard shot was deflected wide for another corner which Rangers failed to deal with.
When McCarthy played the ball back into the penalty area, Allan McGregor's attempt to make a decisive clearance saw the Rangers goalkeeper barge into team-mate Madjid Bougherra with the ball dropping invitingly to Quinn. The former Celtic midfielder, who joined Hamilton on a short-term contract in January, seized the opportunity and drove a low shot beyond the stranded McGregor into the net.
Hamilton certainly deserved parity at this stage, but they would find good fortune in short supply. When Rangers regained the lead ten minutes before half-time, the move was actually sparked by a dreadfully misdirected pass by Niguez. The ball broke kindly for the home team, however, allowing Whittaker to deliver a cross which Kenny Miller flicked on to Kyle Lafferty who took the ball around Cerny to stab in his sixth goal of the season.
Reid was forced to make his second change two minutes before the break, Mark McLaughlin succumbing to injury. His replacement was Chris Swailes and the veteran defender's first contribution was to trip Miller inside the penalty area as the striker raced on to a terrific pass from Steven Davis.
Referee Iain Brines immediately pointed to the spot, with his decision to only administer a yellow card to Swailes perhaps the only break to go Hamilton's way all day. With regular penalty taker Kris Boyd starting the day among the substitutes, the responsibility was handed to Niguez and the Spanish Under-21 international appeared to have fluffed his lines when his poor kick was blocked by Cerny.
On the advice of his assistant Steve Pullar, however, Brines ordered the penalty to be retaken as Cerny had moved off his line before Niguez struck the ball. If the decision was technically correct, it appeared harsh and incensed the Hamilton players. Almost inevitably, Niguez made no mistake with his second attempt as he sent Cerny the wrong way to put Rangers in firm control of the tie.
Elebert left the field complaining of a hamstring injury at half-time and Accies were duly forced to commit their third and final substitute at the start of the second half with Derek Lyle introduced. Richard Offiong then joined the casualty list, leaving Accies with ten men shortly before Rangers added their fourth goal in the 53rd minute.
It was a fine solo effort from Davis, as he waltzed his way beyond Lyle and Gibson before placing a low shot beyond Cerny's right hand, but it also served to emphasise the organisational disarray in the Hamilton defence.
With Offiong unable to return after treatment, it became a straightforward case of damage limitation for Reid's men and they could take a sliver of consolation from conceding just one more goal. It came nine minutes from time, Whittaker surging forward again to create the opportunity for Lafferty, who drove a low shot beyond Cerny from close range.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Steven Davis (Rangers)
A terrific solo goal capped a fine contribution from the Northern Ireland international midfielder who recaptured his accustomed form after being among those well off the pace against Inverness.
• MATCH REPORT: Rangers 5 - 1 Hamilton
Reid 'astonished' by penalty retake decision
HAMILTON manager Billy Reid last night branded as "astonishing" the controversial decision to allow Rangers to retake the penalty kick which put them 3-1 ahead in the Scottish Cup quarter-final at Ibrox after goalkeeper Tomas Cerny had saved the initial attempt from Aaron Niguez.
Referee Iain Brines, on the advice of his assistant Steve Pullar, ruled that Cerny had moved forward off his line before blocking Niguez's kick. The Spanish midfielder, making his first starting appearance for Rangers, duly converted the retake to effectively end Hamilton's interest in the Scottish Cup.
"The penalty situation is not why we lost the tie," said Reid, "but it was astonishing that the linesman should make him retake it. That kind of thing happens every week, the goalkeeper coming off his line, and I've never seen an order to retake it before. I guarantee you will see it happen somewhere next week and the penalty will not be retaken. The linesman called it, so the referee had to give it. Was it a turning point? I don't know. It was a day when nothing went right for us.
"Rangers were better than us and deserved to win, but to lose three players to injury in the first 45 minutes and then lose Richard Offiong to a knee injury early in the second half was a nightmare. The injury situation we have now is really worrying. We have huge problems for the league games coming up."
Rangers v St Mirren
Falkirk v Dunfermline or Aberdeen
Ties to be played on weekend of 25 and 26 April