QUEEN OF THE SOUOTH 1 RANGERS 2
Stevie Smith and Dean Shiels handed Rangers a precious 2-1 Scottish Premiership play-off quarter-final win as they kept their promotion bid on track with a first-leg victory over Queen of the South at Palmerston.
On what could prove to be a vital night for the Glasgow club, the Light Blues held on for a result that goes a significant way to dramatically altering their current circumstances.
Smith - out since March 7 - returned to make his first appearance under Stuart McCall and rewarded his new boss with a stunning free-kick opener just before half-time.
Derek Lyle levelled for Queens 20 minutes into the second period.
But Shiels’ header with 15 minutes left means the fallen Glasgow giants take a crucial one-goal lead back to Ibrox for next Sunday’s return.
Forced into playing two extra games after finishing third in the Championship, this was a banana-skin tie McCall could have done without.
After shipping five goals in their two previous Palmerston defeats this season, Rangers were expected to go with a cautious approach on their return to Dumfries.
McCall even replaced striker Nicky Clark with full-back Smith as he went with the same 3-5-2 formation which worked so successfully in last month’s Easter Road victory over Hibernian.
But it soon became clear the former Motherwell manager had no intention of parking the bus as the visitors went toe-to-toe with their hosts. They poured forward in numbers but at times left their back three of Darren McGregor, Marius Zaliukas and Lee Wallace dangerously exposed.
They survived an early scare as Danny Carmichael picked out Lyle at the back post but his header was pounced on by keeper Cammy Bell.
Rangers then showed their intent to take the game to Queens after nine minutes. First Kenny Miller and Shiels linked well before springing Haris Vuckic through on goal. but the Slovenian dragged his shot wide.
The on-loan Newcastle playmaker then returned the favour for Miller 60 seconds later as he slotted the striker in behind the Doonhamers defence but a marginal off-side call denied the 35-year-old the opener.
Shiels had a shot easily saved by Darren Clark while Stephen McKenna collected the game’s first booking for a late lunge on the Northern Irishman.
But the enthusiasm shown by the Rangers players going forward was not always matched by their efforts to get back into defensive formation. They were fortunate to see one Queens counter attack collapse when McShane chose to pass left and not right - where he had three team-mates darting forward - as Andy Murdoch swept up the danger.
But with a minute left of the half, Gers’ adventurous spirit paid off. Andy Dowie’s tug on Vuckic gave McCall’s side a free-kick 25-yards out and Smith showed no sign of rustiness as he swept a delightful effort in off the underside of Clark’s crossbar.
Rangers started the second period with more gusto and were only denied a second within the first minute by some scrambled Queens defending as Miller and Smith were denied by the combined goal-line efforts of Clark and Chris Higgins.
Smith’s return lasted just 61 minutes though as he was replaced by Robbie Crawford after limping off with a calf complaint.
But the Glasgow side were still trying to get themselves organised as McShane whipped a corner to the back post for the unmarked Lyle to head home the equaliser.
Bell then had to tip away Kevin Holt’s effort while Mark Durnan nodded wide from another corner as Queens sensed blood.
Rangers were under pressure and grateful not to lose Richard Foster to a straight red card when he slid in late on dancing winger Carmichael.
And their relieve was only heightened when the full-back mounted the attack which put them back in command. Driving to the bye-line, Foster clipped the ball back into the six-yard box where Shiels angled his header away from Clark’s reach into his top right-hand corner.