RANGERS 1 QUEEN OF THE SOUTH 1 (agg 3-2)
Rangers kept their promotion bid on track as they held off Queen of the South to claim a 1-1 draw and book a Scottish Premiership play-off semi-final date with Hibernian.
After claiming a 2-1 victory in the quarter-final first-leg at Palmerston, Stuart McCall’s team completed the job but only after 90 nerve-shredding minutes at Ibrox.
Derek Lyle’s third goal in his last three outings against the Glasgow giants after 35 minutes had the sell-out Light Blues crowd fearing the worst.
But stand-in skipper Lee Wallace restored their aggregate lead 15 minutes into the second half before Rangers saw out the anxious final half-hour to set up a crucial clash with Alan Stubbs’ team, with the Ibrox first-leg scheduled for this coming Wednesday.
Rangers had been forced to play two extra games after letting the Championship runners-up slot slip and the Ibrox faithful made it clear to their players before kick-off it was time to step up to the mark as they unveiled a banner stretching across the width of the Broomloan Road Stand reading: “No true Ranger has ever failed in the tradition set him”.
Following months of meagre attendances, the Gers support had taken advantage of cheap £5 tickets to fill the ground to the rafters.
Boss McCall responded to the pumped-up atmosphere by sending out an attacking 4-4-2 formation as he ditched the three-man defence which worked so effectively in Dumfries.
Striker Nicky Clark, in for the scorer of last week’s opener Stevie Smith, should have ratcheted the noise levels up even further eight minutes in but volleyed wide after Wallace and Haris Vuckic’s pincer movement down the left.
Visiting keeper Zander Clark then snuffed out Nicky Law’s close-range effort as Rangers pressed forward. Queens centre-back Mark Durnan did his side no favours with an under-cooked pass-back but was let off the hook when Vuckic misplaced his pass to Nicky Clark before Kevin Holt’s challenge made sure the Doonhamers survived again.
The involvement of Vuckic was becoming a theme of Rangers’ best moments and his dancing feet were on show again as he pulled another diving saving out of Zander Clark.
But the lapses in concentration which have made McCall’s team so vulnerable this term cost Rangers once more as Queens mounted their first attack. Mark Millar refused to be hurried as he picked up possession on the edge of the Gers box, instead sweeping it wide for Danny Carmichael, whose cross in between Marius Zaliukas and Darren McGregor was perfect for Lyle to steal in and head home.
The Ibrox support groaned momentarily before trying to rally their troops. A Vuckic free-kick almost had them cheering but Zander Clark parried away.
Booed off at the break, Rangers knew they had to produce better. They almost did just that after 55 minutes as Kenny Miller met Richard Foster’s back-post cross with a firm header - only for Zander Clark to make himself a nuisance with another heroic save.
But calamity was never far away. Queens playmaker Gavin Reilly was set free by Lyle’s flick and had just Cammy Bell to beat as he raced towards goal.
However, he did not even test the keeper as a heavy touch sent the ball dribbling into the goalkeeper’s grateful grasp.
And how vital that miscue proved as Gers reclaimed control of their own destiny on the hour mark. Wallace worked Vuckic into position on the left-hand side of the box and continued his run as the Slovenian’s cross was chested down at the near post by Nicky Clark, where Wallace was waiting to fire home.
Ibrox erupted with a mixture of joy and relief as the home players huddled round the goalscorer. Law could have wiped out any remaining nerves when put through by Vuckic with 18 minutes left but Zander Clark again proved hard to beat.
But there were still moments of panic in the desperate final stages, especially when Lyle beat Bell with a clever lob nine minutes from time - only for Vuckic to head off the line.
The final moment of drama came in third minute of stoppage-time as Queens lined-up a free-kick. But Rangers were finally able to let out a sigh of relief as Ian McShane sent his effort into the wall.