Rangers’ fringe frustration

When Rangers get around to compiling the commemorative DVD of their 55th title-winning season, the 1-1 draw against Hamilton Accies at the Fountain of Youth Stadium is unlikely to take up much footage.

By Stephen Halliday
Tuesday, 9th February 2021, 1:00 pm
Rangers boss Steven Gerrard during Sunday’s draw with Hamilton. Pic by PA.
Rangers boss Steven Gerrard during Sunday’s draw with Hamilton. Pic by PA.

It will surely prove inconsequential to the ultimate outcome of their pursuit of the Premiership crown for which they now need a maximum of 16 points from their final 10 fixtures to get over the line.

But this was unquestionably the poorest performance of the season so far from Steven Gerrard’s side.

The only positive they could take from it was the preservation of their unbeaten league record against an Accies outfit who made a mockery of their current position at the foot of the table.

It may have taken Brian Rice’s side until the 94th minute and virtually the last kick of the match to claim what could yet prove to be a crucial point in their latest attempt to avoid relegation.

But no-one could seriously oppose the view it was the least they deserved for their hugely impressive efforts.

That goalkeeper Allan McGregor was Rangers’ best player on the day says it all about the manner in which Accies hustled and harried Gerrard’s men out of their normally fluid and incisive stride.

While the cold and blustery conditions had an impact, adding to the difficulties posed by the artificial playing surface, it was simply an afternoon when Rangers were well below par.

It was also a day when a couple of their fringe players, Bongani Zungu and Cedric Itten, were unable to seize the rare opportunity presented to them in the starting eleven.

Gerrard has high hopes for both South African midfielder Zungu and Swiss striker Itten. Neither of them did much to validate those expectations on this occasion.

Zungu was not as tidy in possession as he has appeared in some of his previous outings.

And his first Premiership start was cut short after an hour when he was replaced by Ryan Jack.

Itten, who has delivered several eye-catching displays from the bench, struggled to make any impact against a well-drilled Accies’ three-man central defence before he too was withdrawn and replaced by Kemar Roofe.

It looked as if Rangers would emerge with their most fortunate victory of the season, courtesy of the two oldest heads in their squad.

Along with McGregor, midfielder Steven Davis knows what it takes to win a title for Rangers.

With 12 minutes of regulation time remaining, he entered the fray as a replacement for Glen Kamara whose creativity had been suffocated for much of the contest by the smothering attention of the excellent Hakeem Odoffin whose display typified Accies’ approach.

It took Davis just two minutes to provide the sharpness and vision which had been lacking in Rangers’ play in and around the home team’s defensive third.

The Northern Ireland captain picked out a brilliant pass which skewered the Accies’ backline and picked out Borna Barisic’s run into the left side of the penalty area.

The Croatian full-back’s driven cross caused panic, leading to Accies goalkeeper Ryan Fulton diverting it towards team-mate Brian Easton who put it into his own net under pressure from James Tavernier.

It was tremendously harsh on Accies but it appeared that Rangers had found a way to eke out the kind of ugly victory which is a prerequisite of every title-winning squad.

If they had done so and racked up yet another clean sheet, every member of the side would have owed their win bonus to McGregor.

At 39, the former Scotland goalkeeper’s reflexes and positioning are as sharp as ever.

This was another display which underlined why Rangers must hope he decides to extend his career beyond the expiry of his current contract which expires in the summer.

McGregor’s one-man defiance of Accies began in a largely stultifying first half in which the best chance fell to Bruce Anderson after a mistake from Filip Helander.

The on-loan Aberdeen striker looked favourite to score but his shot was diverted wide by McGregor.

Although Rangers were a little sharper and brighter for periods of the second half, Accies continued to carve out the clearer opportunities in front of goal.

McGregor kept them at bay again with a stunning double save from Scott McMann and Ross Callachan, although the latter chance should have been gobbled up by the midfielder.

Another attempt from Anderson was next to be stopped by McGregor, whose exasperation with the efforts of those in front of him was plain to see.

He was at it again in the 77th minute, throwing himself to his right to keep out a well struck free-kick from Callachan after the impressive Jamie Hamilton had been felled on the edge of the box by Helander.

When Easton’s own goal then gave Rangers the breakthrough, Accies might have been excused for a sense of acceptance that it just wasn’t going to be their day.

Instead, they pushed right to the wire. Rangers, with Davis now providing some calmness and authority, should have been able to see out yet another victory.

But in the fourth and final minute of stoppage time, they dropped points for only the fourth time this season when McGregor was finally beaten.

He made another superb save, keeping out a header from Anderson, but Callachan ensured justice was done for Accies when he squeezed home the rebound from a tight angle.