"KEEP believing" read a banner that popped up after Marvin Andrews put Rangers in a seemingly unassailable 2-0 lead minutes before half-time yesterday. But it is impossible to know what to believe might be the destiny of this championship after an own goal from the same big defender was responsible for a stroll giving way to a shiver-inducing last ten minutes for Alex McLeish’s men.
Such a surprising turnaround was in keeping with a title race that Rangers now lead by a point, at least until Celtic play their game in hand against Aberdeen at Celtic Park today. And given the way that game shaped up the last time Aberdeen were in town, when they took an early 2-0 lead before Celtic won 3-2, that game is no gimme. For 24 hours, it is Celtic’s turn to feel the pressure.
The combination of uncertainty and pressure which has infused this season’s Championship was in evidence off the park yesterday as John Robertson was forced to answer questions about his managerial future. He has surely concluded that he is living on borrowed time after failing to earn a vote of confidence at a Hearts board meeting on Friday evening.
That issue now seems cut and dried, but not so a title race which has had more turns and twists than a rally driver tearing up a corkscrew mountain road. At Ibrox yesterday, even the Almighty became part of the equation as Andrews, who this week again reiterated his unwillingness to undergo an operation on a damaged cruciate knee ligament because it is "God’s will", doubled Rangers advantage with a goal the defender would doubtless put down to divine providence. How that would square this with his later intervention is anyone’s guess.
"You just never know," said McLeish afterwards of the nervy conclusion. "We dominated 90% of the game yet people looking at the last ten minutes would have thought Hearts might get something. That is the quirkiness of the game."
Yet for most of the game Rangers were on easy street. The impressive Thomas Buffel had already had two first-half penalty claims turned down, and when his fizzing shot thumped off the underside of the bar on 65 minutes, the Rangers manager was already sure his team would win "convincingly". He should know by now that there is no sure thing in this championship.
"Anything can happen," was McLeish’s response to the fact his team now have a one-point lead going into their final two league games only a week after they found themselves five points adrift of Celtic. McLeish expects Celtic to emerge victorious this afternoon, but then, as he pointed out, he also expected Hibs to lose last week.
It was entirely fitting that Andrews, a man who shouldn’t even have been playing, had such a major influence on proceedings. His first goal came when a Gregory Vignal corner from the right found its way out to Buffel 20 yards from goal. The Belgian’s crisply struck drive looked to be heading goalwards, but the Trinidad and Tobago centre-back was taking no chances and deflected it beyond Craig Gordon.
Yet, if Andrews was responsible for putting Rangers on easy street, he ensured they turned on to a rockier route when he needlessly stuck out a leg and prodded a Paul Hartley free-kick low into the corner of his own net. This prompted a level of anxiety among the home side and their supporters that was not a product of anything that had gone before.
Initially, indeed, Rangers were very edgily egged on by their supporters. The Ibrox faithful were probably still trying to come to terms with the fact that the championship they thought they had watched slide out of view when Celtic left Govan with three points a fortnight ago had hoved into sight again courtesy of Hibs’ epic efforts at Parkhead last week.
Yet they had little to be edgy about until Andrews’ second intervention. From the off, McLeish’s men demonstrated a determination and resolve that would have flowed from the knowledge that a win would mean table-topping status and a Ben Nevis-sized mountain of pressure being heaped on Martin O’Neill’s men.
Vibrant and inventive, the commendable, all-out attacking strategy that was clear from the starting line-up - which included all four strikers in Dado Prso, Nacho Novo, Peter Lovenkrands and Buffel - led to a one-sided first half. Hearts, like their manager of late, were buffeted - as well as being Buffel-ed - teased and increasingly tormented. Long periods of Rangers pressure left them unable to rustle up any means to find a foothold in an encounter in which their role appeared entirely passive.
The Ibrox club were seeking their first home Premierleague victory since late February. Since then they’ve registered a draw at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle followed by defeats against Dundee United and Celtic which fatally undermined their cause.
The feeling that this damaging run was about to come to and end came courtesy of an absolutely delightful run from Novo which paved the way for Buffel’s eighth-minute opener. The little Spaniard glided past a couple of maroon markers after picking up in a central position midway inside opposition territory. He chipped the advancing Gordon only for the goalline clearance to be then headed into the net by Buffel.
In a season characterised by its capriciousness, the potential significance of that goal can only be guessed at.