Robbie Neilson urged his Hearts players to rid themselves of any sense of despondency after they suffered only their second league defeat of the season and their first away from home in 13 months.
The Tynecastle side have become so accustomed to winning over the past year that any setback is met with deflation. “It’s terrible,” was Sam Nicholson’s first utterance as he dissected yesterday’s loss to a fired-up Rangers side while some of his team-mates were visibly downbeat in the corridors of Ibrox’s main stand.
However, Neilson was determined to ensure the result was immediately placed into perspective. This was only the fifth time Hearts had failed to win a league game this season and the defeat was inflicted by a Rangers side much-improved under Stuart McCall and clearly intent on pipping Hibs to second place. Hearts, of course, have long since disassociated from that battle between two of their biggest rivals.
Having left them in their slipstream and wrapped up the title a fortnight previously, their players were afforded the privilege of being welcomed on to the Ibrox pitch to a guard of honour from their Rangers counterparts before yesterday’s match. According to Neilson, they were perfectly entitled to leave the stadium in similarly triumphant fashion despite being unable to claw back a two-goal half-time deficit against a Rangers side who played the full second half with ten men.
“I don’t think we did enough to win,” admitted the head coach. “But the pleasing thing for me is that I’m sitting here at Ibrox, the team has been beaten 2-1 and everybody is devastated. We have to take step back and look at the big picture. We’re 23 points clear at the top of the Championship, and will be playing top-tier football next year.
“We’re still playing against a team going for the play-offs. That can swing the game a little bit. I don’t want to be too down about it. I spoke to the players after the game and they are devastated about it. I had to put it into perspective.
“When they walk out of Ibrox today they should walk out with their chest held high because they are champions. And it doesn’t matter if it’s one game, because it’s a 36-game league and they’ve been the best team. It’s been proven. Today they weren’t but I’m pleased with them, I’m proud of them. They kept working really hard. It would have been easy to come here having won the league and go two goals down and think ‘ach, it doesn’t matter’, but they kept fighting and were desperate to get that equaliser.”
Certainly the 2000 Hearts fans who were still partying buoyantly inside Ibrox 15 minutes after the final whistle weren’t allowing the defeat to get them down. They had arrived at the home of the pre-season title favourites intent on lording it regardless of what would unfold on the pitch and were packed into the away corner of the ground long before kick-off belting out their victory ditties and punching beachballs about the place. The sight of the Rangers players lining up in front of the tunnel to applaud the runaway 2014/15 Championship winners on to the field merely heightened the sense of delirium among the visiting support.
This was in stark contrast to the mood of the home fans, with the majority of the 40,000 crowd booing the Hearts players on to the pitch. Having performed their act of sportsmanship, the humbled Rangers players soon set about making life uncomfortable for a Hearts team who started the match in slack fashion.
The Ibrox side started strongly and threatened after two minutes when Nicky Law volleyed in a shot from the edge of the box after being picked out by a Haris Vuckic corner, but Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander was equal to it. Hearts were struggling to get any rhythm going in the early exchanges although both Osman Sow and Jamie Walker went close to opening the scoring after some dangerous, direct running towards the Rangers goal.
In the 22nd minute, the whole stadium erupted in applause in memory of the 22-year-old Edinburgh soldier Shaun Cole, who died in Miami last week. Walker wore a t-shirt under his strip dedicated to the tragic Hearts supporter.
Rangers deservedly edged in front after 28 minutes when Lee Wallace, the former Hearts player, delivered a low cross from the left which was rasped in from seven yards out by Kenny Miller.
Hearts tried to respond five minutes later, with Alim Ozturk’s 35-yard free-kick punched out by Cammy Bell before Nicholson drilled a low angled shot just beyond the far post. A minute later, Walker saw a low shot from just inside the box scrambled behind for a corner by Bell.
Rangers doubled their lead in the 38th minute when Vuckic collected possession on the edge of the box stepped inside McHattie and curled a low shot beyond Alexander from 16 yards out.
However, the hosts were reduced to ten men a minute before the break when their captain, Lee McCulloch, was sent off for elbowing Sow in an aerial duel as Hearts burst forward. Vuckic was the player sacrificed at the interval as Bilel Mohsni came on to fill the centre-back void left by McCulloch’s departure. The skipper apologised on television afterwards and admitted he’d let his team down.
It wasn’t to prove costly, however. Despite being a man down, Rangers coped reasonably comfortably with Hearts in the second half as the champions had most of the ball but toiled to carve clear opportunities. Indeed Nicky Clark should have extended the home team’s lead in 58 minutes, but he fluffed his shot after being teed up eight yards out by a low Law delivery from the right.
Ozturk had a chance to pull one back in 65 minutes when a corner from sub Billy King broke to him at the far post, but the Turk rasped his angled shot over the bar from eight yards out. At the other end, Miller saw a shot tipped behind by Alexander after Hearts failed to deal with a Law corner.
Hearts gave themselves hope in 82 minutes when Genero Zeefuik tapped into an empty net after Sow’s header at the back post from a long Ozturk cross was parried out by Bell. The visitors staged a late rally, but, aside from some pot-shots from distance, never really looked like forcing an equaliser.
“We didn’t start well,” admitted Neilson. “We didn’t do the things we spoke about. We wanted to play through Rangers and ended up playing into them. We lost two poor goals. I thought second half, after they went down to ten men, we dominated without really creating much, and we couldn’t break them down.”
Nicholson was adamant the defeat wasn’t down to any hint of Hearts downing tools as he insisted that a resurgent Rangers side were simply that bit stronger on the day. “They’ve definitely improved under their new manager,” said the Hearts winger. “They pressed the ball more than the last two times we’ve played them. We were expecting them to come out of the traps because they are still going for the play-offs. In terms of keeping ourselves motivated I think we’ve done really well. It’s not like we’ve taken our foot off the gas. We just didn’t start well - it’s not like we’ve won the league and that’s why we’ve chucked it.
“Today just wasn’t our day. It’s still a good season, we’re not going to let our heads go down because of this.”