If Hearts can harness the spirit, resilience and bravery shown at Ibrox then they might avoid their season petering out.
Reduced to ten men on 25 minutes, they gave the kind of gutsy response which will allow head coach Ian Cathro hope for the remaining two league matches against St Johnstone and Celtic.
Prince Buaben’s straight red card for denying Rangers’ Josh Windass a clear goalscoring opportunity was like a bullet in the visitors’ kneecap. Debutant goalkeeper Viktor Noring – selected ahead of previous ever-present Jack Hamilton – was then guilty of a basic error for Rangers’ second goal just 60 seconds after Esmael Goncalves levelled the score at 1-1.
The Swede performed well and made three fine saves, but his decision to punch James Tavernier’s cross in the aftermath of the equaliser was costly. Noring failed to catch the ball after fisting it high into the air, and it bounced out for McKay to lash home what proved the be the winner. The mistake was every bit as debilitating as Buaben’s dismissal.
However, Hearts responded admirably to both setbacks. They regrouped and showed composure on the ball, energy and tenacity – all of it epitomised by captain Don Cowie. They pinned Rangers back and looked capable of scoring more than once. Jamie Walker was suspended, whilst full-backs Andraz Struna and Lennard Sowah were injured, but Cathro shuffled his pack intelligently and left Ibrox feeling aggrieved he wasn’t taking at least a point with him.
“I felt we were strong and consistent with a consistent attitude throughout, given we conceded an early goal and were a man down,” he said. “Those are a couple of things there which can rock you but our attitude, approach, intensity, work rate and quality were consistent throughout the game. You always fear the other team scoring on the counter-attack, but that’s the same for both teams.
“For me, it’s mixed feelings. Of course there is disappointment at the result but there were a lot of positive things. On the inside, we know what we’re doing and how we’re building. After Saturday, I’m even more convinced we will be a very good team.”
Cathro exuded a sense of desperation when asked about Hearts’ tendency to make life difficult for themselves. It was understandable given he has experienced precious few highs in his five and a half months in charge at Tynecastle. He rued the fact they had Rangers on the ropes despite the numerical disadvantage but failed to properly capitalise.
“As we progress, we get better at a number of things. Sometimes we’re putting the gun in our own mouth. That makes it difficult,” he said. “Our attitude will be to go and win and attack. We showed that on Saturday.
“You have to manage that bit of the game when you’re on top. This has happened twice to us in two weeks, and it’s happened on other occasions in the last five months. That’s going to be part of our development, stopping that and removing it. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to deal with it.”
The decision to leave Hamilton out was a major call. Noring joined Hearts last July but didn’t even have a minute’s competitive action for the Edinburgh club until he stepped on to the Ibrox pitch. “It was a big day for him. He’s deserved the opportunity and I think he showed some quality at times,” said Cathro, mindful of four terrific saves from Joe Garner, Clint Hill, Jon Toral and Martyn Waghorn.
Given he hadn’t played a meaningful game for ten months, a touch of rustiness was surely to be expected from the towering Swede. “Of course, there’s the error in the cross. When it’s a goalkeeper, naturally it becomes a bigger headline than the misplaced passes in the build-up. Viktor is one of our two options. The biggest priority now is to get value out of the next two games.”
Trips to McDiarmid Park and Parkhead look slightly more appealing in the aftermath of the performance in Govan. The very thing Hearts were desperate to avoid was their campaign fizzling out in a wave of apathy. Cathro’s decision to switch from a back four to a three at half-time on Saturday was brave and it gave his side a huge foothold in the match.
Pedro Caixinha, the Rangers manager, was grateful for three points which confirm Rangers will finish at least third in the Ladbrokes Premiership. They have a extremely slim chance of overhauling Aberdeen to claim second in what is their first campaign back in Scotland’s top flight. That doesn’t mean Caixinha is happy, though.
“It was a fantastic start from us and we scored an early goal [through Garner], which is always important,” said the Portuguese. “Then we struggled because we lost second balls. Since we arrived, we have lost 70 per cent of second balls. Hearts challenged us and we couldn’t cope with that.
“After the red card we felt comfortable having the ball at the back and in midfield. We tried to change that for the second half with the same intensity, anger and desire as the first half. We didn’t, we made a lot of mistakes. We had to explore space and be more aggressive.
“We had a lot of very good chances and one single bad decision stopped us from killing the game. I’m happy with the result and the three points. I’m happy to stay below second position and just see what happens.”