Jon McLaughlin’s Scotland credentials are becoming undeniable. With every save against Rangers at Ibrox on Saturday, the Hearts goalkeeper’s international claim grew stronger.
He has been outstanding all season and new national coach Alex McLeish will surely want to look at the 30-year-old when he names his first squad next month.
Rangers would have beaten Hearts by five or six goals but for McLaughlin’s repeated interventions. With Celtic’s Craig Gordon injured and David Marshall out of favour at Hull City, only Allan McGregor is playing regularly out of the established Scottish international keepers. He is keeping Marshall out of the Hull side at the moment.
There is a clear opening for new goalkeeping talent to emerge and McLaughlin’s performances prove he should be at the front of the queue. He conceded goals to Jamie Murphy and Russell Martin – both of whom will also hope to be in McLeish’s plans – but pulled off a plethora of stops to prevent Hearts suffering a proverbial doing in Glasgow.
A fairly open first half saw him save from Sean Goss, Greg Docherty and Alfredo Morelos. Hearts had dangerous efforts of their own through Kyle Lafferty and Ross Callachan before Murphy’s opener.
However, the second half was one-way traffic as the visitors failed to impose themselves. McLaughlin was called upon for a double save from Docherty and Morelos, then he thwarted Josh Windass in a one-against-one before another diving save to deny Morelos. Finally, he parried another attempt by Murphy and also stopped a free-kick by Windass before Martin converted Rangers’ second.
It was no surprise to hear fellow Scotland internationalists extolling the Edinburgh-born keeper’s case for a call-up. “He was the best player for us by a long shot,” said Steven Naismith, on loan at Hearts from Norwich City and a Scotland regular for the past decade.
“I think he’s been consistent all season since he came in. He’s been very good.
“When you go to Rangers or Celtic, you expect your goalie to be busy and you need him to do well. He didn’t fail to deliver. With Craig Gordon out, it leaves the door open for another goalie. There’s also a new manager who will have his own thoughts. Jon has certainly done his chances no harm.”
Naismith’s afternoon was less rewarding as he returned to Ibrox for the first time since an acrimonious exit in 2012. Rangers supporters are reluctant to forgive him for comments about their club being a new entity following liquidation that year.
So, when the striker emerged on the touchline ready to replace Harry Cochrane on 73 minutes, he was greeted by a chorus of boos.
“I had the wife and kids shouting and bawling at me all week,” he laughed.
“To be honest, it doesn’t really have an effect on me at all. Everywhere I’ve been, you get used to it. I think you see the guys who retaliate are the ones it gets to, but it doesn’t really bother me.”
What grated more was the paucity of Hearts’ performance. Rangers represent a far more resolute unit under Graeme Murty than his predecessor, Pedro Caixinha. They were on top of their game and carved their opponents open time after time. Hearts made it look rather easy, though.
They didn’t compete in midfield and barely threatened up front after those two first-half attempts from Lafferty and McLaughlin. Cochrane’s return from injury was a bonus but Don Cowie was missing with a hamstring problem and David Milinkovic was left out. The winger wasn’t enlisted because manager Craig Levein planned to use wing-backs instead.
Midfielder Joaquim Adao was substituted at half-time to avoid a red card. He was booked on 19 minutes and fouled a further twice thereafter. That revealed much about how off the pace he and his colleagues were.
“It is disappointment, especially for the younger guys in the squad,” said Naismith. “I remember starting out at Kilmarnock and going to Ibrox. It is a daunting place to go. You want to get Rangers on the back foot and we didn’t really do that.
“In possession, we weren’t good enough. That gave Rangers a lift and they had waves of attacks at one point. It’s cruel to give away a goal just before half-time. I’ve been on the other side of it so I know how big a lift it will have been for them.”
Murty wisely played down talk of a title race with rivals Celtic. Saturday’s victory was Rangers’ seventh in their last eight games – Hibs beat them at Ibrox earlier this month – but the former Scotland defender is reluctant to get carried away.
“I’m not sure we’re even in Celtic’s minds. They are top of the league for good reason. They are going to take care of themselves and play as well as they possibly can. All we can do is worry about us and make sure we do our job.
“We did that today and that’s the message we will take on. We did our job defensively, keeping a clean sheet, and our forwards did the job by putting the goals in at the right times. The media can talk about a title race but as far as I’m concerned they’re still the team to beat at the top of the table.”