Police delayed Hearts’ exit from Ibrox for their own safety on Friday evening as Rangers fans protested against their club’s board outside.
When the Edinburgh club’s players and staff finally boarded their coach, there was a sense of relief. For teenage defender Jordan McGhee, the whole night had been very bittersweet.
His elation at signing a new two-and-a-half-year contract last Wednesday multiplied when told he was in the starting line-up against Rangers. Then came a farcical 24 minutes before referee Bobby Madden decided the game could not continue with icy snow covering the pitch. Proceedings were abandoned and frustration grew both inside and outside Ibrox.
McGhee could only sigh with dejection as he trudged up the tunnel. He had gone from cloud nine to ground zero in a matter of minutes. The young defender is desperate for a run of first-team games to aid his development and was understandably irked at having only his second start in two months cut short.
“That’s what I’m needing to progress and develop as a player,” he told the Evening News. “I need games under my belt. Even if I play five or six games and then get drafted out for a few, that’s what I need for my development. Hopefully, I’ll get that soon. The gaffer [Robbie Neilson] and the backroom team were delighted after I signed the contract and they will try to take my development on to the next level.
“It was a great boost to get back into the team, although I wasn’t expecting it. Last week was a great week for me after signing my new contract then getting thrown back into the team at Ibrox. I was really looking forward to the game but, obviously, it wasn’t a great night the way it ended. Emotionally, you feel a bit down after being on a high but it was the right decision to abandon the match. Next time we play Rangers we’ll just need to plan the same way.”
Hearts’ previous fixture brought a resounding 5-1 win over Dumbarton. McGhee, like most others who didn’t start at the Bet Butler Stadium, did not expect many changes. Yet Neilson took the decision to drop striker James Keatings and draft in McGhee at right-back, with Callum Paterson shunted up front from his usual defensive role. “I was a little bit surprised. I thought the boys did brilliantly last week and a few players didn’t get in the team at Ibrox who have been different class recently,” he admitted.
“The gaffer, Craig [Levein], Jack Ross and Stevie Crawford sit down every week and see what players are best suited to the game. They obviously thought I was best suited to come in. Signing the contract and then coming to Ibrox to play in such a big game, a big occasion, was great for me. This is when you need to prove yourself. You want to play in all the big games but it was a bit of a shock getting thrown back in again.”
It was an even bigger surprise when the teenager strode out of the Ibrox tunnel for the pre-match warm-up. A snow blizzard left the pitch covered and falling air temperatures rendered the undersoil heating ineffective. Rangers’ interim manager Kenny McDowall insisted the undersoil heating had been on full blast but the game quickly descended into a farce after kick-off.
“At the time, as we came out for the warm up, we just looked at each other,” said McGhee. “We couldn’t even see the ball and it was really deep snow. We thought maybe the undersoil heating might have worked and that the snow could’ve gone away when we started running on it, but it just wasn’t happening. It was obviously fair play to the ref to try and get the game to go ahead. You could tell in the warm up that it was a bit slippy. You couldn’t really move and turn the way you should. We tried our best to play, and that goes for both teams, but it just wouldn’t happen at the end of the day.
“I felt it was the right decision to abandon the game for the players’ safety. One of the Rangers players took a knock, I think it was Stevie Smith, which could have been a lot worse. You fear for everybody’s safety on the pitch. It wasn’t good conditions so any tackle could’ve gone wrong and put someone out with a horrific injury.”
The conditions had left Hearts with little option other than to abandon their passing philosophy for the night and be more direct. “We were just concentrating on the game and getting it to go ahead. We wanted to go out there and try to play our game. We knew we would have to adapt our game a wee bit and go a bit route one. Even that became a struggle when we tried to get the ball off the ground.
“It wasn’t ideal for our style. Our game is to try and get the ball down and pass it. When we went out for the warm up it didn’t look like our game plan was going to work so we had to try and change it. The fans were different class, as usual, though. They came through in their thousands and it’s a shame for them to have the match called off. I’m sure they’ll be back through for the next game.”