Hearts starlet Allan Johnston showed why French club Rennes went on to snap him up under the Bosman ruling as he ran riot in Govan, scoring a marvellous hat-trick and securing Hearts their first win at Ibrox since 1988.
In a game that made the senses throb, Hearts speared Rangers, whose vacuous defending must have worried Walter Smith.
Rangers were traumatised. They sorely missed Paul Gascoigne, forbidden from playing through suspension, who would have given them some threat, and certainly some trickery, in midfield. Rangers were impotent in that area of the field, where Ian Durrant toiled and Ian Ferguson simply lacked originality, so that Hearts had ample opportunity to seize possession and run at them. Hearts tore through Rangers with uncanny ease. By contrast, the meticulously mapped-out defending of the visitors frustrated Rangers at every turn. Time after time, Hearts stepped out in a line, even with their deeper-lying sweeper, to snare Rangers in offside positions and provoke their supporters to livid rage. Dave McPherson had a towering game for his team, making thrusting interventions and drawing the sting from Brian Laudrup’s crosses.
Englishman Neil Pointon found the vision and precision to inflict the damage as he became the architect for Johnston. If Johnston’s finishing was the sheen to this match, it was Pointon’s willingness to roam forward and plant balls in his path that did for Rangers.
Andy Goram, a man quite unfamiliar with the task of rummaging around in the rigging to retrieve balls, suddenly found himself experiencing backache doing it. His entire Rangers defence were being sliced like mangos, as Hearts inflicted pure, impish mischief.
Their first goal came with a trifling six minutes on the clock. Little John Colquhoun almost indulged in some tap-dancing down the left to leave Gordan Petric quite dazed. From the bye-line, Colquhoun cut the ball back towards Goram’s near post, where Johnston arrived carrying fretting defenders all about him. A stab of a left foot and the ball was nestling in the net. Goram and his cohorts were left looking askance at one another.
At one point in the first half, Steve Fulton’s perceptive lob gave Allan Lawrence an angle from which to hare down on Goram. On and on Lawrence scampered, McLaren stumbling and falling in his wake, until he was eyeball-to-eyeball with the goalkeeper and ready to let rip his shot. Despite the scoreline, Goram was heroic for Rangers, batting away the ball as he was to do on other occasions.
In the 60th minute, Pointon’s pass again found Lawrence, who tore through the middle to greet Goram’s advance from goal. The goalkeeper palmed the shot away, and Colquhoun, whose lungs must have been simmering having begun the whole move, came gambolling through on the right to hammer the rebound wide.
Sixty seconds later, Hearts were two up. Pointon lofted yet another pass over Rangers’ heads and into Johnston’s roaming path. The young striker stole through on Goram, flicked his right boot, and the ball evaded the keeper and sailed inside his post.
Seven minutes from time, Pointon again delivered a pass. Johnston, clean through, this time dribbled past Goram and scored. While Rangers would gain a measure of revenge in that season’s Scottish Cup final by winning 5-1, this Hearts performance went a long way to securing fourth place in the league and a spot in the UEFA Cup.
Rangers: Goram, I Ferguson, Robertson, Gough, McLaren, Petric, Miller, Cleland, Durrant, Durie, Laudrup. Subs: Van Vossen, Mikhailitchenko, B Ferguson
Hearts: Rousset, Locke (c), Ritchie, McPherson, McManus, Bruno, Johnston, Colquhoun, Lawrence, Fulton, Pointon. Subs: Mackay, Robertson, Nelson
Referee: Robert Orr