On their third visit to Ibrox this season, Hearts suffered more misery as second-half goals by Jason Cummings and Daniel Candeias brought Rangers a much-needed win.
Christophe Berra’s header reduced the deficit with 20 minutes remaining but the hosts held firm to give manager Graeme Murty three very welcome points.
The victory sees the Glasgow club keep pace with Aberdeen in joint-second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership, while Hearts remain sixth. The Edinburgh club barely threatened the Rangers goal until they were 2-0 down near the halfway point in the second period. By then, the mountain was too much to climb.
Rangers’ turmoil has been well documented since last Sunday’s catastrophic Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Celtic. Murty finds himself the subject of much scrutiny as a result of the 4-0 defeat at Hampden. He certainly wanted this win to ease the pressure slightly. He dropped Andy Halliday, Alfredo Morelos and Greg Docherty to the substitutes’ bench for this match in favour of Jason Holt, Jason Cummings and Josh Windass respectively.
First-choice goalkeeper Wes Foderingham is injured, so Jak Alnwick got a rare start in goal. Hearts were considerably more settled. Their only change was injury-enforced as David Milinkovic dropped out with a knee problem and Danny Amankwaa stepped in.
After Aberdeen’s win at Kilmarnock on Saturday, the pressure was all on the home side to keep pace in the race to finish second. Hearts had only pride at stake entering the final five games of the campaign.
Disgruntled Rangers fans in the Broomloan Road Stand conducted a silent protest at kick-off. The unveiled banners read: “No fight. No pride. Incompetent on and off the park. We deserve better.”
Hearts found themselves under the cosh from kick-off. Steven Naismith cleared a free-kick and Cummings’ effort on the rebound was deflected clear. Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin then emerged to deny Jamie Murphy a likely opening goal on 20 minutes.
The visitors settled into the game after that point. Their gameplan was to frustrate an already exasperated Ibrox support and hit on the counter-attack whenever possible. By the interval, they looked a bit more in control. Rangers’ early energy had dissipated slightly and they were guilty of misplacing a few passes. However, their right-back James Tavernier was causing problems down the right. Amankwaa’s tracking back on that side left a lot to be desired.
The opening goal arrived down the opposite flank just a minute into the second half. Murphy sprinted on to Josh Windass’ through pass. His cross found Candeias, who in turn squared to Cummings. The former Hibs striker composed himself before slotting the ball beyond McLaughlin from around ten yards.
Amankwaa was replaced by Joaquim Adao soon after and Don Cowie moved into an attacking midfield role. Hearts needed to restore parity by finding a goal whilst also guarding against the possibility of losing a second. John Souttar’s last-ditch clearance denied Windass the privilege of increasing Rangers’ advantage following Candeias’ cross from the right.
It was only a matter of time until the hosts did score again. This time Candeias finished another Murphy cross using his head, and that put Rangers in a commanding position. Only a decent save low to his left by McLaughlin stopped Windass adding a third with more than half of the second period still remaining.
Hearts did reduce the deficit, though. When substitute Lewis Moore was fouled by Tavernier on the 70th minute, Cowie angled the free-kick towards Berra for a glancing header on the run which flew past Alnwick. That injected some hope into the pocket of visiting fans. When Kyle Lafferty’s shot struck the outside of Alnwick’s left post moments later, the prospect of Hearts completing a comeback grew.
They almost gift-wrapped the game for Rangers in the closing minutes, though. First, Berra’s square pass to Adao 40 yards out was slack and Cummings seized possession. He bore down on McLaughlin but the goalkeeper spread himself for another important stop.
Then it was McLaughlin’s turn for an error. He left his box to head a bouncing ball only to misjudge its flight. Substitute Alfredo Morelos would have punished the mistake but Michael Smith cleared the Colombian’s shot off the goal line.
Rangers (4-2-3-1): Alnwick; Tavernier, McCrorie, Martin, John; Holt, Dorrans; Candeias, Windass, Murphy; Cummings.
76: Halliday for Windass
86: Morelos for Cummings
90: O’Halloran for Candeias
Unused subs: Kelly, Hodson, Goss, Docherty.
Hearts (3-4-2-1): McLaughlin; Souttar, Hughes, Berra; Randall, Cowie, M Smith, Godinho; Naismith, Amankwaa; Lafferty.
55: Adao for Amankwaa
60: Moore for Godinho
81: Henderson for Hughes
Unused subs: J Hamilton, McDonald, Cochrane, C Hamilton.
Referee: Craig Thomson.