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McCulloch leads way with hat trick as Rangers wrap up league title

RANGERS 3 AIRDRIEONIANS 0
Captain Lee McCulloch scored a first-half hat-trick, including two penalty kicks, as Rangers clinched the SPFL League 1 title with a convincing at Ibrox.

The 35-year-old converted twice from the spot before netting a third from open play as the Ibrox side forged 26 points ahead of second-placed Dunfermline with eight rounds of matches still to play, thus completing the second step of their ascent to the top flight.

Rangers are just one successful Championship campaign away from the SPFL Premiership and their supporters' celebrations at the final whistle were loud enough, although they will know that manager Ally McCoist's vastly superior resources, ironically while the club's finances remain fraught, made their second successive title win inevitable.

Rangers remain unbeaten in the league and have a Ramsdens Cup final against Raith Rovers to look forward to in April, but performances in general this season have attracted criticism, most notably when the Ibrox side could only draw 1-1 with Albion Rovers in their home William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final tie on Sunday.

McCoist, though, has remained resolute in the face of his critics and is sure to point to the bigger picture for a club who had to start at the bottom of Scottish league football after lapsing into administration and liquidation in 2012.

Any lingering nerves from the Rovers game were swept away with less than two minutes on the clock when Airdrie keeper Grant Adam, formerly a Gers player, clattered into Rangers striker Andy Little inside the box with referee Brian Colvin pointing to the spot.

When the fuss had died down and the brother of Scotland star Charlie Adam acknowledged his yellow card, McCulloch slammed in the spot-kick and from them on Rangers took control.

Striker Jon Daly came close from a Richard Foster cross, his glancing header hitting the side-netting as the procession continued.

Rangers' second penalty came in the 20th minute when wide-man David Templeton proved too tricky for Airdrie defender Gregor Buchanan, and again McCulloch gave Adam no chance with a thunderous drive from 12 yards.

The Diamonds' keeper prevented a third in the 27th minute when he blocked a drive from Gers midfielder Nicky Law who escaped the clutches of the visiting defence before Little headed over the bar from 10 yards.

Four minutes before the break, however, McCulloch again proved his worth as an attacker, a role with which he is very familiar, when his shot from 14 yards sneaked in at the far post after taking a pass from Law.

Little, who had come into the side for Dean Shiels, limped off a minute before the break to be replaced by Nicky Clark, back from a foot injury, and there was more concern when Arnold Peralta had to come on for Templeton at the same time.

The second half was mostly academic.

McCulloch had a left-footed shot stopped by sheer weight of numbers three minutes after the interval before Bilel Mohsni worked a one-two with Clark and drove a shot against the post before sending the rebound wide.

It was a matter of playing out the rest of the game for the home side and they were given a huge cheer at the final whistle by their fans in the crowd of 41,343, but there will have been few inside Ibrox of a blue persuasion who will not recognise and accept that there are bigger battles on and off the pitch to come.

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