There was a suggestion of offside to Queen of the South's late equaliser, yet grumbling about refereeing decisions was a distraction. Once this Ramsdens Cup tie went to penalty kicks, nerve was the deciding factor, and it was the visitors who maintained their composure.
The tension was an additional strain. Drama is central to penalties, mainly because it addles the players' minds. Neither side was impeccable, and it was in keeping with the general malcontent of the two teams that Neil Alexander was booked during the shoot out. Derek Lyle and Dean Shiels both missed early kicks, then Anestis Argyriou hit the post with Rangers' last effort. Ryan McGuffie took advantage to send Queens into the last four.
Argyriou and Shiels looked forlorn as they left the field. They could have taken refuge behind Stevie O'Reilly. The referee sent one player off from each side and although neither dismissal appeared contentious, there was a general mood of indignation about questionable decisions he kept making. The latter stages of the second-half and then extra-time were littered with bookings.
Rangers, in particular, were aggrieved. It might have been a coping mechanism, since their display was poor and Queens were not unworthy of their eventual win. Rangers are currently only gathering reasons to be concerned. "It's a sore one," said Ally McCoist, the Ibrox manager. "At the second goal, a couple of the boys are saying it was our throw in, and that he was a yard offside, but we should still be defending better. There were one or two strange [refereeing] decisions out there."
Rangers were pedestrian, and it allowed the visitors to settle into the occasion. Even so, Queens had no reason to be cowed. They remain full-time, they were unbeaten in their nine previous games, they are top of the second division and they had scored 10 goals in their previous two games. Hibernian, too, could have attested to their worth, since Queens knocked the Easter Road side out of the League Cup.
Rangers' discomfort was an encouragement. The laboured efforts of the home side were an opportunity to gather some poise, and Queens were soon the more fluent, purposeful outfit. They were not in command of the game, since mediocrity was a common dilemma for both teams, but there were causes for optimism.
Principally, spirits were raised because of the accomplishment demanded of Alexander. He had to throw his arm up to tip Chris Mitchell's fierce half-volley over the bar, and again to prevent Daniel Carmichael's effort from curling into the net. Alexander's competence was a reassurance to Rangers, even if it also separated him from the general mundanity in front of him.
There was no respite. Urgency ought to have been Rangers' response to a meagre first-half display, but they continued to be outdone. Just four minutes after the interval, Nicky Clark slipped between two defenders to head Willie Gibson's cross beyond Alexander. Rangers could no longer tolerate being humdrum. The Queens defence had opportunities to clear Ian Black's corner, but Lee McCulloch was still able to wrap his foot round a defender and prod the ball goalwards. Barrie McKay was on hand to then lift a shot into the net.
The goal did not rouse Rangers, since there was still a subdued tone to their play. Even when aggression was applied, it was misplaced. Kevin Kyle had only been on the field for a few minutes when he was booked for leading with his elbows. He managed 13 minutes on the field before seeing red, after what appeared to be a similar offence. "I didn't think there was an awful lot in it," said McCoist.
Only Queens were perturbed by the turn of events. When McCulloch received Lewis MacLeod's pass inside the penalty area, his run took him across Chris Higgins, who tripped him. The Rangers captain struck the penalty with resolve. "When they went down to 10 men, we switched off," said Allan Johnston, the Queens manager.
It appeared to be the decisive moment, since a rush of ill-feeling and rough tackling led to Gibson receiving his second yellow card in the 92nd minute. The dismissal seemed to stir the last of Queens' resolve, however, and Gavin Reilly turned the ball in from close range in the final act of the second-half. He looked offside, but there was no reprieve for Rangers. Instead, they were to suffer the consequences of their meek display.
"The boys deserved it," said Johnston. "Make no mistake, Rangers prepared right. You could see the boys' confidence, though, they just kept going. They got their just rewards."
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