RANGERS would have won the league last season if matches were only 86 minutes long. But they have never been more relieved to have those final few minutes than they were yesterday.

Just when it appeared that Steven Gerrard and his side’s fallibility in the closing stages of matches was about to compromise their ability to keep pace with Celtic in the Ladbrokes Premiership yet again, Connor Goldson got on the end of a James Tavernier corner in injury time, bulleting in a header which sparked a mass pitch invasion from the visiting fans behind that goal.

While this was not a performance to strike fear across the city, shrugging off a setback such as Stephen O’Donnell’s 83rd minute equaliser to bag three points when you are not playing well is the stuff of champions. Considering Rangers were unable to defeat these opponents in four league attempts last season, and lost on both of their visits to Ayrshire, this was a statement of sorts. The mood music was certainly different to opening day last season when they outplayed Aberdeen with ten men but lost a last-gasp equaliser which meant they were chasing Celtic from the campaign’s opening weekend.

Gerrard had made three changes from the side which played out a goalless draw in Luxembourg, one of them enforced. Wes Foederingham came in to tend goal for the suspended Allan McGregor, with Steven Davis and Alfredo Morelos restored to the line-up at the expense of Glen Kamara and Jermain Defoe. There was plenty of enthusiasm about the away support, even if it was tested pre-game by a turnstile issue which kept many inside until after the final whistle.

The Englishman had hinted that “player power” might force his opposite number’s hand after Killie’s continental calamity against Connah’s Quay Nomads and the tactical blueprint Angelo Alessio employed yesterday could have come directly from the Steve Clarke playbook. They lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, dropping deep to condense the space for the visitors to play in. Aside from Laurentiu Branescu and midfielder Mohamed El Makrini, these were the same players who won twice here against Rangers in the campaign just past. The way they played in the second half particularly here should at least give the Italian some breathing space.

Gerrard’s 4-3-2-1 shape places an onus on Scott Arfield to help out with the goalscoring duties and if yesterday is anything to go by the summer break has done nothing to diminish his knack of putting the ball in the net. Italians are masters of tight defending but when James Tavernier hung over a corner which he himself had won, somehow the hulking presence of Nikola Katic had avoided the attention of Alessio’s defensive scheme altogether. The Croat had a free header eight yards out, and while Branescu was able to get a hand on his effort, it dropped at the feet of Arfield who kept his wits about him to steer into the net.

The domestic season was only 20 minutes old when we had our first Morelos flashpoint to talk about. While the Colombian was accruing fouls, he was essentially blameless when Kirk Broadfoot threw him to the ground after a tussle. Referee Willie Collum decided a stern talking to for both players was sufficient.

Morelos had squeezed an early shot on Branescu’s goal too but anyone who expected the early goal to lead to an avalanche of excitement and goals was to be disappointed. This was a surprisingly sleepy start to the season as Rangers largely protected what they had and the likes of Sheyi Ojo and Joe Aribo toiled to get into the game.

Some of the credit for the Ibrox side’s struggles must go to Kilmarnock, who reacted well to going behind and should have been level just before the hour mark when Chris Burke’s low cross was met by Eamonn Brophy. The Scotland man, who somehow succeeded in knocking the ball past the post from yards out with the goal gaping, hasn’t scored from open play since a goal against these opponents at this venue in January.

Suddenly finding themselves in a contest, Rangers upped their game. Aribo wriggled beyond a few men and fired in a shot which was beaten out by Bransecu. The goalkeeper snuffed out a half chance for Morelos too, then Katic got on the end of another corner but couldn’t get his header on target.

You couldn’t grudge Kilmarnock the equaliser when it arrived. Chris Burke levered over a deep free kick and it was missed by everyone before dropping in the path of Stephen O’Donnell. The Scotland full back steered the ball high into Foderingham’s net from close range.

It seemed like rubbing salt in the wounds that two Kilmarnock’s most important players last season, Jordan Jones and Greg Stewart, were on the pitch in Rangers’ colours for this match’s dramatic denouement. Gerrard has stressed the need for his team to manage the dying stages of games better if they are to go the distance with Celtic this term and for once the late goal came in their favour.

Branescu had made a fine save to defy a curler from Aribo after great work by Tavernier, but he was powerless when Goldson climbed highest to power in a fine winning header from another Tavernier corner to spark wild scenes amongst the away fans. Whether Rangers can go the distance over 38 games remains to be seen but with late winners and pitch invasions on the first weekend, this promises to be some season.