Smith praises nearly-new aces in Ibrox power pack
23 Dec 1996
Many happy returners as McLaren and company freshen up title drive
THIS was a clash in which Rangers' challengers in the premier division might have looked for an upset to the champions.
Instead, it became simply another confirmation of the strength in depth of the Ibrox squad and the freshness their returning players are bringing with them as the title race moves to its climax.
After the match, Rangers manager Walter Smith pointed out: "That was the best performance I can remember us giving at Tynecastle, which has always been a difficult place for Rangers to visit.
"I think we are beginning to get the benefit of the players coming back after long-term injuries.
We have several in that category - Trevor Steven, Alan McLaren and David Robertson, for instance - and they are coming in with fresh legs, so it is almost as if we have signed new players just when we face a tough programme of games.
" While Smith takes obvious comfort from that fact it is far from good news for the other teams in the top 10.
Rangers just appear to be getting stronger and more potent as the weeks go by.
As well as the comeback men he mentioned, Smith could also be able to call on striker Gordon Durie and perhaps even Stuart McCall by the time the new year arrives, while defender Joachim Bjorklund may return this week.
So, as Hearts manager Jim Jefferies bemoaned the players missing from his side, Smith was able to ignore the men Rangers did not have available.
The blows to Hearts were, of course, much more damaging.
Experienced defenders Dave McPherson and Pasquale Bruno, as well as their other Italian import, Stefano Salvatori, were out, and as Jefferies admitted: "There were times when it was men against boys out there today.
"When we go in against Rangers we need all our players available and playing to form as well.
We did not have that today." Jefferies, like his club's fans, was upset by the ordering-off of Neil Pointon right on the half-time whistle.
Pointon, though, had to go.
First he was shown a yellow card for slapping Erik Bo Andersen after he had been fouled by the Dane.
Then, within a minute, he made a reckless challenge on the same player and gave the referee no option but to yellow card him once more and send him off.
Being down to 10 men in the second half did not help the Hearts cause, but even in the first half there were times when Rangers appeared to have an extra man as they carved their way through a Tynecastle defence which suffered from a man-marking fixation which was shown to be flawed very early in the game.
Still, Jefferies pointed out: "We were forced into a reshuffle in the second half and that didn't help us.
Also, we have not won a game since Dave McPherson went out injured, which shows how important he is to this club." The Tynecastle defence suffered badly without the former Ranger, and while the four goals satisfied Smith, he pointed out how many openings his team had missed.
Rangers struck the woodwork twice, saw a header cleared off the line, and they missed another penalty.
This time it was the German Jorg Albertz who failed after scoring with Rangers' first spot-kick.
Smith smiled ruefully: "I am getting the blame for this one because I decided that Jorg should be our new penalty taker.
"He took the first one brilliantly and then the keeper saved his second.
That was just one of the chances we missed, though.
There were others which might have brought goals and that was encouraging." Most encouraging of all, of course, was the return of McLaren showing the kind of form which will surely earn him an immediate recall to the Scotland squad, the intelligent promptings of Steven, now rediscovered after so long an absence, and the powerful running of Robertson down the left flank.
It was Robertson who scored the opening goal and then, after half-time, Brian Laudrup, Albertz with his first penalty, and Paul Gascoigne scored the others.
The fourth by Gascoigne, which came seven minutes from the end, saw him curl the ball gloriously beyond Gilles Rousset and into the far corner of the net after Gough had surged forward out of defence.
John Robertson did score for Hearts after Laudrup had hit Rangers' second goal, to give their fans a glimpse of hope, but that did not last even 10 minutes before the first Albertz penalty was converted to restore a two-goal lead for the Glasgow side.
Next fixtures: Hearts v Dunfermline (away); Rangers v Raith Rovers (home).
MOMENT TO REMEMBER THE goal that Paul Gascoigne scored carried the stamp of genius and ensured that Rangers' victory over Hearts finished on a high note.
It will surely be one of the top contenders when they get around to giving out awards for the strike of the season.
Taken from the Herald