RANGERS’ U21s bowed out of the Irn Bru Cup at the first round stage despite a spirited second-half display against Falkirk in a 2-1 defeat at Forthbank Stadium.

Falkirk, fielding a strong senior side, had a two-goal lead at the interval thanks to goals inside the first 20 minutes through Dennon Lewis and Scott Harrison but – partly due to the introduction of Glenn Middleton at the interval – the Gers were very unfortunate to not at least see the game into extra time as Rudden’s late goal gave them hope.

Graeme Murty elected for Robby McCrorie in goals with the regular centre back pairing of Kyle Bradley and Lewis Mayo retaining their places. Zak Rudden played a deeper role behind on loan Roma striker Umar Sadiq, who started in a bid to gain fitness for Steven Gerrard’s first team squad.

Falkirk took an early lead in Stirling after just three minutes through striker Dennon Lewis. The ball was worked to the right side and Lewis headed towards goal, Gers goalkeeper McCrorie did his best to keep it out but the ball trickled over the line for the opener.

Rangers’ first real opportunity came after 14 minutes when, after dogged play in the centre of the park by Cameron Palmer, a ball was played up to Rudden who had split the Bairns’ centre halves. With goalkeeper Robbie Mutch charging down, Rudden attempted to lift the ball over him but didn’t get the required connection on the edge of the box.

Paul Hartley’s side extended their advantage after only 20 minutes as the SPFL Championship raced into a 2-0 lead. A corner was whipped in from the right-hand side and centre-back Harrison met with force, guiding his header into the back of the net.

Rangers had little opportunities at goal that could be described as clear-cut in the first half but they remained competitive with their senior counterparts. Rudden worked tirelessly in behind Sadiq and the big Nigerian forward saw plenty of the ball in the opening period, fashioning a chance in the box for Palmer towards the end of the half that the midfielder blazed over.

Murty made a change at half-time with Sadiq making way for winger Middleton and he made an almost immediate impact after two minutes. He controlled a long diagonal ball excellently on the right wing, took on his man and forced a corner kick.

Rangers had the ball in the net 13 minutes into the second half as Stephen Kelly threaded an immaculate ball through the Falkirk defence and into Rudden who struck the ball home, but far side assistant referee adjudged the striker to be offside in what looked a very tight call.

Middleton was a constant menace down the right side and was helping Rangers to look a far more dangerous attacking threat compared to the first 45 minutes. On 75 minutes it could have been game on for the Gers as Middleton made his way to the byline and cut the ball back into Jordan Houston, who witnessed his shot get blocked in a busy danger area from around 12 yards.

Falkirk’s Mutch was tested just two minutes later as a free-kick, won on the edge of the area around 20 yards from goal, was struck ferociously by Middleton and the Bairns’ stopper got a fingertip to it to send it away for a Rangers corner.

Rangers finally got a reward for their endeavours as Rudden, running in at the back post, got in the end of an Andy Dallas cross to see the ball over the line to make it 2-1.

Despite going out the competition at the first hurdle for the second year running, Rangers can take plenty of positives from the game and in particular their second-half performance the second-tier senior side as they continue their development.

RANGERS: Robby McCrorie, Jordan Houston, Scott Gray, Cameron Palmer, Kyle Bradley, Lewis Mayo, Liam Burt (Dallas 70), Stephen Kelly, Umar Sadiq (Middleton, 45), Zak Rudden, Serge Atakayi (Kennedy, 70). SUBS: Aidan McAdams, Josh McPake, Murray Miller, Kai Kennedy, Daniel Finlayson, Andrew Dallas, Glenn Middleton.

FALKIRK: Robbie Mutch, Jordan McGhee, Aaron Muirhead, Tom Dallison, Paul Paton, Dennon Lewis, Tom Owen Evans, Dimitris Frokylias, Thomas Robson, Scott Harrison, Andrew Irving. SUBS: Leonardo Fasan, Lewis Kidd, Deimantas Petravicius, Ruben Sammut, Dylan Mackin, Rees Greenwood, Mark Russell.

Att: 636.

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