RANGERS stormed back from a goal down to defeat Hibernian 4-2 and open up a three-point gap at the top of the Championship with just ten men by full time.
Jason Cummings had Hibs ahead midway through the first half, but the home side responded superbly to lead at half time thanks to a Jason Holt double before substitute Nicky Clark added a third and Martyn Waghorn a fourth either side of Dominic Malonga’s scrambled effort in a second half that also saw Andy Halliday red carded.
The teams emerged to what was an uproarious noise inside Ibrox, with the expectant supporters selling out the match almost a fortnight in advance of kick-off, and they were to enjoy a pretty decent start from their heroes.
Dominant in possession throughout the early stages, Waghorn had a shot deflected behind for a corner before having two efforts from distance gathered by visiting goalkeeper Mark Oxley.
Indeed, they should have had the lead when a James Tavernier cross onto the head of Kenny Miller was palmed out by Oxley only as far as the lurking Barrie McKay on the penalty spot, but he fired wide when it seemed easier to score.
That miss from McKay was to come back to haunt the home side as Hibernian grabbed an extremely fortuitous opening goal after 23 minutes.
From the edge of the area, Liam Henderson’s shot was deflected into the path of Jason Cummings by Danny Wilson before he composed himself to lift the ball over Wes Foderingham,
It came as a body blow to Rangers who had played so well up to that point, and it took them some time for them to recompose and get back on top in the game.
But through grit, determination and an incredible amount of character, they managed it – and then some.
Profiting from Fraser Fyvie dallying on the ball in midfield, Tavernier nipped in to rob him and feed Waghorn on the edge of the area. He in-turn fed a superb ball through onto the advancing Holt to finish expertly beyond Oxley to square the game.
It sent Ibrox into overdrive, and before the fans had retaken their seats, it was very nearly 2-1 as Andy Halliday sent a curling 25-yard drive just over the bar.
It was attack after attack heading in the direction of the Hibs goal, and three minutes before half time, the home side claimed the lead, once again through former Hearts man Holt.
McKay was so lively all afternoon on the left flank, and he slipped a neat ball to Nicky Law who passed onto Holt, and with the aid of a deflection from Paul Hanlon, it squirmed beyond Oxley and into the net.
Into the second half, and Rangers continued to dominate matters, with Kenny Miller having two excellent chances to extend their advantage.
Firstly, McKay played the striker through but his touch let him down and Oxley came to gather before more wonderful McKay play – this time skinning Darren McGregor out on the left flank before cruising into the box and finding Miller – but his shot was over the bar from six yards out.
It was to be Miller’s last action of the afternoon as he and Nicky Law were replaced by Clark and Dean Shiels – and those two substitutes were to have a superb influence on the game just minutes after coming on.
A Waghorn shot was deflected into the path of Shiels on the edge of the area and he curled a superb ball onto Clark’s toe on the penalty spot before he fired the ball over Oxley.
Clark really should have buried the game on Gers next attack – a superb counter move involving McKay, Shiels and then Lee Wallace who fed Clark inside the area, but similarly to Miller, he fired over from six yards out.
Major controversy was next on the agenda in a breathless match – and that came as Halliday picked up Rangers’ first red card of the season for an alleged headbutt on Fraser Fyvie.
The Gers midfielder reacted to a poor challenge from Fyvie, who went to ground holding his face after the pair went chest to chest in the middle of the park.
It left Rangers with twenty minutes to protect their lead with just ten men, and Hibs managed to claw their way back in to the game when Malonga reacted quickest to a loose ball in the box and punished the Gers defence.
It set up a nervy ending with four minutes still to play, and significant injury time looming. However character shone through for the Light Blues and Waghorn made the most of it when he was given acres of space on the right.
He went straight for goal, evading a couple of Hibs challenges before slotting the ball in to the net to secure three points and a top of the table berth for his side at the turn of the year.
RANGERS: Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson, Wallace, Halliday, Law (Clark 62), Holt, Waghorn, Miller (Shiels 62), McKay (Ball 74).
SUBS: Kelly, Zelalem, Oduwa, Thompson
HIBERNIAN: Oxley, Gray (Fontaine 45), McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson, Fyvie, McGeouch, Henderson, McGinn (Boyle 71), Keatings (Malonga 63), Cummings.
SUBS: Reguero, Bartley, Feruz, Anier.
REFEREE: Bobby Madden