LEWIS MACLEOD’S goal gave nervy Rangers a winning start to 2014 as they ground out a tense 1-0 win at Airdrieonians.
The Light Blues dominated large spells of this game, particularly in the first half, and should probably have won by more.
As it was, Macleod’s early effort was all that separated the sides by the time referee Greg Aitken’s final whistle sounded at New Broomfield.
Manager Ally McCoist won’t be entirely happy with the way his men went about taking all three points in Lanarkshire.
At times in the later stages of the game, they fell out of the contest and made life more difficult for themselves than they would have preferred.
Nevertheless, they did enough to come out on top and at the midway point of the league season they’ve dropped just two points.
After the manner of Monday’s 4-0 win at nearest challengers Dunfermline, manager Ally McCoist unsurprisingly kept his personnel alterations to a minimum.
He made just one change, with the injured Stevie Smith dropping out and allowing for Macleod’s return after he impressed as a substitute at East End Park.
Fraser Aird stayed in the team ahead of Arnold Peralta while Andy Little returned to the bench having not got that far in Fife.
On the 43rd anniversary of the Ibrox Disaster, an impeccable minute’s silence was observed before kick-off to remember those who passed away so tragically.
Once the match started, noise levels rose quite considerably and home fans almost had something to shout about when Caolan McAleer’s early shot drifted just over.
Airdrie poured forward again soon after when Ian Black lost possession and had four players up against two defenders but Aird got back to tackle well and avert the danger.
The hosts, 11-0 down on aggregate from three meetings with Gers so this season going into the game, were clearly keen to give a better account of themselves.
And they were helped to an extent on that front by the visitors, who were wasteful when they came forward themselves and didn’t really test keeper Danny Rogers.
With that said, Rogers had to be alert to keep out Nicky Clark when he latched on to Jon Daly’s flick on after a searching ball upfield from Lee McCulloch.
There was nothing the on-loan Aberdeen youngster could do to stop Rangers taking a lead with their next opening though as they went ahead after 18 minutes.
Again Daly nodded down a long pass to Macleod and his smart touch took him away from his man, giving himself room to shoot low into the far corner from 18 yards.
Lee Wallace nearly added a quick second after a clever one-two with Nicky Law then a dink over his opponent with his left foot and a low volley with his right that crept just wide.
Following a crude challenge on Black by Nathan Blockley which could easily have earned him a red card rather than the yellow he received, Macleod also curled just over.
Having had an early spell of pressure, Airdrie found themselves on the back foot and Bilel Mohsni headed over from a corner.
But the hosts did hit back as half-time approached and after Cammy Bell had to hold a long-range drive, Liam Watt sent a lob a couple of yards too high.
Rangers continued to have the best of the play after the break, with Clark’s attempt being diverted wide, McCulloch’s header cleared off the line then another Clark chance going over.
Yet for all they were dictating matters, they weren’t making much impact where it counted most and they still led by a single goal after an hour.
That made the large travelling support restless and it was a frustrated McCoist who looked on from the sidelines as his men chased a second.
As time wore on, confidence seemed to dip in the away ranks and for a spell Gers seemed short of ideas.
Midway through the second period there was a really touching moment as away fans stood as one to applaud after 66 minutes in memory of the victims from 1971.
But on the park, the League One leaders still weren’t clicking into gear and Daly’s header fell wide of the target.
Macleod tried to spark them into life with a rasping volley after collecting from Wallace but while his connection was good, his direction wasn’t.
He was almost made to pay for that as Airdrie responded with their best opportunity of the night as defender Gregor Buchanan sent an acrobatic scissor kick inches past.
Gers surged upfield again, with Macleod slipping in Clark and Rogers coming out well to deny the striker his ninth goal of the season.
Rangers could then have had a penalty which might have given them a chance to putting the game beyond doubt when Daly appeared to be fouled by McCormack but nothing was given.
Having led by such a narrow margin then drawn so late against Stranraer on Boxing Day, the prospect of the same thing happening again become more prominent the longer it stayed 1-0.
And but for a magnificent save by Bell three minutes from full-time, the same thing might have happened again.
A ball into the box wasn’t cleared properly and it fell to Willie McLaren on the edge of the box.
He struck it ever so well but Bell reacted brilliantly, diving low to his left to tip it away and Mohsni completed the clearance.
Another cross into the area caused panic at the back with Bell missing it and substitute Richard Foster as Gers really clung on.
Yet cling on they did – albeit only just – and they remain 14 points clear of second-placed Dunfermline with a game in hand coming against Stenhousemuir on Sunday.
AIRDRIEONIANS: Rogers; Bain, O’Byrne, Buchanan, Gilmour; McAleer, McCormack, Watt, McLaren; Blockley (Parker 70), Lister.
SUBS NOT USED: Grier, P Boyle, Coult, Cadden, Coogans, Stewart.
BOOKINGS: Blockley, McAleer, Lister, Bain.
RANGERS: Bell; Faure, McCulloch, Mohsni, Wallace; Aird, Black, Law, Macleod (Crawford 90); Clark (Foster 85), Daly.
SUBS NOT USED: Simonsen, Peralta, Shiels, Cribari, Little.
SCORER: Macleod 18.
BOOKING: Mohsni, Black.
REFEREE: Greg Aitken.
Copyright 2014. Permission to use quotations from this article online is only granted subject to appropriate source credit and hyperlink to www.rangers.co.uk