Walter Smith was spared another week in the line of fire after Falkirk's principal striker botched his mission yesterday. Michael Higdon's missed penalty proved costly as it allowed Andrius Velicka to snatch a barely merited victory for Rangers on the opening day of the Scottish Premier League.
The veteran manager has probably never been in the position of being under pressure in the first domestic fixture of the campaign, but the humiliating Champions' League exit last Tuesday at the hands of Kaunas has traumatised everyone at Ibrox. Being knocked out of Europe by the Lithuanians – 84 days after playing in the Uefa Cup final – will cost Rangers £10 million and turned parts of the support against Smith, demanding his resignation.
He had to thank goalkeeper Allan McGregor for saving Higdon's 50th-minute spot-kick. "It was a bit fortunate that Falkirk missed the penalty," reflected Smith. "After the events of the last few days, it was important that we got three points, although I think the level of criticism has been harsh. We have built up a good reputation over the last 18 months and everyone has changed their opinion because of two games in Europe."
Higdon was not particularly sympathetic to Smith's plight. "That's what Rangers do, win games ugly," said the striker.
Falkirk toyed with Rangers for long periods of the game, with a fluent style of passing that was pleasing to the eye. Had Higdon put away a wonderful chance in the 17th minute after Scott Arfield's pass picked him out, the hosts might have seized the day. But Rangers survived a taut first half and created two good chances themselves, with Darren Barr making a crucial block to deny Kris Boyd and then Robert Olejnik's fine save stopped Boyd at the back post.
Five minutes into the second half Falkirk's pressure looked to have earned a reward when Steven Whittaker lunged in at John Stewart and conceded a penalty. McGregor dived to his left to parry the kick away. Rangers profited from that escape when Velicka gave them the lead in the 64th minute. The Lithuanian striker was on the verge of being replaced by Jean Claude Darcheville when Kyle Lafferty planted the ball across the face of the box for Velicka to stab into the net.