Smith exits stage a champion after Rangers' command performance
Kilmarnock 1 Rangers 5
Monday 16 May 2011
There was glory and a sense of revelling in the agonies of their oldest rivals, but mostly this was an occasion that told of the ruthlessness of this Rangers side. They did not so much secure the Scottish Premier League title as seize it with a performance that was unremitting and at times irresistible. In a season that has cast some grim shadows on Scottish football, it was also a display to restore some hope.
As champions for a third successive season, Rangers brought to a close the second era of Walter Smith, whose triumphs establish him as one of the club's greatest managers. He was central to the scenes of jubilation on the pitch afterwards, but also in the purpose and accomplishment of a side he has assembled in financially difficult circumstances.
Rangers were only one point ahead of Celtic going into this final afternoon, so there was potential for calamity. But Smith's team refused to be complacent or hesitant an instead trusted in their competitive instincts. "We had a fantastic start," he said. "The standard of finishing for the first three goals was exceptional. It was a terrific way to ease the nerves a wee bit."
Whatever suspense there might have been was immediately and defiantly quashed. As if suddenly unleashed upon this game, it took Rangers 48 seconds to breach the home defence, and this emphatic intervention reduced Kilmarnock to insecurity. There was opportunism in the way Steven Davis hurled himself at a high ball in midfield, but his determination stood out as the defining feature of this Rangers performance.
Davis's header arched over the Kilmarnock backline, sending Kyle Lafferty into the penalty area. The striker – all angular limbs and awkwardness, but also capable of a deft touch - held off Manuel Pascali – then carefully lobbed Cameron Ball, the home goalkeeper. As the ball bounced into the net, it acted like a release of tension but also of the joy that was held in check by the Rangers supporters.
The Kilmarnock defenders were reeling, and when Gregg Wylde set off on a surge down the left they looked aghast again. He checked his run, but was astute enough to deliver the ball inside to Steven Naismith, who took a touch before shooting into the corner of the net. There was a tenacity about Rangers that would not be denied and the home side could not cope.
Two minutes later, Naismith carried the ball deep into the fragile heart of Kilmarnock's defence before laying it off to Nikica Jelavic on his right. The Croatian steered a first-time cross into the path of Lafferty, who turned it beyond Bell to establish not only Rangers' control of the game but also their claim on the championship.
As the away fans gloried in the significance of what already seemed an insurmountable lead, they chanted "Lennon, Lennon, what's the score" with such gusto that they might have felt it would carry all the way to the Celtic manager in the east end of Glasgow.
Four minutes into the second half, Jelavic curled a free-kick into the top corner. The closeness of the title race, the tension that gripped both Old Firm clubs, might have been revealed by the occasional references to Celtic in the jubilant songs of the Rangers fans, but this was a sweeping, commanding performance to seal the title.
Lafferty's third goal, another crisp finish after Naismith's through-ball, was an adornment. And although James Dayton's deflected free-kick brought some small cheer for the home side, this was Rangers' afternoon, a display of the will, the heart, and the aplomb of champions. But it was also Smith's, his final act as Rangers manager before passing the job on to his assistant, Ally McCoist.
"I'll always have a regret," he said about his decision to retire. "I had a regret when I was arguing with myself about whether to do it or not. But it's the right thing for myself and the right thing for Rangers; now they've got a new owner and a new manager."
Kilmarnock (4-5-1) Bell; Fowler, Clancy, Pascali, Hay; Bryson, Kelly; Dayton (Fisher, 81), Taouil, Silva; Aubameyang (Gros, 76). Substitutes not used Letheren (gk), Berntsson, Agard, Pursehouse.
Rangers (4-4-2) McGregor; Whittaker, Bougherra, Weir, Papac; Naismith, Davis, Edu, Wylde (McCulloch, 71); Jelavic (Diouf, 81), Lafferty (Healy, 90). Substitutes not used Alexander (gk), Fleck, Foster, Hutton.
Referee: C Thomson
Booked: Kilmarnock Fowler, Fisher; Rangers Lafferty, Jelavic.
Man of the match: Lafferty
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