Just when the post-mortems for Rangers’ title prospects were being written, just as Celtic were about to be declared champions again by the court of public opinion – including most Rangers fans, you suspect – Scott Arfield ripped up the script and swallowed it whole .
Two late, late – and we should stress this – late goals turned near-certain defeat into impossible victory.
Arfield came off the bench and was a relentless manace. Even before his goals he had chances. Even before he utterly sickened Aberdeen and their stellar operators – the outstanding Connor Barron in particular – he gave them due warning that he might come up with something.
It was like Houdini. The great man used to explain what he was going to do. He was going to be cast in chains, handcuffed, thrown into a water tank sealed with reinforced steel – and then he was going to break free. Nobody bought it in the beginning but Harry always delivered.
Nobody probably bought the idea that Rangers were going to pull off their own act of escapology, but they did. Credit Arfield’s ferocious determination, credit Rangers’ self-belief amid almost overwhelming evidence that they were not going to save themselves.
If you’re an Aberdeen fan in pain you’ll be talking about their defending at the end. It was painful. Deeper and deeper, more desperate by the minute, jumpier by the second. They put so much into it, but a match lasts as long as it lasts, not as long as you want it to last. They got done, but what drama, what an astonishing end-game.
We were all ready to announce this league as a done deal. No points for Rangers and another three for Celtic on Wednesday would stretch their lead to an Everestian 12 points. Short of a bubonic plague descending on Lennoxtown and taking out Callum McGregor and half his team-mates, it would have been impossible to see how Celtic wouldn’t win it comfortably from there.
Sport is full of upsets, sure. Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson at 40-1. Norton’s Coin won the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 100-1. Leicester won the Premier League at 5,000-1. The prospect of Celtic’s legs going from under them and crashing to earth with victory in sight like some kind of footballing Devon Loch is something that even Mystic Meg couldn’t foretell.
‘A Celtic win on Wednesday and this league is done.’ Enter Arfield. Delete, delete, delete.
‘Rangers’ survive, just, on thrilling night’
Michael Beale has had a fair old baptism as Rangers manager. A 2-1 deficit against Hibs, but the win was dug out. A 2-1 deficit against Aberdeen much later in the game, but again the character of his team settled it. Not the ability, but the guts. He ranked his performance a five out of 10 and that was fair enough.
For the good of his heart he’ll be hoping for something more routine in the future. The mental strength in his team is clear but it’s not a great idea to constantly test it. The man will be old before his time if he carries this on.
You had to feel for Jim Goodwin. Metaphorically speaking, he has spent every waking hour since Saturday being slapped about the face with a North Sea kipper. Ever since the non-performance against Celtic, the Aberdeen manager has been under the kind of spotlight normally reserved for a suspected criminal under questioning.
His answer to the flak that came on the back of the meek display three days ago was as emphatic as they came. For timid at the weekend, read thunderous. From powder-puff, read powderkeg.
Not only did they come from behind to lead, they did it by scoring two majestic goals that wouldn’t have been out of place on the glamorous fields of Qatar this past month. Not only did they elevate their stadium to a riot of joyous and goading noise, they also looked to have landed a knockout blow to any hope Rangers had of making some kind of fist of chasing down Celtic in the league.
We suspected that the verbal kicking that Goodwin and his players experienced on Saturday was going to produce a response, but maybe not this kind of response.
When Aberdeen posed their starting line-up an hour or so before kick-off it’s fair to say that the reaction was one of agitation. Jayden Richardson was back in the team for the first time since early November and a 2-1 loss to Livingston. “Disasterclass incoming” wrote one fan on social media in anticipation of what Ryan Kent might do to the young wing-back down Rangers’ left. Not so.
Richardson was effective, Barron was outstanding, Duk was terrific during his time on the pitch, which featured a sensational free-kick to level it, and Leighton Clarkson put them ahead with another pearler.
There was effort and desperation from the Rangers as time ran out, but each attack was met with resistance from the red wall. Then that wall started to lose a brick or two. When Arfield leveled it, that appeared to be that. A blow to Rangers’ title chances, for sure. A bad result for a team that needs to win and win and win again. And then hope against hope.
We were seven minutes into adding time when the winner went in, World Cup-esque in terms of extra minutes. The reaction was football’s wonder in microcosm, the twin emotions of a team celebrating madly and another team collapsing in weary disbelief.
Beale was a happy man, but not ecstatically happy. In the wake of the bedlam he saluted his players for their spirit but chastised them for their lack of quality. They survived, just. The title is still alive, just. The thrill of the night? Just wonderful.