Steven Gerrard’s warning had been clear. Amid the dressing-room celebrations that followed last Thursday evening’s win over Galatasaray, the Rangers manager bluntly emphasised the over-riding priority for this season.
Europa League qualification was worthy and valuable, for sure. But domestic trophy success come May was what truly mattered. There could be no excuse for bumping back to earth in the Premiership. Games such as this one simply had to be won. By whatever means necessary.
It was achieved thanks in no small part to the reliability of captain James Tavernier. One of those setting standards in this campaign, the right-back’s first-half penalty made it eight goals in his last eight games – four of them from the spot.
James Tavernier’s first-half penalty set Rangers on their way to victory against Ross County
Steven Gerrard’s side stay ahead of Celtic, though his team have played a game more
That provided a platform to lift Rangers back to the top of the Premiership, a point clear of Celtic having played a game more. The challenge set down by the identical scoreline at McDiarmid Park was ultimately answered. And, just like their title rivals, this was a victory claimed while some way short of peak form.
Grinding these games out might be an essential facet of any successful championship challenge, but that doesn’t mean Gerrard would have enjoyed the tension felt as the minutes ticked down.
Chances to wrap it up sooner had been wasted – with Alfredo Morelos culpable – meaning an almighty sigh of relief was breathed when Coll Donaldson headed a golden 80th minute opportunity for County too high.
It was substitute Brandon Barker who finally made safe a fourth straight win for the Ibrox men. A fine 88th minute effort marked his 24th birthday and was just a second goal for Rangers since joining from Manchester City last season.
The international break now intervenes before that eagerly awaited first Old Firm game of the season at Parkhead on October 17. Slipping up beforehand would have been a significant psychological blow, so there will be some satisfaction for the Ibrox side in simply ticking this one off.
County showed determination and organisation but now have just one win in their last eight outings. While he couldn’t complain about the outcome on the balance of play, Stuart Kettlewell can only wonder how Rangers might have reacted had Donaldson – penalised earlier for the spot-kick -managed to hit the target.
Changes were inevitable in Gerrard’s line-up were inevitable after the effort invested against Galatasaray. He made four of them.
Allan McGregor, Filip Helander, Steven Davis and Ianis Hagi all dropped out of the starting line-up, with Jon McLaughlin, Leon Balogun, Ryan Jack and Jordan Jones drafted in.
Brandon Barker’s 88th minute goal sealed the victory at Ibrox on Sunday afternoon
Jack had been introduced as a late substitute in midweek after recovering from a calf injury, but displayed a tinge of rust when robbed of possession in the second minute.
County sprang forward, with Ross Stewart feeding it wide right to wing-back Regan Charles-Cook. His fizzed, low cross was enticing, but no visiting player was able to able to take up the offer as it sped through McLaughlin’s line of vision.
Charles-Cook was one of three players introduced by Kettlewell in response to a 3-0 defeat from Aberdeen seven days previously. They were also housed in a revised tactical shape featuring three centre-backs.
Kettlewell was perched in the stand as he began a three-match touchline ban for comments made about referee John Beaton in a reverse against Livingston, leaving coach Richie Brittain to patrol the technical area in his place.
Brittain’s early words were of optimistic encouragement. County navigated the first 17 minutes without only a deflected Borna Barisic free-kick to spark any concern. They looked composed. Rangers were struggling to find fluency, but received the lift the needed to dispel early frustration.
Rangers forward Alfredo Morelos jumps over County’s Alex Iacovitti during Sunday’s contest
It again came from the penalty spot as Tavernier continued his flawless sequence from 12 yards, beating Ross Laidlaw with a strike down the middle.
The Ibrox captain had been heavily involved in bringing about the award in the first place. It was his dinked cross that set Morelos running – and prompted Donaldson to bring the striker toppling to the ground. Referee Greg Aitken was swift in his call, Tavernier unerring in maximising it.
That breakthrough settled Rangers, even if clear opportunities remained relatively limited. Callum Morris became the game’s first booking when halting Ryan Kent with an unruly challenge, before Morelos showed power and tenacity to escape a couple of markers and fire straight at Laidlaw.
Connor Goldson then headed narrowly over from a Barisic corner, with Kent no less unfortunate when an intelligent, curling attempt from the fringe of the area was deflected fractionally wide.
At the other end, Stewart still looked a potential handful for the Ibrox centre-backs when County could get him involved. That, though, was problematic. The visitors ended the opening period having failed to ask a meaningful question of the recalled McLaughlin.
Tavernier celebrates after scoring the first goal of the game in the 17th minute at Ibrox
That challenge didn’t become any easer once the second half dawned. Rangers penned the visitors deep into their own territory as in pursuit of a second goal. It would have arrived within six minutes of the restart but for a brilliant piece of defending by Donaldson.
Tavernier was once more supplier of the threat, picking out Morelos with a low cross. The Colombian striker took a touch to swivel and was about to pull the trigger when Donaldson slid in with an outstanding block.
Morelos would get a clear strike at goal on 57 minutes. But completely failed to make the most of it.
Released by Glen Kamara’s smart through-ball, the 24-year-old fired too high from the angle of the six-yard box. In between those moments, Laidlaw made a fine stop to deny Balogun’s forceful attempt to covert Kent’s corner.
There was a blow for Rangers after the hour mark. Hurt in a collision with Charles-Cook that required a period of treatment, Barisic was eventually replaced by Calvin Bassey. Jack also made for Hagi as Gerrard sought an additional killer touch of creativity.
Barker’s late goal meant County left Ibrox empty-handed and remain on 11 points
The points were not yet safe. Having clung on in there, County knew they just needed one moment to have a chance of regaining parity.
It almost arrived when Ross Draper robbed Kent to advance on the right. His pass inside for Stewart was a little over-cooked, however, and the striker’s touch was poor.
Another, even better, chance would be spurned with ten minutes remaining when Donaldson couldn’t keep down his header from Josh Reid’s delivery.
Barker made County pay. Latching onto a lofted through-ball from fellow sub Hagi, he drifted away from two defenders before firing a shot into the net.s