THEY say that all political careers end in failure. Football is just as harsh a trade. Rangers have been on the verge of disappointment for months, but it must have been excruciating for Walter Smith that they should tumble into desolation in the final seconds of his last game at Ibrox. As his team hurled more and more players into strenuous and clumsy attempts on goal, Rangers were left vulnerable.
Pat Nevin found John Henry and his low cross from the right was squeezed past Antti Niemi by Ally Mitchell, the substitute, to giveKilmarnock victory. In that moment, it became virtually inevitable that the League championship trophy will be taking its leave of Ibrox at the same time as Smith and many celebrated players.
This game was supposed to be the occasion when Rangers rallied, called upon traditional strengths and mounted a challenge to Celtic that would be fired by pride and tradition.
Instead, we were to see comprehensive evidence of a team's deterioration. Gordon Marshall, the Kilmarnock goalkeeper, needed to make only one vibrant save, when he dived to his right to flick away Brian Laudrup's drive.
For the most part, Rangers could bring only a lacklustre diligence to their work and the searing pieces of invention on which they have previously depended were totally absent.
Laudrup looked eager enough, but hardly ever got beyond the first layer of a composed Kilmarnock defence. After this, Craig Brown must have even more doubts about the wisdom of taking Ally McCoist to the World Cup. The substitute seemed to have all 35 of his years crashing down on his shoulders as he made a ponderous attempt to wheel onto Laudrup's cut-back in the 49th minute. Gus MacPherson blocked.
The frustration of Rangers was glaring when they threw Richard Gough forward in the last 20 minutes. That strategy was made to look futile by the orderly work of people such as Jim Lauchlan, a centre-half with an aversion to the crude clearance. His insistence on attempting to pick out a teammate, no matter how desperate the circumstances, was impressive, even if it is likely to stop his manager's heart.
With so many veterans at the club, Rangers' dwindling resources have failed to last out a long season. It has been poignant to watch players accustomed to success striving to ensure that happiness endured just a little longer. Rangers had not really expected to be so reliant on the faithful retainers, but the new recruits have been a beleaguered band.
Some are injured, others failed to deal with the demands of a club such as Rangers and Marco Negri, so prolific in the first half of the season, now seems to be at odds with Rangers and cannot command even a seat on the substitutes' bench. The bleakness of the situation was only disguised in the spell before kick-off yesterday when the players took the field with several mascots, including Laudrup's children.
There was a benign, sunlit tone to the scene. The abrasions of the match, however, soon scoured away that contentment. Kilmarnock were too solid a team to allow Rangers an easy victory. They have not come to the verge of a Uefa Cup place by capitulating and it was soon evident that most of the important corridors had been closed off on the Ibrox pitch.
In the first half, the endeavour of both sides produced equilibrium.
There was little controversy in yesterday's contest and, for long periods, incident was also in short supply. MacPherson's failure to clear, after 12 minutes, gave Laudrup an opportunity that he drove wide, but the visitors threatened in the 35th minute. Niemi fended away Vareille's attempt and Mark Reilly miscued the rebound.
Rangers were forced into increasingly anxious endeavours and the possibilities for Kilmarnock on the counter-attack grew throughout the second half. MacPherson received a luscious chance, after 61 minutes, when Vareille's pass sent him clear, but he betrayed his true identity as a right-back by hesitating fractionally and then hitting a moderate shot from which Niemi made a composed save.
Rangers supporters had not expected to observe that sort of sure handling from their team. None the less, this has been a campaign in which the Ibrox fans have gradually discovered that the side is no longer effective enough to be masters of its own fate. Great though the anguish may have been, this result was not the inexplicable freak it would have appeared in seasons gone by.
Rangers: Niemi, Cleland, Porrini (Ferguson 70), Gough, Amoruso, Bjorklund (McCoist 45), McCall (Durrant 80), Gattuso, Durie, Albertz, Laudrup.
Kilmarnock: Marshall, MacPherson, Kerr, Lauchlan, Montgomerie, Reilly, Nevin, Holt, Roberts (McGowne 85), Vareille (Henry 80), Burke (Mitchell 67).
Scorer: Kilmarnock: Mitchell 90
Booked: Marshall (81min).
Referee: R Tait (East Kilbride).
Bobby Williamson's Comments...Jerome Veraille, (right) who worked tirelessly...."He has pace, strength and links up well with the other players, I felt we created chances throughout the game and we defended well. But the secret was that everyone worked so hard and that pleased me more than anything else."
Walter Smith's Comments..."We were not really in the title race six or seven weeks ago then hauled ourselves back into contention. It is disappointing not to maintain our challenge until the final hurdle. We have been inconsistent, losing to Aberdeen, then beating Hearts last week and slipping up today. But you have got to congratulate Kilmarnock on their performance. They played well again against us today."
Rangers Captain Richard Gough...., "This could be the first time in 10 years that we have not won a championship and that hurts. I hope that it will hurt the newer lads as much as it has hurt those of us who have been here winning these titles. It will let them know what they have to do next year when we have gone. Today it seemed as if we could have played forever without being able to get a goal. It was terrible for us. Sentiment didn't affect us, we just did not play well enough after pulling ourselves back into a good position."