Hearts 2-1 Rangers: Debutant Liam Boyce sparks comeback win as Jambos dent Gers' title hopes
Gerrard’s 100th game as Rangers manager saw his hopes of dethroning Celtic as Scottish champions suffer a major blow as Stendel celebrated his first Premiership victory in charge of Hearts at the seventh attempt.
It was a thoroughly merited success for the Gorgie side who showed admirable character to recover after Ryan Kent had fired the title challengers ahead at the start of the second half.
Steven Naismith drew Hearts level before new recruit Liam Boyce marked his debut with a late winner which prompted decibel levels inside Tynecastle which haven’t been heard for quite some time.
Stendel’s side remain bottom of the table but are now just a point behind Hamilton Accies, while Gerrard was left to rue a poor performance from his team who are now five points adrift of league leaders Celtic with a game in hand.
With new signings Toby Sibbick and Boyce going straight into his starting line-up, Stendel was seeking freshness and energy to try and drag Hearts out of their plight in the relegation zone.
There was plenty of encouragement for the German coach in the manner of his team’s approach in a contest which began at a frenetic pace which barely subsided throughout.
Hearts captain Naismith and Boyce appeared to be on the same wavelength immediately, showing signs of a partnership which could prove profitable in the coming weeks and months.
It was Boyce who posted the first attempt on target of the afternoon, the Northern Ireland international striker’s shot from the edge of the penalty area held by Allan McGregor low to the goalkeeper’s right.
Rangers were being afforded no time or space to develop the kind of passing momentum Gerrard craves from his side but they should have taken the lead with their first attack in the 12th minute.
A finely weighted pass from Ryan Jack sent Kent racing free into the Hearts penalty area but the £7 million winger was unable to provide the finish, blazing wastefully over the top from around 14 yards.
Boyce had the ball in the net three minutes later after latching onto a Naismith pass but the home support’s acclamation was quickly muted by an offside flag.
The see-saw nature continued with another dangerous counter attack from Rangers, Kent the creator this time as he sent Joe Aribo bursting through the middle. Under pressure from Aidy White, the Nigerian international could only drag his shot wide of Joel Pereira’s left hand post.
Jon Flanagan, again deputising for injured captain James Tavernier at right-back for the visitors, collected the first caution of the match for a cynical foul on the impressive Euan Henderson who was breaking free. Andy Irving floated in the resulting free-kick which was headed wide by Craig Halkett.
Hearts threatened from a set piece again in the 37th minute when Naismith might have done better than glance his header wide from Lewis Moore’s corner from the left.
Jermain Defoe had cut a fairly isolated figure up front for Rangers but the veteran striker got his first sniff of goal just before half-time, eventually crowded out by a combination of Halkett and Sean Clare at the expense of a corner.
Hearts finished the first half as they had started it, on the front foot as Boyce saw a shot deflected wide after referee Steven McLean played advantage after Henderson was taken out on the edge of the box by Ryan Jack who was subsequently booked.
There was a double change for Rangers at the start of the second half, Flanagan and Jack replaced by Matt Polster and Scott Arfield, while Ollie Bozanic entered the fray for Hearts in place of White.
Rangers made the breakthrough just two minutes after the restart with a well worked move. Kent was involved at the start, setting Borna Barisic free down the left. The Croatian full-back’s low cross was laid back by Aribo into the path of Kent who atoned for his earlier miss with an emphatic finish high beyond Pereira.
As the visitors looked to build on their lead, it required a fine challenge from Halkett to deny Defoe inside the penalty area.
Before Rangers could exert greater control on proceedings, a blunder by Glen Kamara handed Hearts their route back into the contest. The Finnish international lost possession cheaply near his own penalty area, allowing Boyce to set up a chance which Naismith managed to sweep high beyond McGregor into the roof of the net.
Aribo came close to restoring Rangers’ lead when he curled a shot narrowly wide of Pereira’s right hand post but it was Hearts who showed a greater sense of purpose in the closing stages.
After substitute Conor Washington saw a shot cleared off the line by Connor Goldson, the hosts reaped their reward seven minutes from time when Boyce’s shot from the right side of the penalty area took a deflection off Barisic as it beat McGregor.