- Motherwell retain top-flight status they have held since 1984-85
- Rangers stay in the Championship and have not played in Premiership since 2012
- Marvin Johnson, Lionel Ainsworth and John Sutton seal 3-0 second leg win for ‘Well
- Stuart McCall suffers disappointing defeat on first return to Fir Park
- Ugly scenes at full-time as Rangers’ Mohsni clashes with Motherwell’s Erwin
Motherwell extended their 30-year stay in the top-flight and consigned Rangers to a second season in the Championship with an assured second-leg victory in the Scottish Premiership play-off final.
Leading 3-1 from the first leg at Ibrox, deflected goals from lively wingers Marvin Johnson and Lionel Ainsworth and a late penalty from substitute John Sutton cemented a comfortable aggregate triumph for the Steelmen.
Their experience, discipline and – most importantly – quality prevailed on a blustery afternoon as Ian Baraclough’s men preserved their Premiership status after finishing second-bottom in the table to avoid going down with St Mirren.
Johnson’s speculative effort flicked off Marius Zaliukas and spun over the grasp of Cammy Bell whose attempted punch went badly wrong six minutes after the break for a goal of bizarre proportions.
Ainsworth doubled their advantage with 20 minutes remaining as his low effort squirmed off Zaliukas and past a despairing Bell as the Steelmen earned only their second win over Rangers in the past 40 meetings and stretched their unbeaten home record to eight games.
Rangers had won on their four previous visits to Fir Park but could not conclude the Scottish domestic campaign with a third successive promotion to join Hearts in next season’s top-flight.
It was a sixth play-off game in 22 days for Rangers who beat Queen of the South 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals and overcame Hibernian 2-1 over two legs in the semi-finals after their third-place finish in the Championship.
Their failure to complete the job at the first time of asking leaves the future of Stuart McCall, who made his first return to north Lanarkshire since resigning as Motherwell boss in December after five years in charge, rather uncertain with talks set to take place in the coming weeks.
His successor Baraclough named an unchanged line-up with Stephen Pearson and Stevie Hammell both passed fit following injury concerns.
McCall made three alterations from Thursday night as captain Lee McCulloch came into a back three against the team he began his career with to replace the suspended first-leg scorer Darren McGregor while Kris Boyd was recalled in attack and Shane Ferguson made his first start since joining on loan from Newcastle in January as Dean Shiels and Nicky Clark dropped to the bench.
Rangers were on the front foot in the opening exchanges as Kris Boyd headed Shane Ferguson’s cross straight at George Long and then slashed a half volley off target following a misplaced header by Louis Laing.
The moderate pressure forced Motherwell to defend desperately at times but Rangers lacked the decisive instinct in the final third to capitalise on the hosts’ early nerves.
It was a relatively calm opening considering the occasion with Gers doing much of the pressing and bossing possession as Ferguson and Richard Foster progressed forward from their wing-back positions to supplement the attack.
But tempers frayed midway through the first half when Marius Zaliukas appeared to thrust his head towards Stephen Pearson after a penalty-box melee which went unseen by the officials.
In a separate incident on the sidelines, Lee McCulloch was struck in the face with the end of a flag by a Motherwell supporter in the East Stand when trying to retrieve the ball for a throw-in that was dealt with by stewards.
Haris Vuckic was then shown a yellow card for what referee Craig Thomson thought was a dive when the on-loan Newcastle midfielder went over the outstretched leg of Stephen McManus just outside the box.
The scrappy and tetchy nature suited Motherwell but, despite the best efforts of Lee Erwin and Scott McDonald to make an impact, the Steelmen struggled to provide a threat and trouble the Gers defence with goalkeeper Cammy Bell largely a spectator.
The closest they came was through the counter-attacking pace which was effective in the first leg with Lionel Ainsworth again the catalyst, the winger delivering a dangerous low cross for McDonald which was turned behind by Foster.
Indeed, the hosts ended the first period strongly amid mixed weather conditions as Erwin – with five goals in his previous eight starts – flashed a fierce effort wide of the post as the Gers failed to clear their lines from a corner.
Marvin Johnson was also inches away from his first Motherwell goal since joining on loan in January from Kidderminster Harriers when whistling a shot inches wide before his free-kick was glanced wide by the head of McManus.
But the Gers, with midfielder Nicky Law the driving force against his former club, should have gone ahead immediately before the break when Ferguson’s corner was inadvertently flicked on by ‘Well skipper Keith Lasley and Zaliukas sidefooted over from close range.
The tension only increased after the interval amid a frantic tempo at both ends as the challenges continued to fly in at a varying rate of knots.
However, the picture became clearer as Motherwell made the breakthrough to increase their healthy lead on aggregate and send their supporters into raptures.
The goal came in extremely fortuitous circumstances with Johnson’s shot taking a wicked deflection off Zaliukas before looping over Bell, who only helped the ball into the net as he backpedalled.
It left Rangers requiring a minimum of three goals to overturn the tie but the visitors did not give up hope as McCall made quick-fire changes with teenage midfielder Tom Walsh and striker Nicky Clark replacing Ferguson and Boyd.
Vuckic curled an effort straight at Long and his drilled cross was almost diverted into his own net by Josh Law.
But another cruel deflection undid the Gers to add further gloss to Motherwell’s advantage as Johnson surged forward before finding Ainsworth, whose low shot took a nick off Zaliukas which wrongfooted a disconsolate Bell.
It prompted vocal chants of ‘we are staying up’ from the exultant home faithful and, in contrast, a mass exodus from the 1,500 travelling Rangers supporters.
The damage might have worsened for the Gers had Bell not reacted superbly to deny Motherwell’s top scorer John Sutton, who came off the bench to replace Ainsworth.
And with the last kick of the game, Sutton converted from the penalty spot after the striker was bundled to the ground by Lee Wallace.
Within seconds of the final whistle, ugly scenes broke out with an angry and violent altercation taking place between Rangers defender Bilel Mohsni and Motherwell’s Lee Erwin during which punches and kicks appeared to be thrown.
It was later confirmed that three red cards were handed out to Mohsni, Erwin and Motherwell’s unused substitute Fraser Kerr, who got involved in the incident as the aftermath continued as the players went down the tunnel.
Motherwell fans also invaded the pitch to celebrate with some taunting the Gers supporters before police and stewards intervened.
But the sense of relief and joy around Fir Park was palpable as the Steelmen retained their place in Scotland’s top division while the Glasgow side contemplate and rebuild for another mammoth campaign in the second tier.
Substitutes: Grant (on for Pearson 74′), Sutton (on for Ainsworth 76′), Ramsden (on for Johnson 84′)
Booked: McDonald (51′)
Goals: Johnson (52′), Ainsworth (70′), Sutton (90+3′ pen)
Substitutes: Walsh (on for Ferguson 55′), Clark (on for Boyd 59′), Mohsni (on for Zaliukas 72′).
Booked: Murdoch (26′), Vuckic (38′), McCulloch (40′), Foster (81′)
Referee: Craig Thomson (Scotland) – 7/10