Motherwell took a massive step towards prolonging their 30-year stay in the top flight of Scottish football with a stunning 3-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox on Thursday night.
But after roaring into a 3-0 lead by the 47th minute they still have work to do in Sunday’s play-off second leg at Fir Park after a late Darren McGregor goal for Rangers kept the tie alive to some degree.
The last time Motherwell won at Ibrox was 18 years ago when their 2-0 victory spoiled Rangers’ planned nine-in-a-row celebration.
And Ian Baraclough’s side once again proved party poopers as they dealt a huge blow to the Ibrox side’s hopes of regaining their own top flight place and confounded all those who had written them off before a play-off ball was kicked.
As expected Rangers, urged on by the vast majority of the capacity crowd, made the early running and in three minutes Nicky Clark threatened after getting away from Louis Laing inside the box but Josh Law stepped in to clear the danger.
A Lee Wallace cross then flashed across the face of the ‘Well goal with no takers and Marius Zaliukas headed wide from a Nicky Law corner.
At the other end Marvin Johnson sent in a cross which Cammy Bell safely gathered as Lee Erwin waited to pounce on any error.
Rangers came close in the 12th minute when super play by Kenny Miller took him away from Stephen Pearson and Keith Lasley, but from 20 yards his curling effort flashed just wide.
George Long then had to fist away a Nicky Law piledriver as ‘Well struggled to prevent themselves being hemmed in.
Lee Erwin did get on the end of a Josh Law cross but couldn’t get enough power in his header to trouble Cammy Bell.
However the ‘Well striker played a key role in the 27th minute opener for his side which completely changed the complexion of the tie.
Erwin made space for himself on the right hand side of the Rangers box and sent in shot which seemed relatively harmless until it took a deflection off defender McGregor and flew past Bell.
The home side were stunned by the goal and seemed in danger of falling apart as Louis Laing was allowed a free header from as Lionel Ainsworth corner, his effort going wide off a Rangers defender.
At the other end McGregor had a header blocked and Nicky Clark’s shot from the rebound was turned away by Long.
But Motherwell were growing in confidence and McGregor was booked for a foul on Erwin at the edge of the box.
Lasley touched the free-kick to Scott McDonald but his effort was safely held by Bell.
However the ‘keeper was helpless when Motherwell doubled their advantage five minutes from half-time.
Marvin Johnson floated a free-kick in from the right after Wallace fouled McDonald and McManus glanced a super header past Bell into the corner of the net.
The small band of Motherwell fans in one corner probably expected something of an onslaught from Rangers at the start of the second half.
But within two minutes they were in dreamland as their side stretched their lead to 3-0.
Pearson won the ball inside his own half and stormed upfield before playing the ball to Erwin who set up Ainsworth to hammer a low shot past the exposed Bell.
Long blocked a Haris Vuckic shot at his near post as Rangers tried to rally and Clark got on the end of a cross from substitute Tom Walsh but his header was off target.
With the onus on Rangers to push forward Motherwell were finding an almost embarrassing amount of space on the break and McDonald shot over after a one-two with Ainsworth.
Johnson then opened up the Rangers defence with a burst of pace down the left but Ainsworth fired over when the ball broke to him from his team-mate’s cross.
Rangers desperately needed a goal to give this play-off tie any semblance of life and substitute Kris Boyd’s header brought out a terrific reaction save from Long.
But the Ibrox side did pull back what could yet prove to be a vital goal eight minutes from time when McGregor powered a header past Long from a Law corner.
Rangers knew that a second goal would make a huge difference to the tie and a Boyd ‘goal’ was ruled out for offside before Vuckic pulled a shot just wide of the far post after a fine run.
But ‘Well held out for a famous win and spark a party among the small band of fans which lasted long after the final whistle.
They still have to finish the job - and the first goal in Sunday’s second leg could be crucial to how the tie pans out - but this win puts Baraclough’s men very firmly in the driving seat.
Rangers: Bell, Wallace, Law, Vuckic, Clark, Miller, Shiels, Foster, McGregor, Zaliukas, Murdoch. Subs: Robinson, Smith, McCulloch, Black, Boyd, Ferguson, Walsh.
Motherwell: Long, Law, Hammell, McManus, Laing, Lasley, Pearson, Johnson, Ainsworth, McDonald, Erwin. Subs: Twardzik, Sutton, Ramsden, Grant, Straker, Moore, Watt.
Referee: Bobby Madden.