THIS was an afternoon that saw Rangers stumble in the title race. It could become the one that kick-starts the season for Hearts.

As Steven Gerrard’s side squandered the chance to move within two points of Celtic, Daniel Stendel secured a victory that takes the Jambos to within touching distance at the opposite end of the Premiership.

When Ryan Kent opened the scoring for Rangers just after the break, another win was in sight and within grasp. Hearts had other ideas, though, and in Steven Naismith and Liam Boyce they have a strike force that should save them from the drop this term.

The celebrations at full-time showed how important the win was for Hearts. The emotions could not have been more contrasting for those in blue as Rangers knew that a huge win had been thrown away as they suffered their first blip since returning to league action.

When Rangers dropped two points here earlier in the campaign, Gerrard was as critical about his players as he has been all season. The mentality and attitude weren’t at fault this time around, but there wasn’t much improvement on a start that Gerrard reckoned was the worst he had seen back in October.

Rangers were able to match the physicality of Hearts but couldn’t make their superior skill on the ball come to the fore. It was the kind of encounter that the Jambos would have hoped it would turn into and there was little to suggest that almost the length of the Premiership table separated the sides.

The changes in personnel, both in the dugout and on the park, in recent weeks have yet to have the kind of impact that Hearts really need but boss Stendel couldn’t fault the application of his players during a frantic encounter. They needed a bit more composure at times but there was enough to admire about their high-tempo approach.

As Rangers struggled to put their foot on the ball, Hearts looked dangerous with it as Boyce made an immediate impact through the middle. His bustling style summed up Stendel’s side and he was denied a debut goal by the offside flag before another effort just before the break was deflected wide of target.

It was Hearts that had given their supporters more to be encouraged about in the first half but Rangers that had created the best chances. Both would go unconverted, however, as Gerrard was left frustrated.

Kent couldn’t even hit the target after he was slipped in by Ryan Jack early on, while Joe Aribo spurned a promising opening after Kent had flicked on a Glen Kamara header. As he bore down on keeper Joel Pereira, Aribo never looked assured in front of goal and a tame effort was symptomatic of a flat showing from Rangers.

Jermain Defoe cut a lonely figure through the middle as Gerrard’s side got bogged down in the battle and couldn’t play through Hearts. Those two chances aside, there were few threats to trouble a Jambos outfit that have found the going tough this term.

Jon Flanagan and Jack had been booked for scything down Euan Henderson in separate incidents and neither would reappear after the break. Matt Polster made a rare appearance at right-back, while Scott Arfield came into the midfield three for Rangers.

Within two minutes of the restart, Gerrard’s side were ahead. The move was their most fluent of the match and much more like it as Kent played in Borna Barisic down the left and continued his run into the area.

Barisic picked out Aribo, the midfielder knocked it back to Kent and the finish was clinical as he rifled the ball into the net from 12 yards.

It was the perfect start to the second half for Rangers and they had decent appeals for a penalty waved away as Pereira collected the ball at the feet of Aribo. The goal had given Rangers a lift and now they had to build on it.

They couldn’t, though, and when Hearts levelled before the hour mark the damage was self-inflicted. Kamara was, once again, slack and careless in possession and gifted the ball to Boyce.

He and Naismith made Rangers pay as the former Ibrox striker was picked out in plenty of space in the area. Naismith knew exactly where to place his finish and Allan McGregor had to chance as Tynecastle roared in celebration.

The game was there to be won and the action was end to end but it was Rangers who had come close to the third goal of the afternoon when Aribo curled an effort just wide of target. The stage was set for a hero to emerge.

Connor Goldson’s block on the line as he diverted a Connor Washington shot clear was crucial but Hearts weren’t to be denied for long. With just six minutes left, Boyce had the goal that his performance deserved as he powered a strike low past McGregor from inside the area.

When Tynecastle celebrated for the third time, it marked the final whistle. Stendel and his players deserved the applause and the plaudits.