Rangers’ lower-league nightmare will go on for at least another year after Motherwell clinched a 3-0 victory in the second leg of their Scottish Premiership play-off final.
Thursday’s 3-1 defeat at Ibrox left Stuart McCall’s team needing a miracle at Fir Park.
But strikes from Marvin Johnson and Lionel Ainsworth – both of which deflected off Gers defender Marius Zaliukas – and a late John Sutton penalty ensured the hosts’ 30-year run in the top-flight continues.
But it is a disaster for Rangers, who now face a period of soul-searching after failing to complete three successive promotions despite having Scotland’s second biggest budget.
Their were shameful scenes at the end as Gers substitute Bilel Mohsni threw punches at Motherwell’s Lee Erwin, sparking a mass brawl.
Home supporters also flooded onto the pitch to taunt the visiting fans despite several warnings to remain in their seats.
McCall was back at his old workplace for the first time quitting Well last November but his return could not have ended any worse.
His hopes of landing the Ibrox job he has held on an interim basis since March appear to be in tatters.
The Light Blues knew they were seriously up against it after their first-leg collapse.
Darren McGregor’s late goal had given them the faintest ray of hope but it was the defender’s final contribution as suspension ruled him out of the Lanarkshire decider.
So McCall turned to skipper Lee McCulloch and striker Kris Boyd as he looked for a unlikely turnaround.
Winger Shane Ferguson also made his first start, five months after signing on loan from Newcastle as Dean Shiels and Nicky Clark dropped to the bench.
Motherwell boss Ian Baraclough unsurprisingly named the same side which triumphed in Glasgow.
The visitors knew they had to set the pace as they chased a lifeline.
Boyd was on the end of his side’s first chance two and a half minutes in but headed straight at George Long, while Well defender Stevie Hammell had to scramble clear after Lee Wallace caused some panic with a long throw.
The side-netting was then all Boyd could hit as he worked the space to the left of the Steelmen’s box.
Rangers were focusing their attacking forays down the left with Wallace and Ferguson both sending over some threatening deliveries, but Stephen McManus was dominant in the air for the hosts.
But the Ibrox side struggled to maintain their early tempo and Motherwell, growing in confidence, had chances to kill the tie stone dead.
Erwin rifled a left-footed strike just beyond Cammy Bell’s far post after a clever turn, while McManus came close with a header.
But it was painful viewing for the Light Blues support as their team continued to frustrate – even sorer than the poke in the eye McCulloch took from a Well fan’s flag as he chased a bouncing ball down the touchline.
Gers’ desperation shone through when Haris Vuckic was booked for diving over a McManus tackle.
Zaliukas had a chance to calm fraying nerves just before the break but somehow skied his volley after Ferguson’s deep corner reached him unmarked at the back post.
With just 45 minutes left to save their promotion dream, Rangers knew they had to go all-out after the interval.
But that left them vulnerable to a Well sucker punch and so it proved seven minutes into the second period.
Foster failed to halt Johnson’s drive in from the left and the former Kiddieminster player was free to let fly. His shot smacked off Zaliukas’ thigh before looping towards the Gers goal.
Bell was back-pedalling but still looked well placed to gather. Instead of grabbing the ball, though, he tried to slap it away – but succeeded only in pushing the ball into his net.
It was a decisive blow for the Glasgow giants. McCall threw on teenage winger Tom Walsh and striker Clark but the fight had gone.
McCulloch and Vuckic had efforts at goal but half-hearted was the best description of both.
And there was worse to come after 70 minutes. Johnson’s pace again proved the difference as he outstripped Nicky Law before squaring to Ainsworth, whose low shot skipped up off Zaliukas to wrong-foot Bell for a second time.
Well were in a party mood by the time Erwin won a stoppage-time penalty after tricking Wallace into a rash penalty, with Sutton tucking away the spot-kick.
But there was drama to follow when Mohsni lashed out at Erwin as Gers’ campaign ended in disgrace.
The trouble kicked off when Erwin pushed Mohsni after his offer of a handshakewas refused. But the Tunisian defender reacted with fury, swinging punches andkicks as players from both teams rushed in.
It was confirmed after calm had been restored that Mohsni, Erwin and unused Well sub Fraser Kerr were sent off in the tunnel.