Even Better Times at Rugby Park

12th March 2018

I am not sure what the psychologists would make of this. On Saturday, despite not having any particular allegiance to either team, I was drawn to Rugby Park to watch the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership match between Kilmarnock and RossCounty. It was the third time I had seen these two sides play on this ground in 2017-18: see “Difficult Times at RugbyPark” (2nd October 2017) and “Better Times at RugbyPark” (22nd January 2018).

I can only put this down to a curious interest in the “journeys” – to use a term familiar to viewers of Strictly Come Dancing or The X-Factor – that the two sides have made over the course of the season.

In the autumn, Kilmarnock were bottom of the league, their then-manager (Lee McCulloch) was dismissed the day after the match and Ross County (who won 2-0) looked to be a well-organised side that might prosper under their new manager, Owen Coyle.

However, by the time of the 4th Round William Hill Scottish Cup tie in the New Year, it was Ross County who were propping up the league; by contrast, a run of Kilmarnock successes under the experienced Steve Clarke had taken the home side well clear of the relegation threat. The respective league fortunes were echoed in the cup-tie, when a debatable 87th minute penalty secured the victory for Kilmarnock.

In the period between these two RugbyPark fixtures, the sides had also met once in a league fixture at the Victoria Park ground in Dingwall: a 2-2 draw in mid-December. Within the narrow confines of this particular rivalry, therefore, last Saturday’s match could have been considered the season’s “decider”.

At the start of play, Kilmarnock were in fifth place in the league table. Beaten only once in the 16 games played in all competitions since the beginning of December, their impressive recent record had included home victories over both Celtic and Rangers. The Scottish Cup run was also still in progress; tomorrow’s replay against Aberdeen will decide the semi-final opponents for Motherwell.

By contrast, RossCounty remained rooted in twelfth and last position, three points below the side above them. The club having parted company with Coyle following his unsuccessful five months in charge, joint-managers – Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson – had been appointed on an interim basis until the end of the season.

I am a creature of habit: a latte consumed on the train journey from Glasgow; a quick lunch in the internet café in King Street; a walk to the ground followed by the purchase of match programme and lottery ticket; a (now familiar) place taken in the Frank Beattie Stand. (I am still mystified as to how I managed to lose a pair of gloves during my own journey from the turnstile to my seat).

Until five minutes from the end of the match, the action on the pitch was as if set out in the pre-ordained script. A flowing move down the right brought Kilmarnock’s opener from Lee Erwin after a quarter of an hour; the veteran Kris Boyd hammered in his 125th goal for the club within a minute of the second-half re-start (thereby taking him closer to the 138 that he registered in his periods at Rangers); with 15 minutes to play, the substitute – “birthday boy Eamonn Brophy”, as introduced by the stadium announcer – scored a third almost immediately after having taken the field.

Kilmarnock were three goals up and cruising. The near-end-of-match announcements began: the man-of-the-match award (the home side’s Rory McKenzie), the size of the crowd (4,001), the number of visiting supporters in the Chadwick Stand (103, generously applauded by home fans near me)…

Then, in the 86th minute, a complacent back-pass from the Kilmarnock midfield enabled Billy McKay to secure a goal for the visitors. Shortly afterwards, a run and cross down the left wing by the persistent Michael Gardyne brought a second for Alex Schalk. With the stadium clock showing 90 minutes played, it was announced that there would be three minutes of added time. The sudden nervousness in the home crowd – which had previously been enjoying their side’s complete supremacy – was palpable.

There was to be no final sting in the tail, however. Kilmarnock duly secured the winning points and took another step towards consolidating their place in the top 6 (see below). Success against Aberdeen tomorrow would bring a first Scottish Cup semi-final for over 20 years. These are even better times at RugbyPark.

The home point that Partick Thistle gained against Aberdeen on Saturday means that RossCounty are now four points adrift at the bottom of the table. It will be a difficult task for joint managers Kettlewell and Ferguson to steer the side away from relegation at the end of the season’s “journey”. In this match (as in the cup-tie in January), RossCounty had their fair share of possession, but did seem to lack the decisive cutting edge “in the final third” (to use the analyst’s jargon). On the plus side, the squad has some experience – including a couple of members of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle team that I saw lift the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park three seasons ago – and also, clearly, some spirit. At 0-3 down with a few minutes left, away from home and playing into a lashing rain, other sides might have thrown in the towel.

There is a possible footnote to this season’s Kilmarnock/Ross County saga. In the unlikely event that Kilmarnock were to slip back into the bottom 6 of the league table by the time of the Premiership’s “split” in April (after which the teams in the top and bottom halves play only each other in the final 5 matches), they would meet Ross County again. Moreover, notwithstanding that Kilmarnock have had home advantage in two of three league meetings this year, there is no guarantee that Ross County would host that final game. (It would depend on how the other fixtures within the bottom group happened to fall). I might have to make another visit to RugbyPark before the end of the season.

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