The final match before the split saw Killie beat Motherwell 4-1 in an entertaining contest at Rugby Park. Seán McGill reports.
Kilmarnock lifted themselves off the foot of the Premiership, as goals from Kyle Lafferty, Rory McKenzie, Chris Burke and Mitch Pinnock overcame a first-half Barry Maguire equaliser to seal Tommy Wright’s first win in Ayrshire.
When Tommy Wright suffered a narrow defeat to Motherwell in his first game as Killie boss, he would have hoped to have secured his first victory before squaring off against the Steelmen again four games later in the final match before the split. Instead, the Ayrshire side had only picked a solitary point under the Northern Irishman, in a 1-1 draw at home to Dundee United.
Wright was left furious with his team’s 3-2 defeat against fellow strugglers Ross County last time out. Despite making it clear he expected more from his players after the disappointing display in Dingwall, both of Wright’s changes for this game were enforced. Ross Millen was dismissed for dissent in the dying moments of the previous game, while Greg Kiltie was forced off with an injury. In came Aaron McGowan and Chris Burke, while George Oakley and Brandon Pierrick returned to the bench.
Motherwell have managed to claw themselves above the others battling at the bottom having gone unbeaten in their last three games, toppling Livingston 3-1 at Fir Park a fortnight ago.
Unsurprisingly, considering their good run of form, Graham Alexander named an unchanged starting XI. Bevis Mugabi returned to the squad in place of David Devine. Allan Campbell, who scored the winning goal when the sides met last month, started in midfield alongside Barry Maguire and Robbie Crawford.
It was the dream start for Kilmarnock as Kyle Lafferty grabbed his third goal in two games within a minute of the game starting. The big striker collected the ball on the right-hand side before knocking it down the line to Chris Burke, who found Alan Power inside. The midfielder then poked the ball towards Lafferty who, with back to goal, turned and shot from outside the box. Liam Kelly managed to get his hand to the ball, and the keeper may be disappointed to have failed to keep it out.
It didn’t take long for the visitors to hit back, as Barry Maguire struck Motherwell level in the eighth minute. Colin Doyle did well to deny a point blank back post header, but the ball fell into the centre of the box, with Maguire connecting on the half volley and sending the ball into the bottom corner.
A penalty shout offered the next real moment of the game, as some neat interplay on Motherwell’s right saw Stephen O’Donnell break into the box. The former Killie man went down under pressure as he burst towards goal, but referee Alan Muir waved play on.
Lafferty again looked likeliest to restore Killie’s lead. Another effort from distance was deflected wide of the Well goal and from the resulting corner, it was the Northern Ireland international who reacted first to the loose ball, volleying just over the crossbar.
With ten minutes of the half remaining, Doyle was again called into action. A free kick routine found Roberts with some room on the left. His looped cross found Tyler Magloire – rising higher than the rest – but the Killie stopper flicked his header away for a corner.
The dying minutes of the half played out in the same fashion as the entire half; scrappy. Roberts went into the referee’s book for a heavy challenge on Aaron McGowan, with the right back later cautioned for the hosts as the referee blew the half-time whistle.
The second period didn’t start with anymore finesse, but just like the first, there was an early goal with Lafferty at the centre. The striker jockeyed for position on the edge of the box, appearing as though he’d feed Burke on the right, before cutting inside on his left and firing at goal. His strike took a big deflection and looked to be going over the head of Magloire and into the hands of Kelly, but Rory McKenzie was alive to steal into the space between the Motherwell rear-guard before the poking the ball into the net.
And again, another goal followed soon after. This time, Killie further extended the lead through the evergreen Burke. A quick Power free kick released Mitch Pinnock on the left, whose cross creeped over the head of Jake Carroll and to the feet of Burke, with Killie’s top scorer making no mistake with a touch and hit into the roof of the net.
Tensions were already high following the swift turnaround in fortunes, but when Killie were awarded a goal kick after Zech Medley knocked the ball behind, Graham Alexander erupted into a fit of rage on the touchline. Mirroring his counterpart’s emotions, Tommy Wright turned to his bench, sniggering at the sheer ridiculousness of the decision.
It looked as though set pieces may have been Motherwell’s best route back into the game. Allan Campbell floated the ball to the back post, and Carroll just managed to prod it back into the centre of the box. Roberts tried his luck on the volley, his effort fizzing towards the Killie goal, but clipped the outside of the post.
With just seven minutes of the game to go, Wright’s first three points as Killie manager were sealed. Lafferty was again integral to Killie’s attacking prowess, holding the ball up before lofting it in behind to Pinnock. The winger’s trickery fooled Magloire in their one-on-one, leaving Pinnock to cooly slot the ball past Kelly and send the Killie boss delirious on the touchline, as his side climb to 11th in the table.
While admitting his side could have performed better, Tommy Wright was happy with his side’s display:
“The performance had moments of quality, a lot of character, we worked really hard for each other…We made the right decisions and the right moments in the game, and that’s probably something that we’ve lacked since I’ve been here and probably throughout the season.”
Wright was especially pleased with the performance of Kyle Lafferty, who scored his third goal in two games and was directly involved in another two in Saturday’s win.
“He’s going to be a big player for us in these last five games, as I knew he would, because I know the type of character he is. He can be a bit of a nightmare at time to look after, cause he’s always one to play the practical joke, but he’s a good professional and someone who wants to do well here.”
Graham Alexander stressed that his side won’t allow complacency to set in and will continue fighting until the end of the season:
“We have to win as many points as possible, just for our own pride. Even if this goes well today, when do we relax? I don’t get that mentality at all…You can’t go to Hibs two, three weeks ago and dominate and win a game and then lose to a team bottom of the table.
“It happened to us against Hamilton. We’ve been beat 4-1 twice now by the team at the bottom of the table. It’s telling myself, and everyone around, there’s a problem.”
Motherwell elected not to take a knee before the game, a decision the manager explained post-match:
“It was actually something that was being spoken about at the start of the week. When the sponsored players yesterday said they didn’t want to do it, I just felt we should do the same thing to have the same message.”
The result puts Killie above Accies after their 1-1 draw against St Mirren. Motherwell stay in ninth, now just seven points clear of the relegation play-off spot.
It’s Scottish Cup action for both sides after the international break, as Killie head to Peterhead or Stenhousemuir, while Motherwell visit either Formartine United or Annan Athletic.