NEITHER Aberdeen nor Hearts seem to want to really challenge Celtic in the Ladbrokes Premiership. After the Pittodrie side slipped up at Hamilton on Tuesday, so Hearts did likewise at Rugby Park with an insipid display.
All the while, Celtic were winning 4-0 against Ross County in Dingwall to go seven points clear at the top.
Two stunning strikes by Souleymane Coulibaly and captain Steven Smith secured Kilmarnock’s first home win of the season. In that regard, this was very much three priceless points for Lee Clark and his energetic team. Hearts passed up the chance to leapfrog Aberdeen into second place and could only rue the wasting of that opportunity.
Coulibaly was easily Kilmarnock’s best player on the night having tortmented the Edinburgh side throughout. He fired the opening goal into the top corner in the first half and Smith hit the other corner to secure victory in the second. Both goals were fit to win any game and the victory was no more than the Ayrshire side deserved for a tenacious performance.
Controversy surrounded Rugby Park prior to kick-off after QTS Group, Kilmarnock’s main sponsor, demanded the resignation of club chairman Michael Johnston. The rail contractor has invested £1.3million in the Ayrshire side so their feelings are certainly not to be ignored. Not that the Kilmarnock support would disagree with the sentiment in any case.
Hearts know all about friction behind the scenes but they are thriving as a far more settled and sensibly-run club these days. As such, the chance to go second in the table was a real possibility following Aberdeen’s 1-0 loss at New Douglas Park on Tuesday night. There was plenty intrigue in both line-ups with Hearts’ Conor Sammon and Robbie Muirhead starting against their former club, likewise the Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald.
Muirhead created the first opening on three minutes with a deep cross from the left. Tony Watt found himself unmarked at the back post and should have converted with a first-time attempt from only four yards. However, he connected with his calf instead of his foot and an excellent scoring chance was wasted.
The hosts pressed high up the pitch to ensure the Hearts defence got little time on the ball. This worked to good effect during the early stages as Rory McKenzie and Coulibaly caused problems with their movement and tenacity in the final third. John Souttar blocked an effort by Coulibaly, who also dispatched a 20-yard free-kick just wide, and the visiting defenders certainly seemed unsettled.
The next opportunity Coulibaly got, he took. He evaded Muirhead and then took on left-back Faycal Rherras – restored to the Hearts team after a bout of malaria – inside the penalty box. The Ivorian was rewarded for his gumption. He cut inside the Moroccan and, with his left foot, angled a fine shot across Jack Hamilton and high into the far corner of the net to put Kilmarnock 1-0 ahead.
Hearts’ response was a stinging 35-yard free-kick by Muirhead, which MacDonald beat away. Their play in the opponents’ half was neat, tidy and fairly fluent, however an incisive through pass was conspicuous by its absence. Watt was keen to get on the ball as much as possible but his best work was again being done well outside the danger zone.
Coulibaly would have doubled his team’s advantage five minutes from the interval but for the left fist of Hamilton. Souttar and Callum Paterson allowed a through ball to run between them, Paterson slid in but his clearance ricocheted off Nathan Tyson. The striker crossed from the left and Coulibaly met the ball at the back post, but Hamilton got a hand to the downward header to keep the deficit at one.
Hearts were jeered from the field by the away fans as the half-time whistle sounded. There was no doubt they had yet to properly assert themselves, while Kilmarnock’s hustling tactics were working perfectly. Coulibaly was the principal threat and Jordan Jones on the opposite flank also looked a more than useful weapon.
There was little change to the pattern of play when the second period began. The visitors struggled to make genuine progress towards the Kilmarnock goal, whilst the hosts always seemed likely to cause problems whenever they entered opposition territory. From Coulibaly’s pass on 57 minutes, McKenzie dispatched a left-footed shot which clipped the top of the crossbar.
It was no surprise when Jamie Walker and Bjorn Johnsen emerged on the touchline ready to enter the fray as substitutes. They replaced Watt and Sammon respectively just after the hour mark. Hamilton emerged from his penalty area to head clear moments later and, in the ensuing confusion, Igor Rossi was booked for hauling Tyson down as the striker tried to hit the empty net.
MacDonald parried Walker’s first-time shot with Hearts’ play becoming more direct. Their desperation for an equaliser increased as the clock ran down.
Nonetheless, the result was confirmed 20 minutes from the end when Kilmarnock went 2-0 ahead. It was the usually-reliable Don Cowie who conceded possession with a wayward pass in midfield. McKenzie seized the ball and drove forward to tee up Smith for a looping effort high beyond Hamilton and into the net from fully 25 yards.
Both Kilmarnock goals were worthy of victory on the night. Hearts’ evening was perhaps summed up when Johnsen found himself on the end of a dropping ball six yards out. With the offside flag staying down, the American mishit his shot and the ball rolled tamely into MacDonald’s arms.
The home fans in a crowd touching 4000 finished the night with a loud rendition of “we want Johnston out”. On the field, things may just be looking up for Kilmarnock.
Kilmarnock: MacDonald; Hendrie, Addison, S Boyd, Taylor; Dicker, S Smith; Coulibaly, McKenzie, Jones (K Boyd 88); Tyson (Frizzell 88). Unused subs: Mackay, Boyle, M Smith, Bojaj, Wilson.
Hearts: Hamilton; Paterson, Souttar, Rossi, Rherras; Djoum, Cowie, Kitchen (Buaben 87), Muirhead; Sammon (Johnsen 61), Watt (Walker 61). Unused subs: Noring, Ozturk, Oshaniwa, Nowak.
Referee: Andrew Dallas.