Killie and County share the spoils
In the first round of post-split fixtures in the Scottish Premiership, Kilmarnock and Ross County earned a point apiece at Rugby Park. Seán McGill reports.
Both managers acknowledged the importance of today’s game during the week, with Kilmarnock and Ross County just one and two points respectively above bottom side Hamilton Accieswith just five games to go.
Having scored 10 goals in their last three games, the changes were minimal for Tommy Wright. Ross Millen, who picked up a red card when the sides met in Dingwall last month, dropped out with suspension from last week’s 4-0 Scottish Cup thrashing of Stenhousemuir, as Aaron McGowan reclaimed the right back berth. Fresh off his hattrick at Ochilview Park, man of the moment Kyle Lafferty once again led the line for the hosts.
The Scottish Cup Third Round brought about far less success for County, as Inverness prevailed in a Friday night Highland Derby. Intent on seeing a reaction in a crucial league fixture, John Hughes made five changes to the starting XI with Alex Iacovitti, Carl Tremarco, Ross Draper, Jordan Tillson and Jordan White coming in for Coll Donaldson, Leo Hjelde, Stephen Kelly, Charlie Lakin and Oli Shaw.
Just as in their last league outing, the game couldn’t have started much better for Kilmarnock. A corner from Mitch Pinnock was headed out to the opposite flank, with Aaron MCGowan rushing to hook the ball back in. His cross was headed out to the edge of the box, but not to safety, as Chris Burke caught the dropping ball sweetly on the volley to send it soaring into the bottom left corner with just three minutes on the clock.
The similarities from the Motherwell game continued as the hosts surrendered their early lead quickly. A long ball flicked on smartly by Billy McKay fell into the path of Michael Gardyne, before the former Killie man slalomed through the defence and slammed the ball beyond Colin Doyle to level the game again.
A fortnight ago, it took Killie until the second half to get back in front. On Saturday, it took just 10 minutes. Jordan Tillson was relieved to see Willie Collum pull out a yellow card after a high challenge on Rory McKenzie, but the resulting free kick paid dividends for the hosts.
Floated towards Kyle Lafferty, the ball was knocked on to Pinnock, who used his frame to fend off Jason Naismith before swerving and shooting to send the ball under Ross Laidlaw.
After the goal blitz in the opening 15 minutes, it took another 20 for a good chance to present itself. It came from a lovely reverse pass from Gary Dicker, breaking the lines and giving Burke space to drive into. The winger lacked conviction with options running ahead, instead sending a fairly meagre shot into the arms of the County ‘keeper.
Gardyne looked to get his side level again in extremely similar fashion to his earlier equaliser. The free-flowing counter left both teams out of shape, which McKay capitalised upon to play the ball across the edge of the box to his teammate, with Gardyne again shifting inside. His strike fizzed inches wide of Doyle’s post in the last notable action of the first half.
Within just five minutes of the game restarting, County had two golden opportunities to square the game. First, Jordan White outmuscled Brandon Haunstrup to send his header across goal, but the post denied the striker. Moments later, it was the head of Ross Draper that had Killie hearts in mouths as the midfielder skewed his chance wide despite being in acres of space.
A Ross County header did eventually come off though, as the visitors got their equaliser. Iain Vigurs had been delivering dangerous set-pieces throughout the afternoon and this time, it was Alex Iacovitti who met his captain’s corner to bring the Staggies level.
Harry Paton almost made an immediate impact off the bench as he strode past Haunstrup on the right, before cutting the ball back perfectly for McKay. Much to his manager’s dismay, the striker failed to find the target.
Haunstrup looked to make up for his error by linking up neatly with Pinnock on the flank. A quick one-two slipped the left back in behind, and he knocked it back to substitute Greg Kiltie. However, the first time finish didn’t bring a clean connection and it was a routine save for Laidlaw.
The game ended frantically, with both sides having chances to win it. A defensive mistake allowed White to bear down on goal, although the angle proved too tight for the striker. The same could be said for Burke’s late chance, the result of some tidy build up play from Killie. His shot was hard and low, with Laidlaw doing well to parry with no one in blue and white stripes available to pounce.
In a result that will please the visitors more than hosts, it ended all square in Ayrshire, as both sides gained points on Hamilton – Brian Rice’s side tasted defeat at the hands of Dundee United.
A win in their next fixtures could prove vital for the relegation strugglers. County welcome St. Mirren to Dingwall a week on Wednesday, while Killie entertain United on the same day.