TO PARAPHRASE a celebrated song title, all manager Gary Locke must have wanted for Christmas was a Kilmarnock away win.
It may have been Boxing Day and it may have initially looked unlikely as his side still looked awfully fragile after recent demoralising reverses, but in the end he got his wish.
It took a palpably mishit shot from Tope Obadeyi just beyond the midpoint of the second half of a rain-sodden afternoon at New Douglas Park to give the Ayrshire side their first victory in eight games. Yet on such little twists can precarious moments in managerial careers hinge.
What a difference an undistinguished 90 minutes make. After all that angst down Rugby Park way they actually now find themselves ten points clear of Dundee United in the Premiership basement and right in the thick of the scramble to avoid the relegation play-off spot.
“That was the response we were looking for,” admitted the resilient Locke. “We got a lot of criticism after our last game and rightly so, but we showed today a bit more endeavour, character and hard work – and we got the three points that we need.
“We’ve got a wee bit of breathing space now, but I’m just looking for us to be more consistent, because that’s been our problem all season.”
A cloud on Locke’s horizon, of course, is the expected imminent departure of talented 18-year-old winger Greg Kiltie but at least their defence held firm on this occasion.
Recently the Killie rearguard had been leaking like a sieve with 12 goals whistling into their net in the past four games and yesterday in the early stages of this one they still looked far from secure. Hamilton needed to exploit this lack of conviction but despite launching several promising raids, with Louis Longridge’s pace to the fore, they all petered out.
A lack of belief in his own finishing seemed to haunt the Accies striker, with the home fans bemoaning his propensity to take one touch too many when he had Jamie McDonald’s goal in his sights.
We got a lot of criticism after our last game but we showed today a bit more endeavour, character and hard work – and we got the three points that we needGary Locke
Team-mate Dougie Imrie showed a bit of decisiveness in the box and he unlucky to see a rasping shot headed off the line in astonishing fashion by the diving Conrad Balatoni with McDonald for once beaten.
Yet for all the home side’s opening dominance Killie’s fleeting moments on the front foot did cause some anxious moments for Michael McGovern and his defensive colleagues. His Northern Ireland team-mate Josh Magennis did pretty well with the scraps passed to him, and he forced several decent saves from the Accies keeper either side of the interval.
Accies’ cause was not helped by Lucas Tagliapietra being stretchered off following lengthy treatment after sustaining a neck injury and it was now their re-jigged back line that was beset with gnawing hesitancy. Antons Kurakins managed to nip one off the toes of Magennis when he was well placed to hit the target, but the Killie striker was not to be denied a decisive intervention, as a provider. He somehow managed to turn in a cross from a tight angle and although Obadeyi didn’t connect cleanly, it still had enough force and direction to beat McGovern.
Allowing for the fact that they now had the rare scent of victory in their nostrils the visitors remained admirably composed and disciplined, although McDonald was called upon to show capable hands again in dealing with powerful headers from Ziggy Gordon and Eamonn Brophy.
The latter then had one last go at salvaging something for the hosts, but his effort bounced off the head of a Killie defender who knew little about it.
“I thought we were the better team, but we’re just not putting the ball in the back of the net which is a worry,” said a frustrated Accies manager Martin Canning.
“The more you do that the more it puts pressure on you as a team.”