AND then there were two. After four frenzied rounds of post-split, bottom six fixtures, the inaugural scrap to avoid the Premiership relegation play-off has come down to a 90-minute showdown at Easter Road tomorrow between Hibs and Kilmarnock.
While St Mirren, Ross County and Partick Thistle can now relax, safe in the knowledge they will be playing top-flight football again next season, the trapdoor to the Championship remains a startlingly clear and present danger for the teams who will go head to head in an intriguing lunchtime fixture in Leith.
Hibs, who have not experienced the bitter taste of relegation since 1998, know only victory will do if they are to avoid the two-legged play-off final against Hamilton, Falkirk or Queen of the South later this month.
Kilmarnock, who have remained an established top-flight club since the late Tommy Burns led them to promotion 21 years ago, require only a point tomorrow to survive. Perhaps there is a good omen for the Rugby Park club. In their first season back in the then Premier Division under Burns, they needed a draw at Easter Road on the last day to stay up and duly managed to grind out a 0-0 stalemate.
Twenty years on, Killie’s 1-0 win over St Mirren on Wednesday night saw them record only their sixth clean sheet of the current campaign. Goalkeeper Craig Samson knows just how significant a seventh shut-out would be this weekend.
“No pressure on me, then!” he grinned. “Wednesday was actually only the second clean sheet we’ve had in 2014 and now we need another one. If I keep a clean sheet at Easter Road, it would be the biggest of my career, there’s no doubt about that.”
Like Hibs counterpart Ben Williams, who spoke this week of livelihoods being at risk if relegation becomes a reality for Terry Butcher’s side, Samson makes no attempt to underplay the importance of maintaining Premiership football at Rugby Park.
“The club needs to be in the top league in Scotland,” added Samson. “Kilmarnock is a big club. It’s not just for the players – it’s for the people who work in the club’s hotel beside Rugby Park, in the club shop, the office staff and everyone else who is worried about their jobs if we go down. We are not just fighting for ourselves on Saturday, but for everyone at the club.”
Allan Johnston’s team appeared bereft of those fighting qualities when they were crushed 5-0 by Hearts at Tynecastle last Sunday but delivered the ideal response with their gritty victory over St Mirren.
“The boys didn’t have a bad attitude against Hearts,” insisted Samson. “It was just a bad performance. We performed really poorly. Hearts were magnificent but our performance wasn’t good enough and we were told that by the manager and his assistant Sandy Clark. They told us it needed to be better.
“Sandy had a wee word with us before the St Mirren game to say what was at stake.
“Just a few days ago, there were five teams who could possibly have been in the play-offs, so it’s been exciting for the neutrals. But it’s nerve-wracking for us and the fans. That’s when you have to be professional and perform to the best of your ability.
“We let the club down with our performance against Hearts. Hopefully the win against St Mirren repaid the fans a bit. But it’s not over until Saturday. If we were to lose that one, then that win over Saints is for nothing. We need to work equally as hard against Hibs and hopefully get over the line.”
The main weapon in Kilmarnock’s armoury, of course, is Kris Boyd, who notched his 21st goal of the season to claim all three points in Wednesday.
“I can’t imagine where we’d be without him,” admitted Samson. “Maybe somebody else would have stepped up and scored 20 goals, but luckily we don’t need to worry about that as we’ve got him.
“Everybody can see what he does for us and what he brings to our team. He gets the plaudits he deserves, especially this season. I can’t help but think that if he was in a team in the top half of the table, he’d have scored 30 goals. He’s been massive for us.
“Hopefully he’ll get three on Saturday and put the game to bed! We’ve put a lot of pressure on Kris over the past few weeks to maybe single-handedly get us over the line. But that’s never going to be the case. That’s why we need to get a clean sheet or put in last-ditch tackles to help him the way that he’s helped us all season.”
Although Kilmarnock need just a point, Samson does not agree that Hibs are the team under greater strain. “The pressure is on both teams, it’s not all on Hibs,” he added. “We only need a draw and they need to go and get the win. But if you go into a game playing for a draw, it doesn’t always work out as you want. We have to go and try and win the game and see it through.
“The Championship could be a hard league to get out of next season, with Rangers and Hearts there already. But whoever loses out on Saturday and finishes in 11th place won’t be relegated yet. There is still the play-off to come and you would feel you could win that and stay up.
“Nobody wants to be in the play-off, of course, and we certainly don’t. But if it comes to it, there will be another chance to rectify it against a team from the Championship. It won’t be over on Saturday.”
BT Sport Q&A: Rangers | Hibs | Neil Lennon
THIS week’s BT Sport video Q&A looks at whether Rangers fans will buy season tickets and if the club’s supporters will force a change of ownership.
The form of Hibs under Terry Butcher is also examined following the Easter Road side’s derby defeat while the future of Neil Lennon is also considered following the announcement that his assistant Johan Mjallby is to depart at the end of the season.
• Email your Scottish football question for the BT Sport panel to answer. The next show will be recorded on May 7 after St Johnstone v Celtic, which will also be shown live on BT Sport, with the video available on The Scotsman website the following day. You can also tweet us @TheScotsman.
A line-up of experts will handle your questions after each BT Sport game. Most match days, the team includes Darrell Currie, Derek Rae and Gary McAllister.
Over this season, BT Sport will air 30 SPFL matches plus 10 Rangers games from the SPFL League One.
• T&C We can not guarantee which presenters will answer your questions. Questions are vetted and no correspondence will be entered into.