According to St Mirren manager Danny Lennon, his side had lost their way in recent weeks after their historic League Cup victory, but they “got their identity” back with a deserved win over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park yesterday.
Scorers: Kilmarnock: Boyd (25); St Mirren: J McGinn (20), McGowan (75 pen), Newton (88)
They did lose a goalkeeper, however. In one of those memorable comic moments that sometimes happens in a press conference, Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels was confirming that St Mirren’s Craig Samson was one of his targets, only for the irrepressible Samson to shout from the back of the room: “Gaffer, I’ve signed!”
Shiels warmly welcomed him on board the good ship Killie which the manager says is now building from the foundations up.
The long-term aim of the Northern Irishman was openly stated, namely that he wants to still be around by the time Kilmarnock make history by becoming the first professional club in the country to celebrate 150 years of continued existence – that’s in 2019.
Samson was one of the 14 men who became Paisley legends at Hampden on 17 March, of which nine started the match yesterday. The team is set to break up, but the most pleasing aspect for Lennon yesterday was the fact that he was able to play so many teenagers in John McGinn, Anton Brady, Jack Smith, Mo Yaqub.
Not to be outdone, Kilmarnock featured 16-year-old Greg Kiltie, suggesting an emphasis on youth for both clubs.
It was the visiting team which made the first semblance of a chance after 15 minutes, Kenny McLean’s acrobatic bicycle kick off John McGinn’s corner going well wide. Kilmarnock raced to the other end and after good work by Cillian Sheridan to win possession from on-loan defender Paul Dummett – Lennon said he and fellow Newcastle loan player Esmael Goncalves might yet extend their stay – the ball went to Borja Perez whose cross was just missed by Chris Johnston. Five minutes later, McGinn left the provider role and stepped into the striking position with some aplomb.
A deep cross from Conor Newton sailed over the home defence and found McGinn forging in on goal, all on his lonesome. He probably had time to control the ball and shoot, but the teenager was in a hurry to score his first senior goal for the club and he simply smacked the ball past Bell with a first time, side-footed volley.
Lovely stuff, and so was Kilmarnock’s equaliser after 25 minutes. Indeed it was a classic example of simple striking science, Perez’s through-ball splitting the St Mirren defence to find Kris Boyd already on the move down the left wing. One flash of his peachy boots as Samson raced from goal and the ball was buried low in the St Mirren net.
Kilmarnock enjoyed a spell of pressure but could not add to their tally before Bell’s Kilmarnock career almost ended prematurely, the Rangers-bound goalkeeper being flattened under a high ball by Sam Parkin.
Bell bravely played on, determined not to be denied his swansong, and he was certainly the busier goalkeeper early in the second half, as St Mirren held the upper hand.
By the hour mark, the game had deteriorated into real fag-end-of-season fare. St Mirren retained their commitment to the passing game but it was getting them nowhere while Kilmarnock seemed content to soak it up and hit on the break.
Tackles were anodyne, the players no doubt intent on preserving their limbs for a Mediterranean beach. All the publicity about David Beckham’s retirement must have lodged in McLean’s noggin as the St Mirren midfielder spied Bell off his line and launched one from nearly halfway. Unlike Becks, however, McLean was well wide. Shiels sent on Robbie Muirhead and Greg Kiltie for Sheridan and Perez respectively but it was Lennon’s earlier replacing of the ineffective Esmael Goncalves with Anton Brady that was to prove crucial.
Brady proved a handful, and when the Kilmarnock defence got into a fankle after 75 minutes, he nipped in and stole the ball, breaking into the box where Ashcroft clumsily hauled him down.
The excellent Paul McGowan got his just reward for a sterling effort in midfield by expertly despatching the penalty past Bell.
Kilmarnock’s season and Bell’s stint with the club ended on a low note two minutes from time when McLean fed Newton and the Englishman had space to hit a low shot that Bell got to, but failed to stop, the ball trundling over the line to end proceedings.