KILMARNOCK, who were once more indebted to the predatory instincts of their top scorer, Kris Boyd, eased their fears of finishing in the play-off position with a victory which hoisted them four points clear of second-bottom Ross County.
For Hearts, though, the campaign is in danger of petering out. Three defeats in a row means that their relegation could be confirmed with a defeat against Hibernian at Tynecastle on 30 March. On this evidence, the best they can hope for is a stay of execution.
Boyd has now scored six times against Hearts this season and manager Gary Locke, who had wanted to bring him to Gorgie last year, could only think ruefully of what might have been.
“I would have loved to sign him for Hearts but the events of the summer put paid to that,” he said. “Once again, he was the difference between the teams. His qualities were there for all to see.
“But the second goal was a cheap one to give away and the first five minutes of the second half cost us. That was disappointing because I’d praised them at half-time for their performance in the opening 45 minutes.”
The opening exchanges were, to say the least, overly tentative but Boyd should have opened the scoring after 12 minutes when David Karlsson’s corner found him unmarked, six yards out.
Uncharacteristically, the veteran took a fresh-air swipe with his left boot and the danger was averted. Referee Euan Norris angered the travelling support when he cautioned Kevin McHattie for attempting to take a free-kick too quickly, obviously labouring under the misapprehension that the award was supposed to be to his team’s advantage.
Jordan McGhee squandered a glorious opportunity when he sent a free header from McHattie’s corner wide of the target. Galvanised by that escape, Kilmarnock immediately seized the initiative. Craig Samson took a short free-kick to Sean Clohessy, who supplied Michael Gardyne and he, in turn, released Rory McKenzie on the right flank.
Whether the player was attempting an ambitious shot or attempting to pick out a team-mate is unclear but Danny Wilson’s attempted clearance rendered that argument irrelevant as he diverted the ball behind Jamie MacDonald.
Hearts regrouped and took advantage of some dilatory defending to restore parity within minutes.
Sam Nicholson’s aimless long ball should have been dealt with by either Samson or Lee Ashcroft but a lack of communication meant that they left it for each other and Dale Carrick took advantage to force his way between them and score with an audacious lob from 15 yards.
Unfortunately for the visitors, Jamie Hamill proved that basic errors were not the sole preserve of the home side when, three minutes after the restart, he allowed himself to be dispossessed by Boyd 25 yards out.
The striker resisted the temptation to go down when Hamill fouled him, staying on his feet to drive the ball high past MacDonald.
Three minutes later the outcome appeared to be sealed when Boyd forced home a cross from McKenzie at the second attempt.
Hearts refused to capitulate and Sam Nicholson briefly restored hope with a clinical finish after being found by Billy King’s pass. The hosts were not to be denied, however, and Michael Gardyne, in his 18th
appearance since arriving on loan from Dundee United, finally opened his account for Kilmarnock.
Jeroen Tesselaar was the architect, nutmegging McGhee before delivering the cross which Gardyne forced home from close range.
Gardyne was fortunate to be there at all. His wife, Lisa, is due to give birth in Dundee on Monday and the Killie kit man had been primed to signal to him if she had gone into labour prematurely.
The score was kept down when MacDonald excelled twice, turning a rising drive from Gardyne on to his crossbar and denying Boyd a hat-trick when he had been left with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Kilmarnock: Samson, O’Hara, Tesselaar, Slater, Pascali, Ashcroft, Clohessy, McKenzie (B Nicholson 66), Boyd, Gardyne (Muirhead 85), Moberg-Karlsson (Gros 87). Subs not used: Reguero, Eremenko, Johnston, Maksimenko.
Goals: Wilson 27’ (og); Boyd 49’, 51’; Gardyne 72’. Booked: O’Hara, McKenzie, Moberg-Karlsson.
Hearts: MacDonald, McGhee (McKay 86), McHattie, Robinson, Wilson, McGowan, Paterson (King 55), Hamill (McCallum 61), Carrick, Stevenson, S Nicholson. Subs not used: Ridgers, Holt, Oliver, Beith.
Goals: Carrick 30’; S Nicholson 69’. Booked: McGhee, McHattie.
Ref: E Norris. Attendance: 3,510