HE ONLY played for half the game, but man of the match Paul Heffernan turned this tie Kilmarnock’s way with two very well taken second-half goals.
Kilmarnock - Heffernan 58, 85
It may have been someone approaching the veteran stage who secured the victory – Heffernan is 31 – but this display by Kilmarnock owed much to manager Kenny Shiels sticking by his skilful young players, 20-year-olds William Gros, pictured below, and Ross Barbour showing up particularly well.
“The manager made the right decision to stick with the youngsters,” said his assistant Jimmy Nicholl afterwards. He would say nothing else, of course, but the point was well made.
With everyone at Rugby Park possibly still on a high after Friday’s visit from singing star Marie Osmond, Kilmarnock started in rumbustious mood, and Barbour was only just stopped at the edge of the box with less than three minutes on the clock.
Inverness began to respond and if Richie Foran’s head had connected with Aaron Doran’s strong free kick they might well have taken the lead.
As it was, Caley Thistle’s cause took a severe dunt when they lost two players to injury inside the first half-hour. Captain Foran had been booked in the first minute for a rash challenge on Mark O’Hara and lasted only 15 minutes more before his knee was landed on by a defender and he was replaced by Philip Roberts.
Andrew Shinnie followed him with hamstring problems, Charlie Taylor coming on. Foran and Shinnie look set for a spell on the sidelines, according to Inverness manager Terry Butcher.
The visitors nevertheless enjoyed a spell of possession and Nick Ross should have done much better off a pinpoint cutback from Roberts, while it took a Cillian Sheridan block to prevent Josh Meekings’ effort going in.
In the final minute of the half, a struggling Sheridan mis-hit his shot, and shortly afterwards he was replaced by Heffernan. Sheridan’s damaged hamstring may keep him, too, out for a few weeks.
The Inverness substitutions definitely weakened the side, whereas Heffernan’s arrival, if anything, gave Kilmarnock an old head to complement their youth.
“After losing your captain and most influential player it was always going to be difficult,” said Butcher. “The young lads came on and did quite well but they are going to have to grow up quick because we do not have a lot below first-team level.”
Bell came to Kilmarnock’s rescue in the opening minute of the second half, clutching a miscued clearance header by James Fowler on the goal line, before Heffernan missed with his head at point blank range at the other end.
Kilmarnock’s goal in the 58th minute was a trifle fortunate, if well taken by Heffernan. The impressive Frenchman William Gros broke into the visitors’ half but appeared to be covered by the Inverness back line before the ball deflected off two defenders right into the path of Heffernan who took a few strides, steadied himself and fired his shot low past Ryan Esson.
“I had plenty of time to think about it and that’s not always the best thing for a striker,” quipped Heffernan.
Marie Osmond’s pin up “boy” Garry Hay replaced James Dayton just before Gros and Borja Perez brought out a brilliant double save by Esson, his second parry off Perez’s snapshot on the rebound being of international class.
In the Kilmarnock goal, Bell dived to his left to hold a clean header by Owain Tudor-Jones, but Kilmarnock always looked more likely to score, and with five minutes left, Barbour fired in a fierce low cross from the right which Heffernan cutely backheeled past Esson. “It probably fell into our hands a little bit,” said Nicholl. But when it does, you have to “carpe diem”, and that’s what Kilmarnock did yesterday.
Kilmarnock: Tesselaar; Fowler, Gros, Dayton (Hay 71), Sheridan (Heffernan 45), Perez, McKeown, Barbour, Kelly, O’Hara, Shiels, Sissoko.
ICT: Esson; Raven, Shinnie, Tudor-Jones, Warren, Doran, McKay, Meekings, Foran (Roberts 16), Shinnie (Taylor 31), Ross (Gibbons 81).
Referee: W Collum. Attendance: 3,172.