THEY are Scotland’s oldest professional club and at the sixth attempt, they have finally completed the full set of domestic trophy triumphs.
Five times beaten finalists in the League Cup, Kilmarnock gave their supporters an afternoon to cherish at Hampden as Celtic’s pursuit of a treble disintegrated.
Much will be made in the coming days of referee Willie Collum’s 92nd-minute refusal of a Celtic penalty claim when Anthony Stokes fell under Michael Nelson’s challenge but that does a disservice to Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels and his players.
They carried out his gameplan almost to perfection as the Rugby Park club became only the eighth in the country to have won all three major Scottish honours in their history. They were indebted to a faultless performance from goalkeeper Cammy Bell but this was not simply a smash and grab job from Shiels’ side.
Celtic, wretchedly ineffective in front of goal during the spells of the game they controlled, were prevented from finding the kind of compelling form which had seen them unbeaten domestically since last October.
Substitute Dieter Van Tornhout’s 84th-minute header gave Kilmarnock their first trophy success since their 1997 Scottish Cup win. While it would be stretching a point to say it was no more than Shiels’ men deserved, Celtic unquestionably had only themselves to blame.
Shiels has brought a glorious eccentricity to the Scottish game but there is more to him than the novelty value he delivers for the media. He is very much a coach with the courage of his convictions as the manner of Kilmarnock’s approach to the final proved. While Shiels’ tactical plan allowed for the midfield to be flooded in an attempt to restrict any damage Celtic could inflict from the wide areas, there was never any question of ‘parking the bus’ in the manner he so deplored of Ayr United in the semi-final.
There was a fluidity to Kilmarnock’s formation which allowed Dean Shiels and Gary Harkins particular scope to lend support to lone striker Paul Heffernan. They were confident and sharp in possession, more than matching the work of a curiously inhibited Celtic side in the first half.
It might have been very different had Gary Hooper been able to take advantage of some slack work by Momo Sissoko in only the fourth minute. The big Kilmarnock defender can be overly casual with the ball at his feet and such was the case when he presented the ball to Hooper on the edge of the penalty area. It was a golden opportunity for the Celtic striker but he directed his shot too close to Bell who made a fine save.
Having survived that early scare, Kilmarnock grew in confidence and cohesion. Even an enforced change after 20 minutes, Danny Buijs limping off to be replaced by Lee Johnson, did not disrupt their flow.
Dean Shiels was the first to threaten Fraser Forster’s goal, driving a low shot from 20 yards narrowly wide of the big Celtic ‘keeper’s left hand post.
Lennon cut an increasingly animated and discontented figure in the technical area as he demanded more from his players. They responded through captain Scott Brown’s driving run down the right, beating Garry Hay to send in a cross which Anthony Stokes met with a firm downward header. Bell was up to task once more, scrambling to his left to keep it out.
Kilmarnock continued to look just as likely to make the breakthrough, however, and Forster made a good save when he turned another Shiels shot behind for a corner. Shiels took the set piece from the right and Sissoko’s header was cleared off the line by Stokes.
Brown continued to try and push Celtic on to the front foot, forcing a fingertip save from Bell who touched his ferocious 20-yard shot over. But Kilmarnock had the final word of an absorbing first half, Forster having to race from his line to deny Heffernan’s close range effort.
Shiels wasted a tremendous chance to put the underdogs ahead four minutes after the break, completely mis-hitting his close range shot after easily beating Kelvin Wilson to leave himself one-on-one with Forster.
Lennon made his first change in the 56th minute, introducing Ki Sung Yueng in midfield. He replaced the unfortunate Thomas Rogne, with Victor Wanyama dropping back into central defence. Ki’s presence made a significant difference but Celtic remained feckless in front of goal, however, as when Joe Ledley swiped a left foot shot wide from around 12 yards and when Stokes then directed a weak effort straight at Bell from similar distance.
Bell remained equal to everything which came his way, his inspired display further enhanced when he stretched himself to touch Wanyama’s close-range header from Ki’s corner over the crossbar.
Kilmarnock had fallen out of the game as an attacking force by this stage, prompting their manager to send on Van Tornhout for the tiring Harkins. The big Dutchman immediately gave his side greater presence up front and duly stunned Celtic with his impressively finished winning goal. It was a smart and swift counter attack from Kilmarnock which saw left-back Ben Gordon surge forward and pick out Johnson’s well timed run on the left of the penalty area. The little Englishman swept over a terrific cross which Van Tornhout met with a firm header at the back post to beat the helpless Forster.
Celtic battled desperately to salvage the situation, Bell making a double save to deny substitutes Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons as Lennon’s men flooded forward. But Kilmarnock held out, confirmation that this was their day coming with Collum’s contentious denial of Celtic’s penalty claim two minutes into stoppage time.
Stokes was aghast when Collum booked him for simulation, having gone down under Nelson’s challenge from behind when he looked certain to score. On all previous evidence over the course of the afternoon, mind you, it was far from certain Celtic would have converted from the spot.