IF YOU believed the most feverish gossip, a terrific hat-trick from Dundee United’s Johnny Russell dampened the prospects of his manager parting with the Tayside club earlier than the summer departure announced this week.
Kilmarnock - Pascali 19, 91
Dundee United - Russell 43, 63, 88
For now. Yet Peter Houston’s public declaration this week that he will seek new challenges when his contract expires in five months – which the rumour-mongers in Dundee claim will see Derek McInnes succeed him sooner rather than later – did no damage to his team’s ability on the park. Thanks to Russell’s return to scoring form six weeks on from his last goals – a triple in the Scottish Cup against Stranraer – United registered a wholly convincing victory over a Kilmarnock side unbeaten in their past six. Houston was not in the mood to deflect from a fine afternoon’s work by going over the possible implications of his decision to quit United in the summer. He bemoaned that had his side “had a break here or there” then they could have been better placed than seventh just now; his main lament that, with his return from a month out, Gary Mackay-Steven was only able to make his ninth appearance. “He’s a huge player for us and when he’s on his game we are a really good side,” said Houston.
Match-winner Russell admitted the situation was “not ideal” but that there was “a job to do and the team and the gaffer won’t lose interest”. Instead, Russell had been losing faith in his abilities, with his contribution of late “not good enough”. Immensely hard on himself, he even felt he should have done better yesterday, having a goal disallowed and being thwarted by Cammy Bell.
Russell, though, contributed more than enough, cancelling out a Kilmarnock lead gained against the run of play with an imperious, first-time finish when the ball broke to him 14 yards out just on the interval. He made it 2-1 on the hour with a simple header after Keith Watson had arced a cross over from the right, and then made sure of the victory two minutes from time when he controlled a Barry Douglas through-ball and stubbed a shot into the corner with pinpoint accuracy. While Houston praised his side as “better” than their hosts, Kenny Shiels talked of a draw being a fair result. He was on his own there. One of the many subplots yesterday was what possible diminishment might be caused by departures. In United’s case, of course, that concerned Houston’s impending exit. For Kilmarnock, it was mainly about change that had already occurred in being shorn of Liam Kelly and Michael Nelson, while the future of Gary Harkins remains unclear. “Harkins is not leaving,” said Shiels. ‘He is one of the best players in the SPL and there is a good chance he will be playing against Dundee next Sunday.” His chairman, Michael Johnston, took a different line. “It is unclear what he wants to do,’ he said.“We are in the dark over his preference,” he said.
In the early stages, it seemed the loss of Kelly might have the most profound effect on proceedings. Shiels’ men appeared bereft of a ball-winner, and were forced to sit back and watch United play around them, if rarely through them. It was a curious spectacle, made all the more so by the fact that 19 minutes of this pattern gave way to Kilmarnock taking the lead, Manuel Pascali firing home after a shot had been inadvertently helped on to him by Paul Heffernan. Not until Pascali bundled in a header in added time were Kilmarnock again a serious threat.