“DEJA VU”. That was Partick Thistle manager Alan Archibald’s answer when asked what he felt as he watched his side create a number of first-half chances only to find themselves staring another defeat in the face.
Kilmarnock 1 - 2 Partick Thistle
SCORERS: Kilmarnock; Maksimenko 54, Partick; Higginbotham 56; Taylor-Sinclair 84
At Rugby Park
The sensation will have been shared by every Thistle supporter in attendance, for they had seen this movie before. Thistle play well, create chances and earn nothing. Only, on this occasion, goals from Kallum Higginbotham and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair saw them haul themselves away from the relegation trapdoor that had been opening beneath their feet.
It flipped the script on a long-running narrative that has made Thistle’s debut season back in the top flight a gruelling ordeal, and with four games remaining they couldn’t have picked a better time.
“I thought the boys wanted it right from the off,” said Archibald after the match. “I thought they showed a hunger and desire and I thought we were very good in the first half. The same happened earlier in the season when we were down here and missed chance after chance. And then they get their goal. Though I thought the boys showed great character to fight their way back into the game.”
The first half may have belonged to Thistle but it wasn’t much of spectacle. Kilmarnock started with a lopsided 4-1-3-2 that partnered Michael Gardyne and Kris Boyd in attack, had Alexei Eremenko sitting in a deeper role and featured Jackson Irvine starting from the left but drifting inside. Thistle took the initiative while the home players tried to adjust to the experimental approach and created two great chances within the first 12 minutes.
Higginbotham was the architect of both. The midfielder’s sixth minute free-kick was nodded across goal by Conrad Balatoni and volleyed on to the crossbar by James Craigen. Six minutes after it was Balatoni getting on the end of a Higginbotham set-piece once more, only this time he directed his header high over the bar.
Kilmarnock finally settled down towards the end of the half and could have been ahead just before the interval. Boyd somehow completely mishit his effort after being set up by Gardyne ten yards out and Balatoni produced a goal-saving clearance of the loose ball before Rory McKenzie could pounce.
Finally the match came to life in the 53rd minute. Kilmarnock’s four-on-three counter attack enabled Jackson Irvine to curl a front post shot from the corner of the penalty area that Paul Gallacher had to push wide. From the resulting corner, Eremenko’s inswinger took a deflection on the way through to landing at Vitalijs Maksimenko’s feet. The centre back was at an angle but managed to squeeze the ball home off the inside of the post, although the lead would not last long.
“It makes a difference getting a goal right back,” said Archibald. “We’ve been on the wrong end of that a few times. Otherwise you wait and start to wonder when the goal is going to come.”
The severity of the situation probably hadn’t even dawned on Thistle by the time they had restored parity. Chris Erskine’s attempted slalom through a packed defence was stopped by a trip from Manuel Pascali. From the resulting free-kick the Killie wall jumped high, but Higginbotham’s shot went low, sending the ball into the bottom corner.
A sure-fire cure for insomnia suddenly became more action-packed than a game of five-a-side. In Kilmarnock’s next attack Gardyne attempted an audacious lobbed shot from 25 yards that dropped over the outstretched hand of Paul Gallacher and came down off the underside of the crossbar on to the goal-line. The referee and assistant adjourned into their headsets before agreeing on a verdict of not proven and play was waved on.
“It’s a massive decision,” said Kilmarnock boss Allan Johnston. “I spoke to the referee after and he said they weren’t sure. I thought it crossed the line from where I was and I’ve looked at the replay. I think it’s gone over.
“The big decisions didn’t go for us. Although when you get yourself into a winning situation you need to see these games out.
“There are some massive games left. Everyone is in the mix. It’s a great test of character.”
The visitors will certainly feel good about their character and will to win. With just five minutes remaining of a hard fought 90, Taylor-Sinclair charged up the pitch and rose higher than any Kilmarnock defender to power the ball into the back of the net from Higginbotham’s cross.
The good feeling almost evaporated in an instant. Ross Barbour ran on to a bouncing ball 25 yards from goal and unleashed an incredible effort that was sailing into the top corner. Only this time Paul Gallacher’s fine one-handed stop prevented a familiar feeling in the Thistle ranks.