This defeat, the 20th of an increasingly torturous campaign, increased the possibility that Hearts could be consigned to the Championship by losing to Hibernian at Tynecastle on 30 March.
Kilmarnock 4-2 Hearts
Scorers: Kilmarnock - Wilson (og 26), Boyd (48,51), Gardyne (72); Hearts - Carrick (30), Nicholson (68)
Such an outcome would require a perfect storm of results elsewhere to conspire against Gary Locke’s team but good fortune has been in short supply down Gorgie way and some may feel that being relegated by their arch-rivals would sum up the season from hell.
Midfielder Ryan Stevenson is having none of that, though. The 29-year-old defiantly refuses to wallow in self-pity and, while accepting that Hearts will go down, he vowed that he and his team-mates will at least go down fighting.
He also refuses to entertain the prospect of Hibs putting the noose around their necks and kicking the chair away from under their feet.
“I haven’t even thought of that, to be honest,” he said. “If it is going to happen it is going to happen. The biggest thing for us as players is that we don’t go down and just accept it.
“For everything the club has been through it would be poor from us to do that. I know, as one of the most experienced players, that that won’t be happening.
“We have nine games left and the least the club and the fans deserve is that we give 110 per cent in those games.”
Hearts were the better side in the opening 45 minutes and, when Dale Carrick scored an opportunist goal to restore parity following Danny Wilson’s unfortunate own goal, it appeared the momentum was with the visitors.
As so often, however, sub-standard defending was punished, in this case by Kris Boyd. He pounced on the procrastination of Jamie Hamill to dispossess the Hearts captain and put Kilmarnock 2-1 ahead. Then, left unattended at the near post, he scored his 18th league goal of the season from Rory McKenzie’s cross.
While Sam Nicholson briefly sparked hopes of a revival with a fine finish from Billy King’s cutback, Michael Gardyne restored the home side’s two-goal advantage by flicking home Jeroen Tesselaar’s driven cross.
In truth, but for another fine display by goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, Kilmarnock’s winning margin could have been greater and Stevenson was in no mood to gloss over his side’s deficiencies, not least the fact that they have kept only one clean sheet in their last 20 matches.
“During the first half I didn’t think we were in any danger at all, but it’s probably been the story of our season,” he said. “The first time they really go up the park and put in a cross it goes in off Danny Wilson. We managed to get ourselves back into it and went in at half-time comfortable. We felt if any team was going to get the second goal it was going to be us. We knew that the form Boyd is in, given half a chance he can take it and hurt you. We had a crazy five-minute period at the start of the second half and we are 3-1 down before we even knew it.
“That left us with a mountain to climb but then again we got ourselves back into it before giving away another sloppy goal for the fourth. We have nobody to blame but ourselves. We have conceded eight goals in the last two games and it’s not good enough.”
Quite apart from avoiding the ignominy of being demoted after a derby, Hearts should not be lacking in motivation in their remaining fixtures.
One target which ought to be pinned on the dressing room wall is the 13 points amassed by Gretna when they were relegated in 2007-08 following a ten-point penalty for sliding into administration.
Hearts need eight points between now and 10 May to beat that total. They would likely have surpassed it by now had Locke been allowed to sign Boyd last summer.
Instead, the registration embargo imposed following Hearts’ own insolvency event meant that Boyd remained at Rugby Park, where his 18 goals have left him the Premiership’s joint-top scorer with Kris Commons of Celtic.
His manager, Allan Johnston, believes that the 30-year-old is in the best form of his career, a view with which Boyd concurs.
“I’ve said that myself,” he said. “The older you get, the more you learn about the game, the more things you pick up and the more you can hurt teams.
“The big thing for me was coming back home and enjoying playing football again and scoring goals. I’ve done that and I’m enjoying being part of something which is, hopefully, going forward at Kilmarnock.”