What a cruel game football can be. For 84 minutes of this match, the ten men of Kilmarnock battled manfully to save a point after their captain Manuel Pascali was sent off.
• Kilmarnock 1: Nelson 85
• St Johnstone 2: M Davidson 33; Vine 89
They looked to have gained the point their courageous efforts thoroughly deserved in the 85th minute when Michael Nelson headed home the goal that equalised Murray Davidson’s first-half opener, only for substitute Rowan Vine to coolly slot home the winner with less than 90 seconds of
normal time remaining.
When the key point of a match takes place after only five minutes, it can either be the making or the ruination of a match. At Rugby Park yesterday, it was a bit of both. It did not lead to a quality match, far from it, but it was undoubtedly exciting.
For after Kilmarnock captain Pascali was sent off after an early lunging tackle at Nigel Hasselbaink, the home side dug in energetically and manager Kenny Sheils made the crucial decision to keep two men up front.
Later he replaced Lee Johnson with Mohamadou Sissoko who was outstanding in defence.
Pascali’s tackle on Hasselbaink appeared at first sight to be a booking offence, but referee Stevie O’Reilly consulted his assistants and showed the Italian the red card for a two-footed offence.
Shiels protested vehemently, and said afterwards: “I shouted at the referee ‘he’s got the ball, it’s our throw in’ but what has happened is that the young lad, the fourth official [Andrew Dallas], he is quite inexperienced, it was him who made the decision. Steve got in his ear, which was astonishing that the young boy has influence like that.
“I got sent off for contesting two decisions. The referee explained to me that the fourth official had told him I contested the first decision and he came over to me and said ‘you are on your last warning’. He sent me off for contesting another decision quite quickly after that.
“We have had this young lad before and he is easily influenced. The SPL might not be for him at this moment in his life because he needs to get a bit more experience.”
Shiels observed the letter of the law and merely stood right beside the dugout inside the stand. His explanation for staying on his feet throughout was simple: “I’m suffering from haemorrhoids.” He better have piles of such excuses if the SFA summon him, though it should be pointed out in fairness that Shiels strenuously emphasised that there is no vendetta against Kilmarnock and that he supports the referees.
That Kilmarnock were the better side over the 90 minutes was shown by the fact that five St Johnstone players, including two of their substitutes, were booked, mostly for trying to stop Killie players.
That was not the case for Vine, who saw yellow for diving late in the first half when it looked much more like a penalty to the visitors. He said: “I don’t know the rules any more because I didn’t think Pascali’s was a sending off and I didn’t dive.”
By that time, St Johnstone had gone ahead. Vine had replaced the crocked Hasselbaink – the Kilmarnock fans booing of the Dutchman was disgraceful as he did not cheat when Pascali tackled him – and was involved in the move that saw Gregory Tade’s pass find Murray Davidson clear in the box for the opening goal.
Cammy Bell had already proved defiant, and did superbly to tip over the goalscorer’s shot from distance two minutes later.
If anything, Kilmarnock grew more dominant as the game went on, Cillian Sheridan shooting just wide at long range just before half-time. Paul Heffernan’s mazy run and shot early in the second half provoked St Johnstone into attacks that saw Liam Craig twice shoot past, while the same player’s free kick was well saved by Bell.
A Sheridan volley dipped over, before substitute James Dayton arrived in time to send a delicious free kick onto the head of Nelson whose textbook header looked to have saved the day for his side.
Then came Vine’s 89th-minute winner, a clever stabbing shot – some might call it a toe poke – past Bell from inside a crowded box. Tough luck on Kilmarnock, but that’s football for you.