FACING Hearts ought to lift Kilmarnock’s morale considerably after their lamentable top-six collapse. Jimmy Nicholl, assistant manager at Rugby Park, likens lurching into the SPL’s bottom six to the feeling of being relegated.
However, Saturday’s first post-split fixture pits his players against a team they currently have a clear hold over.
Only once in the last three years have Kilmarnock lost against Hearts, a sequence of ten games in which the Ayrshire club have recorded six wins and three draws. The Edinburgh side’s solitary victory in that period came in January 2011 and Nicholl openly admits he cannot explain the record. Throughout the last fortnight, he has been preoccupied with improving moods and restoring some camaraderie on the training field. The dejection from Kilmarnock’s draw and defeat in their last two pre-split games against St Mirren and Dundee respectively lingered long. They required just one win from those two matches to reach the top six. Failure hasn’t gone down well.
“If you’d said to us at the start of the season that we’d end up with two home games against St Mirren and Dundee – no disrespect to them – needing one win to make the top six, we’d have fancied our chances. When it didn’t materialise it was horrendous,” said Nicholl. “I was talking to the boys after the Dundee game and I said, ‘d’you know, I feel like I’ve been relegated’. That was how bad I felt, such was the disappointment about the place.
“It was really difficult on the Monday in training after losing to Dundee. We’re asking the players to pick themselves up and bring a tempo and enthusiasm to the training but it was hard, so we gave them Friday, Saturday and Sunday off just to get away from the place. That let them recharge the batteries for this week. You’ve got to waken up and brighten up because you’re saying to yourself, ‘if we don’t get our act together, we’re going to end up eleventh’.
“You can go from being disappointed at missing the top six to eleventh in the table. There are five more games of football to play and you don’t want the whole thing to disintegrate. There are other clubs – bigger clubs – in the same situation so we can’t all feel sorry for ourselves. If we do, Hearts and Hibs and Aberdeen will take advantage.”
So, does the thought of Hearts visiting Rugby Park brighten the gloom? Nicholl is too professional to say so even if it does. He is aware of Kilmarnock’s enviable record in this fixture, even if he cannot fathom how it transpired.
“Everything started turning for Kilmarnock at Tynecastle under Mixu Paatelainen (a 3-0 win in October 2010 as they languished near the bottom of the SPL),” he said. “They had lost five or six games in a row before then, and then a wee change of system brought a good result and all of a sudden they were brilliant. That was the start of things regarding the results against Hearts, especially at Tynecastle. I suppose players, psychologically anyway, will say ‘we always play well here’.
“I find that strange because any time I’ve been there with clubs like Dunfermline or Aberdeen I’d think, ‘holy jeez, this a cauldron in here’. You feel boxed in and you don’t feel you get room to pass and play. Yet Kilmarnock seem to do well there. Whether it’s a psychological issue for Hearts players, I really don’t know.
“We’re at home this time and, for our own supporters, we’ve got something to give. We’ve got three home games so let’s see if we can put things right. We haven’t been great at times at Rugby Park this season. We’re curious how our boys are going to react against Hearts after what happened before the split. Don’t let the season go, that’s the challenge.”