A YEAR ago this weekend, Kilmarnock pulled off a last-day-of-the-season win away to Hibs to avoid the relegation play-off. At this rate, they are facing a similarly fraught climax to this campaign as an alarming loss of form threatens to haul them towards peril in a similar fashion to that which did for Terry Butcher’s freefalling Easter Road side last term.
Scorers: Motherwell - McDonald (28), Erwin (39), Ainsworth (90); Kilmarnock - Magennis (53)
Last night’s defeat at second-bottom Motherwell was the seventh in succession for Gary Locke’s confidence-sapped team. Crucially, it allowed the Fir Park side, who looked as good as consigned to the play-off spot after losing at Hamilton Accies a fortnight ago, to move within three points of them – albeit with an inferior goal difference – with two games each to play.
Ian Baraclough’s side, who have won four of their last seven matches, are also buoyed by the knowledge that, after first-half goals from Scott McDonald and Lee Erwin and a late strike from substitute Lionel Ainsworth put punchless Kilmarnock to the sword, they cannot now be caught by bottom-of-the-table St Mirren, whose relegation was finally sealed by this result.
Paul Cairney came into the Kilmarnock side for only his third start since arriving at Rugby Park last summer, and it was the former Hibs midfielder who had the first attempt of the match when his powerful left-foot strike from 25 yards out went just past George Long’s right-hand post in the second minute.
The same player then passed up two opportunities in quick succession two minutes later. Josh Magennis burst down the right and cut the ball back for Cairney, who saw his low strike from just inside the box blocked by the legs of Long before firing the rebound over the bar.
Motherwell had made a low-key start for a game of such magnitude and Kilmarnock, without being particularly impressive themselves early on, tested Long again in the 17th minute when, after a sublime Jamie Hamill pass to Rory McKenzie got the visitors on the front foot, Magennis was fed wide on the right and thumped a low angled shot against the goalkeeper.
Although they had enjoyed the lion’s share of the early possession, the hosts’ first notable attempt didn’t arrive until the 24th minute, when Scott McDonald glanced a near-post header over the top after meeting a Marvin Johnson cross from the left.
The veteran striker wouldn’t have to wait much longer to open the scoring, however. With 28 minutes gone, Erwin danced his way into the penalty area and pinged in a low left-footed shot from 13 yards out. Craig Samson, diving to his left, did well to get a hand to it, but the goalkeeper could only look on in anguish as McDonald arrived to force the loose ball into the empty net from a yard out.
The alarm bells were sounding louder than ever for Kilmarnock, but they almost responded in 31 minutes when Lee Ashcroft bulleted a free header from a Cairney corner inches past.
However, the visitors found themselves in even deeper trouble in the 39th minute when Erwin capitalised on some slack defending to burst into the danger area, beat Ashcroft with ease and then placed a low shot past Samson from 12 yards out.
As the visitors celebrated, the boos rang out from the 600 Kilmarnock supporters housed behind Samson’s goal. It almost got worse for the Ayrshire side two minutes later, but Samson managed to paw out Johnson’s blasted cross at the near post.
McDonald then saw a back-post header from a Johnson cross held by Samson as the hosts finished the first half in rousing fashion.
Kilmarnock manager Gary Locke responded by making two changes at the interval, with Greig Kiltie and Tope Obadeyi replacing Sammy Clingan and Rory McKenzie.
And eight minutes into the second half, the Rugby Park side were back in the match. The goal came in the scrappiest fashion when Magennis bundled the ball over the line after a Cairney corner had sparked a bout of head tennis in the Motherwell six-yard box.
The galvanising effect of the goal was short-lived, however, as the visitors failed to exert any kind of pressure on the Motherwell goal.
Indeed, it was the hosts who finished with a flourish. After Conor Grant had twice gone close and Scott McDonald had curled a free-kick just past, Ainsworth stepped off the bench to put the outcome beyond doubt with an emphatic finish from inside the box in the last minute.