Aberdeen moved up to seventh with this smash-and-grab victory.
Kilmarnock had conceded the first goal in each of their seven previous games but lost only one of them, but here it was the Dons who came from behind to win after being outplayed for the majority of the game.
For the second Sunday in succession midfielder Lewis Ferguson made the decisive intervention, scoring the winner at Rugby Park with a superb free-kick.
Manager Derek McInnes praised his players for an improved second-half display. “There’s nothing better than a late winner,” he said. “This time last week Lewis comes up with the all-important goal to get us into the final but I have to say it was the only moment of real quality in the match.
“The pitch doesn’t help when it comes to bringing a tempo to the game but we knew that so it’s no excuse.
“Kilmarnock played the game the way it should be played down here in that first half; they were far more aggressive, first to every ball, they played forward, got the ball into our box and forced mistakes.
“If I was a scout watching us first half I would’ve struggled to see what we were trying to do. We were half-hearted with our passing, half-hearted with our working behind, didn’t engage with our front two enough. The only one who was playing the game in the right manner and bringing any level of performance was Ferguson.”
The home side believed they ought to have been awarded a penalty in the second minute when captain Kris Boyd, starting for the first time since 25 August, went down under a challenge from Max Lowe but the full-back appeared to have won the ball. Boyd, pictured inset, then passed up a glorious opportunity to open the scoring when he headed a Stephen O’Donnell cross wide from point-blank range.
Killie came close again in the 27th minute when O’Donnell played a wall pass with Aaron Tshibola and the inrushing Boyd only just failed to connect with the full-back’s cross.
Aberdeen were not posing a threat to Jamie MacDonald in the home goal and the breakthrough for the Ayrshire side, when it arrived, was long overdue. It was a well-worked team goal, with Tshibola, Boyd and Jordan Jones combining to tee up O’Donnell for a shot.
Joe Lewis managed to parry the Scotland man’s attempt but the respite was brief. Chris Burke, attempting to reach the rebound before the ball spun out of play, was needlessly
fouled by Shay Logan and Boyd stepped up to beat Lewis low to his right from the resulting spot-kick to claim his first Premiership goal since April.
The lead was merited, not least because the hosts were attempting to open up their opponents with incisive passing movements while the visitors were shelling long, diagonal balls for their front men. It was a tactic which was neither effective nor aesthetically pleasing and must have been as unedifying to carry out as it was to watch.
McInnes brought on Stevie May at the break to good effect but it was another substitute, Bruce Anderson, who brought the Dons level. Anderson required only five minutes to make an impact, deflecting Niall McGinn’s wayward shot beyond MacDonald from eight yards; it was Aberdeen’s first effort on target.
Alan Power came close to winning it for the hosts with a dipping shot from the edge of the penalty area but the dramatic denouement came at the other end.
Referee Bobby Madden awarded a free-kick for a challenge by Kirk Broadfoot on Graeme Shinnie, a decision so hotly disputed by the former that it resulted in a caution. However, the real punishment was delivered by Ferguson, with a right-foot shot which snuck in at the far post.
“If you have as much control of a match that we had then you have to create a few more opportunities and get the second goal, which would have put the game to bed,” said home boss Steve Clarke. “We didn’t do that. However, I don’t think anyone could have seen Aberdeen scoring twice near the end because they only had two shots on target all day.”