Kilmarnock’s resurgence under manager Steve Clarke was underlined by this victory, which saw them finish ten points clear of yesterday’s sixth-placed opponents with a top-tier record haul of 59 points.
Clarke has wrought a transformation at the Ayrshire club which fully merits the manager of the year award he received from the Scottish Football Writers Association in Glasgow last night.
Bottom of the table and without a victory when the 54-year-old replaced Lee McCulloch in October, he has welded the same group of players into a formidable force. This was his 17th success in 30 Premiership fixtures, a win ratio of 56.66 per cent.
To put that into perspective, Craig Levein, his opposite number yesterday, who works with a budget almost twice the size of Clarke’s, has a ratio of 31.6 per cent.
To his credit, though, Levein has given youth a chance and, albeit that his hand was forced by injuries, that was underlined at Rugby Park.
With the visitors starting with five teenagers (including 16-year-old debutants in right-back Cameron Logan and central defender Chris Hamilton), it was hardly surprising that they found themselves on the back foot during the early stages.
There were fewer than three minutes on the clock when Stephen O’Donnell rampaged down the right flank and cut the ball back for Greg Kiltie, whose drive was beaten away by Jack Hamilton. Kiltie was then released by a superb reverse pass from Youssouf Mulumbu but the midfielder took too long to get his shot away and his effort was blocked.
Another incisive through ball from Mulumbu left Aaron Tshibola with only Hamilton to beat but the goalkeeper spread himself to make the save. The goal was coming, however, and it came when Harry Cochrane, the 17-year-old holding midfielder, saw a square ball intercepted by Lee Erwin, who burst into the penalty area before sending a low, left-foot drive inside the far post from 15 yards.
Kris Boyd was inches away from claiming his 24th goal of a productive campaign when Logan brought down Erwin on the edge of the 18-yard box and the veteran striker’s attempt from the resulting free-kick curled just the wrong side of Hamilton’s left-hand post.
Levein’s boys offered little as an attacking force but leading scorer Kyle Lafferty spurned two opportunities inside a minute midway through the first half. First he manufactured an opening for himself only for Stuart Findlay’s challenge to smother his effort and then, sent clear by David Milinkovic, he placed his shot too close to Jamie MacDonald, who diverted it behind for a corner.
Hearts then became even younger a minute from half-time, when 16-year-old Connor Smith made his bow as a substitute for Cochrane. Leeroy Makovora, also 16, was introduced in the 65th minute as the match began to resemble one of those teachers v pupils games at primary school.
Euan Henderson, a comparative veteran at 17, became the eighth teenager to be fielded by Levein yesterday when he replaced the tiring Anthony McDonald. In truth, the final 45 minutes of the campaign for both clubs was something of an anticlimax, with few chances created and players’ thoughts turning to the beach.
Kilmarnock ought to have been awarded a penalty-kick eight minutes from the end when Chris Hamilton clearly took the legs from Stephen O’Donnell but referee Stephen Finnie, who retired after this game, failed to point to the spot.
Jack Hamilton produced the save of the match immediately afterwards when he turned over a piledriver from Kris Boyd after the former Rangers and Scotland man had been teed up by Erwin.
Chris Burke and Eamonn Brophy then combined to provide Erwin with a sitter but the goalkeeper somehow got across to save his scuffed shot from a yard out.
Killie moved through the gears in the closing minutes and centre-back Stuart Findlay bulleted a header from Burke’s corner just over the bar but Hearts held firm.
Hamilton produced more heroics, diving to his right to clutch a drive from Brophy and then beating away a rising shot from Erwin at his near post. The scoreline would suggest that Hearts took nothing from this game but, in terms of the experience gained by the junior Jambos here, nothing could be further from the truth.