Kilmarnock’s shirt sponsor QTS has made headlines, questioning how long they will continue to lend financial support to the club while Michael Johnston remains on the board and retains any say in the running of things. But regardless whose name is stamped on the front of the jerseys the more pressing need was for the players to start wearing their heart on their sleeves.
After back-to-back thumpings by Celtic and then Aberdeen, a win over St Johnstone and a draw away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle suggested they had found something. Their performance in this one reinforced that as they produced surely one of their best displays under Lee Clark.
Pressing the ball when defending and showing plenty of confidence in possession, they merely magnified Hearts’ failings on the night. As the hosts grew in stature and belief the longer the match progressed, Robbie Neilson’s men fell well shy of the standards and the targets he had set them.
They were too pedestrian and devoid of creative ideas in the absence of regular wingers Jamie Walker, who started on the bench, and the injured Sam Nicholson. When that is combined with their front men and their on-going struggle to find the net – with Robbie Muirhead, Bjorn Johnsen, Conor Sammon and Tony Watt mustering fewer goals between them than full-back Callum Paterson – they never really troubled their hosts.
Watt mis-kicked from a matter of yards out in the early stages, Johnsen did likewise after he had come on midway through the second half to replace Sammon, who had run the ball out at the byeline when he had a golden opportunity to level the scoring, and that pretty much summed up their threat.
The gulf between the teams should have been more evident. After all, Kilmarnock were chasing their first home win in the league this season, while their Gorgie guests were eyeing up second place in the table. A win would have seen them leapfrog Aberdeen. It was what had been demanded of them by Neilson, who had targeted a maximum nine points from nine in the lead up to the next international break. If his men managed to deliver, he said it would show how they had improved since last term.
They fell at the first hurdle, though, and it was a bruising tumble as the likes of Muirhead and Faycal Rherras were left bamboozled on one flank by the capabilities of Kilmarnock’s Souleymane Coulibaly, and the entire midfield was left looking ordinary against the energy and desire of their counterparts.
Ragged and increasingly desperate, Hearts couldn’t dig themselves out of the hole the home side had dug for them.
The last time Killie had won at Rugby Park on league duty they were battling for Premiership survival in the play-offs but more of this could defy a rerun of that angst ridden end to a season this term.
A team dogged with issues off the pitch, on it they at least have a player like Coulibaly to offer them something to smile about and he conjured up something special to cut in off the wing in the 22nd minute, creating enough space for himself to flight a curling finish past Jack Hamilton and give the home side the opener.
He had posted a warning a few minutes earlier, but that free-kick had veered just narrowly wide. Then, with 40 minutes gone, the home crowd were on their feet as Nathan Tyson’s cross was met by Coulibaly at the back post but Hamilton saved to foil the celebrations.
In the 55th minute Rory McKenzie’s effort skimmed the top of Hamilton’s bar as Killie maintained the pressure, while Stevie Smith had Hamilton scrambling back to pluck his 57th minute freekick out the air at the back post.
The defender did get the better of the Heart keeper eventually, though. In the 71st minute he skelped a screamer into the net from at least 25 yards out, to wrap up the points. There was one last chorus of “Johnston out” from the Kilmarnock support to remind of the ongoing problems off the park. But on the night, what happened on the pitch had offered them solace.