ST JOHNSTONE had been unbeaten at Rugby Park in their nine previous visits but they could have had few complaints about losing on this occasion.
They took the lead and had been the better of the two sides during the opening period but they simply failed to turn up for the second half.
It was Gary Locke’s first home league win since being confirmed as manager in March and his relief afterwards was palpable.
“Obviously, I was disappointed with the games we lost earlier in the season and I had a couple of worrying nights but I think today showed what I’ve always known: That this is what we’re capable of,” he said.
Willie Collum is rarely far from controversy these days and the referee attracted the ire of the home support after only seven minutes when he cautioned Craig Slater for a mistimed challenge on Michael O’Halloran. At least Slater was attempting to intervene, which was more than could be said about the home rearguard at Saints’ opener.
Graham Cummins rose unchallenged to head a cross from Brian Easton against Jamie MacDonald’s right-hand post and, with Killie ball-watching, David Wotherspoon fired home from the rebound.
The visitors were dominant and O’Halloran evaded three challenges before delivering a cutback for John Sutton, whose attempted conversion was deflected by Stuart Findlay.
Kilmarnock, for their part, failed to trouble Alan Mannus until six minutes from the interval, when Josh Magennis beat his fellow Irishman with a glancing header from Greg Kiltie’s inswinging delivery.
The striker celebrated by making shushing signs in the general direction of a St Johnstone fan who had been taunting him earlier in the match. “It was just banter,” according to the forward.
Liam Craig ought to have restored Saints’ lead immediately after the restart when Cummins picked out the midfielder with a low cross but it fell to his less-favoured right foot and he sliced his shot horribly wide.
Steven Anderson, who had replaced the injured Darnell Fisher at the break, was cautioned for a professional foul on Rory McKenzie.
Killie lost goalkeeper MacDonald, who had injured an ankle during Craig’s miss and was replaced by the inexperienced Conor Brennan.
McKenzie came close with a curling right-foot shot at the end of a 30-yard run as Gary Locke’s side began to make home advantage pay for the first period and the wide man played a key role when they took the lead on the hour. His cross would not have troubled Mannus but it took a wicked deflection off full-back Brian Easton as he attempted to smother the ball and it looped, agonisingly slowly, over the keeper and under his crossbar for a cruel own goal.
“The goal’s disappointing because it was a bit freakish,” said Saints manager Tommy Wright. “But what bothers me is that we had three, four, maybe even five chances to clear the ball during that build-up and we got punished because we didn’t do that.
“We started reasonably well and were in control but we didn’t pass the ball well enough or often enough, particularly in the second half.”
McKenzie could have got his name on the scoresheet when another mazy run left him with only Mannus to beat but his shot was parried and Kiltie, following up, drove the loose ball against the far post.
Killie held on for a victory which, over the piece, they merited. For St Johnstone, who face ebullient Rangers at Ibrox on Tuesday in the League Cup, there may be trouble ahead.
“I haven’t been happy for a while about the number of goals we’ve been conceding,” said Wright. “That has to stop and we have to get better.”
n Kilmarnock goalkeeper MacDonald is likely to miss out on facing his former club when Hearts visit Rugby Park on Wednesday in the second round of the League Cup.
He was replaced by Brennan, recently recalled from a loan at Stranraer, after 53 minutes of yesterday’s 2-1 win over St Johnstone.
“We’ll assess him tomorrow but it’ll be a big blow if it’s anything serious,” said manager Gary Locke.
“His ankle and his knee got caught when a cross came in.”