Losing your final game of the regular season at home to a side that’s finished bottom of the table and never came from behind to win in the league is not exactly ideal preparation for facing a rampant Falkirk side brimming with confidence.
However, the reality is that Kilmarnock were willing to sacrifice this meaningless game if it meant they got through the 90 minutes without losing any first-team regulars for the play-off final.
At 2-1 up and in charge of the contest, manager Lee Clark moved to substitute Conrad Balatoni and Lee Hodson, the only regular starters in the back four, because both had picked up bookings. While the Killie boss obviously wanted to give his side momentum going into the play-offs, his eye was on the bigger picture and the late concession of three soft goals was looked upon as collateral damage.
“It was a tough balancing act today,” admitted Clark. “It’s disappointing but Thursday and Sunday are too big for us to take any risks.”
Peter Houston was in attendance as part of the BT Sport team, but the Falkirk boss would only have had to take a glimpse of the Kilmarnock line-up to know there was very little to learn from this encounter. There was no Kris Boyd, no Josh Magennis or Greg Kiltie, with two players making their full debuts in Alex Henshall and Greg Taylor, while Tobe Obadeyi led the attack.
The visitors had a similarly experimental line-up, and it contributed to them starting the stronger of the two sides. With nothing to play for other than pride, outgoing interim boss Gordon Young opted for a 4-2-4 system in attack with youngsters Matthew Smith and Justin Johnson, in the wide roles, pushed up either side of a Simon Murray-Edward Ofere strike-force. Johnson, in particular, caused Kilmarnock all sorts of problems with his pace, Jamie MacDonald forced into an early stop after Johnson sprinted through on the angle. By the next time the Dutch teenager went close, forcing MacDonald into a stop at the front post, United had taken the lead, Scott Fraser’s corner headed home by an unmarked Mark Durnan.
After Coll Donaldson went close with a low drive, Kilmarnock eventually started to get to grips with the game and controlled large portions prior to the late collapse. They levelled on 27 minutes when Kallum Higginbotham stabbed the ball home after John Rankin was short with his pass back to Luis Zwick, who himself was at fault for failing to deal properly with a routine Craig Slater shot.
Rankin, playing in his final game for the club, committed another grave error seven minutes later, conceding possession to Higginbotham who fed Obadeyi and the attacker kept his cool to lift the ball over MacDonald.
Similar to Hibs the night before, Kilmarnock couldn’t put the game to bed when 2-1 up and well on top. Rory McKenzie saw his route to goal blocked by last-ditch challenge from Durnan before, on the very next attack, Higginbotham fired a low shot wide. Henshall then struck the base of the post shortly before United began their fightback.
Murray continued his terrific form with two fine goals, the first coming after he received a pass from Fraser, shook off two defenders and placed the ball beyond the keeper.
After Zwick bailed out his defence with a save from Adam Frizzell, Murray repeated his heroics, this time stepping inside from the left and swerving a low shot past MacDonald into the far corner.
United then completed the scoring when young subs Bradley Smith and Harry Souttar combined for the latter – brother of former United centre back John – to head home.