Kilmarnock geared up for their Scottish Cup quarter-final replay with Aberdeen here on Tuesday with a ninth win from their last ten home games.
County threatened to rain on their parade with two late goals but, in truth, the Highlanders were second best throughout and the dismal run which began under previous manager Owen Coyle has continued under his successor, Stuart Kettlewell.
While Steve Clarke’s men have now lost only one of their last 17 games, County have won only one of theirs and they look doomed to join their near neighbours, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, in the second tier next season.
Unsurprisingly, Clarke preferred to accentuate the positive aspects of his side’s display.
“I’d rather concentrate on the first 86 minutes because I thought we were excellent,” he said. “We lost concentration in the last few minutes and if that happens at any level then you tend to get punished.
“Results on Friday and today have gone for us and it’s beginning to look as though we might sneak into the top six but we’re keeping our feet on the ground. There are still points to play for before the split.”
Given the contrasting fortunes of these sides, it was no surprise that the hosts went for the jugular right from the start. Even without injured Northern Ireland winger Jordan Jones, Kilmarnock sprayed the ball around with the patience and poise that only confidence can bring and Lee Erwin ought to have opened the scoring inside the opening 10 minutes.
Full-back Stephen O’Donnell, supporting his forwards, picked out the striker 15 yards out but, with time to pick his spot, he mishit his attempt and Aaron McCarey was able to make the save.
He did not have long to wait to make amends, however. Greg Kiltie, starting his first Premiership match of the campaign, once again released O’Donnell on the right but this time, when his lofted cross came in, Erwin bundled the ball home from six yards for his fifth goal of the campaign.
Killie looked comfortable but Kirk Broadfoot took one for the team when he collected a caution for a cynical foul on Michael Gardyne. The visitors were willing enough but lacked guile in the final third.
The impressively athletic O’Donnell caused problems again on the stroke of half-time with a delivery which Aaron Tshibola headed over when he would have expected to hit the target but McCarey kept his side in contention with an acrobatic leap to tip over a dipping 25-yarder from Rory McKenzie in first-half stoppage time.
He might as well not have bothered because, within a minute of the restart, Killie had doubled their lead. Kiltie sent substitute Aaron Simpson clear on the left and his cross was drilled home by top scorer Kris Boyd for his 19th goal of the season.
Boyd could have reached the 20 mark shortly afterwards when Erwin’s incisive pass left him one-on-one with McCarey but the goalkeeper saved bravely at th striker’s feet.
In fairness, Kettlewell rang the changes but could not alter the pattern of the play, with the Ayrshire side looking more likely to score again than to concede. And so it proved. With an eye to Tuesday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final replay against Aberdeen at Rugby Park, Boyd was replaced by Eamonn Brophy for the final 18 minutes and the latter, who turned 22 yesterday, marked the occasion with a goal.
There was an element of fortune involved; Brophy had attempted to play in Rory McKenzie but, when the midfielder’s control let him down, the ball broke back to the former Hamilton man and he drove it into the roof of the net from an acute angle.
A moment of slackness from Tshibola saw the midfielder cheaply concede possession deep inside his own half and substitute Billy McKay scored a consolation goal for the visitors with a deft finish.
Alex Schalk then briefly raised hopes of an unlikely (and undeserved) salvage operation when he fired home from Michael Gardyne’s cross but Killie regrouped and held on to move four points clear of sixth-placed Hearts.
“[Full-back] Greg Taylor has a dead leg but should be okay [for the Aberdeen tie] in the next 48 hours,” said Clarke. “Jordan Jones has an outside chance of being fit for Tuesday – he’ll be in for treatment and the physio will be working overtime.”