St Johnstone 0 - 1 Kilmarnock: Killie hold off late seige

Kilmarnock Manager Gary Locke gives out instructions. Picture: SNS
Kilmarnock Manager Gary Locke gives out instructions. Picture: SNS
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IT survived a midweek deluge, an overnight plunge in temperatures and match referee Kevin Clancy was roused early from his bed to pass the McDiarmid Park surface fit for purpose.

And the pitch had barely been besmirched when midfielder Craig Slater netted the early free-kick which eased Kilmarnock past a Perth side which sits fourth in the Premiership table with a League Cup semi-final looming with Hibs.

But in a dramatic stoppage time siege, Tommy Wright’s 2014 cup winners were denied a replay by heroics from Kiliie keeper Jamie MacDonald.

With his goalmouth being bombarded by an increasingly desperate Perth side, MacDonald defied the odds to launch himself into point blank saves to thwart substitutes John Sutton and Graham Cummins, with skipper Dave Mackay also unable to end his resistance.

Not surprisingly, relieved Kilmarnock players made straight for their keeper at the full-time whistle, with his interventions ensuring under scrutiny manager Gary Locke could build on the confidence building league draw with Hearts.

Locke said: “Quite rightly two or three weeks back we got a bit of criticism but we have responded.

“We looked the team I expect us to be. We won’t get carried away but you have to play well to win here.

“They are flying high so I am delighted with the performance.

“They threw everything at us. But Jamie has done that on a consistent basis all season. If there is a better keeper I have yet to see him.”

Inevitably, the Perth pitch, which failed an inspection last Sunday as the visit of Aberdeen was washed away, quickly began to cut up but not before the visitors had nosed in front.

Earlier in the week, KiIlie prodigy Greg Kiltie penned a two and a half year contract extension to fend off admirers on both sides of the border and his trickery enticed Perth midfielder Chris Millar into a costly trip on the edge of the penalty area.

That teed-up an opportunity for Slater to take aim from 22 yards and the perfectly executed sixth minute free-kick swept beyond keeper Alan Mannus to nestle in the corner of the net.

Keeper Mannus, who was being watched along with Rugby Park striker Josh Magennis by Northern Ireland assistant Jimmy Nicholl with a view to the summer’s European Championships, was relieved to watch an 18-yard snapshot from his international colleague soar over the crossbar.

Then Magennis sensed another opportunity in the 18th minute but under pressure from central defender Joe Shaughnessy the Irishman’s chest control let him down and the chance to shoot passed him by.

Saints were searching for a spark but midfielder David Wotherspoon failed to provide it with an ambitious 25th minute free-kick which landed in the empty stand behind the visitors’ goal. Home midfielder Murray Davidson clattered Stevie Smith to earn a caution before Magennis twice threatened to double Killie’s advantage in the space of 60 seconds.

The striker tested Mannus from the tightest of angles at his near post six minutes from the interval and from Smith’s resultant corner Magennis held his head in his hands after powering a solid connection inches past the target.

And the keeper had to be alert to thwart Magennis at the expense of a corner kick as the Ayrshire side resumed in positive fashion.

A cheeky back heel by Rory McKenzie to flummox Mackay in the penalty area hinted at the confidence oozing through the youthful Killie ranks but his cross was headed over by supporting midfielder Adam Frizzell from close range.

Saints, without a goal in their previous three games, were lacking creativity, although Chris Kane failed to tame a driven cross from O’Halloran near the hour mark.

McDonald was finally tested in the 63rd minute when Wotherspoon played a wall pass with Davidson and speared a shot for the top corner before the keeper snaked out a glove, although he rode his luck from Brian Easton’s corner with a miscued punch.

Perth manager Wright replaced his strikers with Sutton and Cummins in search of an equaliser and with his first touch unmarked Sutton wasted a gilt-edged chance, leaning back and pushing Wotherspoon’s miscued shot over the crossbar.

Then Conrad Balatoni encapsulated Killie’s dogged resistance with a stretching block to thwart Millar from close range.

The Saints was forced to limp off with a recurrence of a hamstring strain but 10-man Saints threw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at Killie.

Perth manager Wright said: “Those saves from Jamie MacDonald were horrible. But as an ex-keeper myself I know it’s not down to luck. Keepers practice that.

“You have to play for 90 minutes and you could say we got what we deserved.

“We had all the chances we needed to possibly go on and win it. But we didn’t do it.”