An injury-time header from Stuart Findlay handed new Kilmarnock manager Angelo Alessio a win in his first match in charge as the Ayrshire club completed a dramatic comeback to win their first European tie for 18 years.
Life after Steve Clarke looked like getting off to a truly dreadful start when Connah’s Quay took a shock second-half lead with just 15 minutes left after Greg Taylor put the ball into his own goal in what was really their first attack of the game.
Killie dominated, but found it a deeply uncomfortable night in Rhyl before getting their rewards with two goals inside the last nine minutes, Eamonn Brophy equalising from the penalty spot before Findlay’s late heroics. They will be strong favourites to finish the job next week in Rugby Park and earn a tie in the next round of the Europa League against Partizan Belgrade.
Killie were only officially allocated 802 tickets from the 1,464-capacity Belle Vue stadium – home of Rhyl FC – but many more had travelled to North Wales and some had found ingenious ways of gaining entry – the match ball was sponsored by a group of Killie supporters!
The first teamsheet from Alessio, pictured, was very much in an “as you were” direction from his predecessor, with perhaps the only surprise being goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald getting the nod ahead of on-loan Juventus keeper Laurentiu Branescu. Fellow new signing Mohamed El Makrini was also on the bench. Dom Thomas was handed another chance, too, after a loan spell with Dumbarton last season.
Thomas had a chance to make an early impression on Alessio when he found space to latch on to a Stephen O’Donnell through pass, but he failed to wrap his leg round the ball and was off balance with his eventual effort skidding wide.
Although Killie were dictating matters, they were finding it difficult to unlock the massed ranks of the Nomads defence and create any real clear-cut chances. O’Donnell was thwarted on the half-hour mark by another excellent block, this time by home captain George Horan. Connah’s Quay keeper Lewis Brass was already being warned by the Belgian ref at this stage for time-wasting.
Killie stepped it up as the first half came to a close with Brophy firing just wide, and the Scots were also denied a strong shout for a penalty when a Thomas cross appeared to strike the arm of Declan Poole.
The half ended on an unsavoury note with home keeper Brass unhappy with the Killie supporters behind his goal as he took issue with some of their chanting towards him.
Brass got his revenge on those Killie fans when he pulled off a fantastic save from a deflected Stephen O’Donnell effort when he showed terrific reflections to somehow scoop the ball on to the junction of the bar and post after a Chris Burke corner. However, it had taken almost an hour for Brass to make a save of note.
Killie were hit by a massive hammer blow with 15 minutes to go when Connah’s Quay opened the scoring when they swept the ball wide to Callum Roberts and his cross was turned into his own goal by Taylor, who was under pressure but had to do better.
The goal completely took the wind out of Killie’s sails and they were now staring down the real prospect of humiliation, but they were given a lifeline with nine minutes to go when they were awarded a penalty after Roberts stumbled into Burke in the box. Brophy stepped up to rattle the resulting spot kick down the middle and level matters.
Killie went all out for the win their possession deserved as Connah’s Quay visibly wilted, and they got it with practically their last act in the game when Findlay was unmarked from a Burke corner and nodded in an injury-time winner.