'You don’t want to be part of the team that gets Kilmarnock relegated'

There is one slice of Kilmarnock’s history treasured by the club’s support, a faithful now agonised it is under threat of being trashed.

Kilmarnock's Rory McKenzie (left) is closed down by Hamilton's Scott McMann during the Rugby Park's last day victory - a result that could not spare them the play-offs but send them into the ties against Dundee in decent form. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

The Premiership play-off they face against Dundee, the first leg of which will be contested at Dens Park tonight, puts on the line 27 straight seasons in the Scottish top flight. Only Celtic, Aberdeen and Motherwell can make that claim.

The pandemic put-upon punters of the Ayrshire club seem exasperated that the current players have sleepwalked into this perilous situation. But Rory McKenzie would petition otherwise, the current situation giving him sleepless nights. A decade in the club’s senior ranks, the winger is genuinely pained at the thought of the club losing its place in the upper tier. He has been here before, of course. The Rugby Park side required a win over Hibs on the final day of the 2013-14 campaign to avoid being then plunged into the play-offs, where they found themselves two years later before a second-leg thumping of Falkirk saved them.

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“It’s a pride thing: you don’t want to be part of the team that gets Kilmarnock relegated, especially me. I live locally and I’d have to face that because I’m still under contract for another year,” McKenzie said. “Nobody wants us to go down. Probably the only good thing about covid is that I haven’t had to have too many conversations with the fans … seriously, though, I meet people every day and, two years ago, it was all about how well we were doing. It’s different now and I’m not stupid: I know what they’re going to say but don’t try and tell me it doesn’t mean as much to me as it does to you. We’re all hoping for two good results now and, speaking on behalf of the rest of the boys, I can say we’re all up for it.”

Manager Tommy Wright is equally at pains to stress that the “good frame of mind” in which his team are in over the play-off outcome isn’t over-confidence or bullishness but a product of their recent form. They have lost only twice in their past nine games – one of these losses, a penalty shoot-out reverse – and banged in 27 goals in that spell. A 2-0 win on the final day of the regular Premiership campaign away to Hamilton Accies on Sunday didn’t spare them their relegation trauma because Ross County took the full nine points from their closing three league games. But McKenzie believes they can draw belief from recent displays, and the goal rush underpinning them from Kyle Lafferty – who he says “has shone” with 12 goals since joining in February.

‘It’s a bit of a strange one. Barring our game with Motherwell [ a 2-0 loss three weeks ago], ourselves and Ross County found a bit of form. So it is a weird way to be going into this game, one you are in because you’ve not done well enough. I suppose that’s a good sign. Against Hamilton, we played well. We’re going in with a victory. Dundee are obviously in their position because they’ve done well and they won their play-off games. It is strange. We’re going into it in better spirits than 2016. And that occasion turned out well for us.”

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