Kilmarnock have made sure that a season that has delivered so richly will crackle with anticipation all the way to the final day.
A comfortable victory over Hibernian at Rugby Park took them back above Aberdeen on goal difference as the two teams battle for third place and the automatic Europa League qualifying slot. But as the capital club demonstrated little fight on the park, off it their manager could not resist a verbal lunge.
Unhappy with the penalty decision that led to the only goal of the game, Paul Heckingbottom obviously felt that the jostling between his captain, David Gray, and Alex Bruce at a corner, did not warrant Andrew Dallas’ decision to gift Eamonn Brophy the opportunity to net the decisive goal from the spot. When he passed his former Sheffield Wednesday team-mate on the way into his press conference, there was an angry exchange as the Leith boss called Bruce a “diver” before going on to add: “You can see it’s soft. Alex felt contact, went down and the ref has seen it. The ref might have been watching from something before that incident, I don’t know.”
But neither he nor his counterpart Steve Clarke, who admitted that it wasn’t the most blatant penalty he had ever seen, quibbled about the fact that it ensured the better team won.
“We won’t be reliant on referees,” said Heckingbottom, who accepted that his men had been well off their top level but said that with their league position already determined, there were reasons for the disappointing display. “It would have been harsh on Killie if they’d not won but when it’s decisions like that it’s down to interpretation. You want consistency, it could go either way.”
Kilarnock were the team in the driving seat throughout the match. Having watched Aberdeen leapfrog them with a win over Hearts on Friday night, they needed three points to regain the advantage and ensure that they head into their final fixture at home to Rangers next Sunday simply needing to match Aberdeen’s result when they travel to Easter Road the same afternoon.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Clarke, who will consider his future after the campaign ends, with a move back south mooted, while he remains a frontrunner for the vacant Scotland job. “Credit to the players. It’s nice to be in the position we are but it’s a tough game next week.”
Describing the thought of finishing third as “tremendous”, he maintained that regardless the outcome of the last game, everyone at the club could be proud of their season.
“We have already achieved so much this season so we go into next week with no pressure and try to finish the job the supporters want us to finish.”
It is a measure of the quality and self-belief of the players and management at Kilmarnock that in a game which had so much riding on it, their failure to convert their superiority into more than one goal did not translate into an edgy final spell.
Brophy’s 32nd minute penalty should have been one of at least a couple of goals but an inspired showing from Hibs keeper Ofir Marciano, denied them that comfort zone. If nerves were jangling, though, they didn’t manifest themselves in an obvious way as Kilmarnock resisted the urge to simply sit back and batten the hatches and instead continued to sniff out a decisive second goal right to the final whistle.
Before the goal there had been a spell of concerted pressure from the home side. With fullback Greg Taylor’s cross-cum-shot rattling the woodwork and Chris Burke, who was a thorn in the visitors’ side, sending in a corner which was met by Gary Dicker, who forced a stunningly good close range save from Marciano.
After the break Brophy burst onto a long ball but instead of squeezing it inside the far post, he steered it just wide, and the Israeli keeper had to be alert when Taylor also chased in on goal, getting there ahead of the Killie man to deny him a shot and he then dropped low to deny Brophy at the near post.
Hibs had looked impotent throughout but a triple substitution in the 65th minute gave them more bite, as Thomas Agyepong’s pace cut them open and forced Bachmann to tip a late drive over the bar.
But if there were jitters in the stand, on the pitch Killie remained composed and the one goal proved more than enough.