AT THE end of this one, Queen of the South’s 1,000-strong travelling support stood to applaud their team. One by one, the players were given a pat on the back by Allan Johnston, their promising young manager, who knew that, despite their exit from the William Hill Scottish Cup, it was they who took most of the credit.
Reduced to ten men after just 97 seconds of this fourth-round tie, when Stephen McKenna was controversially sent off for a late lunge at Borja Perez, they momentarily buckled before going on to show all of the qualities that have taken them nine points clear in the Irn-Bru Second Division.
Not only did they frustrate their SPL opponents, who were restricted to slinging the ball around in harmless areas, they carried a threat of their own and, although Nicky Clark’s second-half goal came too late to alter the outcome, it set up a nervous finale in which Kilmarnock were mighty relieved to hear the final whistle.
Nor was it clear that the red card had been justified. “I know it is a hard job for a referee but it just looked like a strong tackle,” said Johnston. “He got the ball. In my opinion it doesn’t warrant a sending-off but I am not a referee. It looks as if he was in control of the tackle.”
At the end of a week in which he has made no secret of his frustration with referees, even Kenny Shiels, the Kilmarnock manager, had sympathy with his opponents. He, after all, had been in the same position seven days earlier, when Manuel Pascali was dismissed in the early stages of their league match against St Johnstone.
“The SFA must have changed the rules,” said Shiels. “I don’t know if it is a directive from UEFA. I do not see anything wrong with the challenge. It hindered us more than it helped us. We had too much time on the ball. We made the wrong decisions.”
Perhaps dazed, and a little confused, by the early sending-off, the opening minutes were Queens’ worst spell. Paul Heffernan’s header was parried by Lee Robinson, Ryan O’Leary failed to convert the rebound and then, with just eight minutes gone, they fell behind. Perez swung in a corner that his opponents showed not the slightest interest in defending. So easy was it for the unmarked Cillian Sheridan to turn over the line that he didn’t have the brass neck to celebrate.
At that stage, it was shaping up to be a long afternoon for the visitors but, in the same way that a numerical disadvantage brought out the best in Kilmarnock last weekend, so Queens gradually gathered themselves.
In fact, apart from a shot that Jamie Fowler cracked off the crossbar, it was the Dumfries side who came closest to scoring in what remained of the first half. Chris Mitchell’s deflected free kick was gathered by Bell, and Ryan McGuffie pulled a lame shot wide after a jinking run by Clark, who then contrived to miss the best chance of the lot. When Paul Burns nudged it across to him in the six-yard box, the little striker somehow managed to squirt it by the post.
To their credit, Kilmarnock gave themselves a shake during the interval, or at least so it seemed as Sheridan twice threatened to double their lead. First, he rose to meet a cross by Danny Racchi, but didn’t get quite enough on the glancing header. Then, when the ball dropped for him 20 yards out, he smashed a left-foot volley against the crossbar.
Queens, though, kept their shape, their composure and, despite being a man short, had enough strength in their legs to remain dangerous going forward. Derek Lyle had a chance to equalise at the back post, but his shot, straight at Bell, was beaten away.
The trouble for Queens was that, when they did take it upon themselves to apply sustained pressure, they were exposed at the back, which is exactly how Kilmarnock’s second came about. When the ball was shuttled wide to Gary Harkins, his low ball across the box was sidefooted into the bottom right-hand corner by Perez.
Even then, Queens continued to play. When Clark flung himself at Ryan McGuffie’s cross, sending his header careering into the roof of the net, it was a nervous SPL side who saw out the last few minutes.