Scorers: Kilmarnock - Fowler (14), Nelson (66), Shinnie G (O.G. 80), Shiels (85); Inverness - Mckay (29, 35), Williams (90)
Bookings: Kilmarnock - Gordon; Inverness - Hayes (x2, sent off), Doran
For all the bullish pre-match talk from both camps, there was no getting away from the fact that this was a match which was practically the definition of meaningless. While Inverness still require a point to guarantee the retention if their top-tier status, a collapse of Devon Loch proportions will be required for them to be sucked into the mire.
Fortunately, though, this was no dull end-of-season affair and both teams deserved credit for their tenacious approach.
“As you know, we’re very short on strikers and we played the whole first half with Craig Levein’s system,” said Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels.
“Gary Harkins only really had half an hour in him after his hamstring injury and I had to decide whether to play him from the start or bring him on for the last 30 minutes.
“Fortunately, when we brought our forwards on in the second half we got the goals. Inverness have been a bogey team for us in the last couple of seasons so it was good to get the win.”
Jonny Hayes, yet to agree a new deal at the Caledonian Stadium, posted a warning after six minutes when he tried his luck from the edge of the penalty area with a shot which shaved the outside of Cammy Bell’s left-hand post.
It was the Scottish Communities League Cup holders who took the lead eight minutes later, however. Dean Shiels released Danny Racchi and, when Ryan Esson spilled the midfielder’s shot, club captain James Fowler was on hand to convert the rebound.
The Highlanders equalised with a goal which, while well taken, owed a great deal to dilatory defending. Hayes’ cross from the right picked out Greg Tansey, who drove the ball against the stanchion.
With the home rearguard slow to react, Richie Foran took advantage, teeing up Billy McKay for a simple finish.
McKay inflicted further damage six minutes later, arriving late in the penalty area to head home a Hayes cross from the left.
The winger had been a thorn in Kilmarnock’s flesh but he self-destructed in the 58th minute.
Having already collected a caution in the opening 45 minutes for a foul on Fowler, he made bad worse with a rash foul on Ben Gordon, leaving referee George Salmond with no option but to show the winger a second yellow card. Killie made their numerical advantage count midway through the second half.
Gordon’s cross ought to have been cut out by Esson but the goalkeeper, who didn’t enjoy one of his better afternoons, was found wanting and Michael Nelson headed home from six yards.
Shiels then showed why he’s so well regarded by his peers as he played a significant role in the goals which guaranteed his side the points.
First he surged deep into enemy territory before firing in a cross-shot from the far corner of the six-yard box.
It wasn’t goalbound but Graeme Shinnie couldn’t have known that and his attempt at a clearance saw him turn the ball into his own net.
If there as an element of fortune about that goal, there was none about the next.
Dieter van Tornhout nodded the ball on for William Gros and the striker turned Ross Tokely before expertly rolling the ball into the path of Shiels, who lashed it behind Esson.
There was still time for a consolation goal, with Steve Williams prodding home at the far post after Gordon elected not to clear Foran’s deep cross.
Inverness manager Terry Butcher probably didn’t really believe that Mr Salmond was at the top of his game yesterday.
“I thought he took refereeing to a new level,” he said.
“In all my career, I’ve never seen a better performance.”