Kilmarnock moved above Hearts into fifth place with this comfortable victory over ten-man St Johnstone, who were a man short for 48 minutes but who never looked like making a fist of it even with a full complement.
Steve Clarke’s men oozed confidence throughout and the transformation he has wrought in five months at the club make him a contender for the Manager of the Year award this season.
The hosts were on the front foot from the start. Kris Boyd was inches away from making contact with Greg Taylor’s glancing header from Aaron Tshibola’s cross and Jordan Jones had fans off their seats as he slalomed through the Saints defence in the seventh minute, but his execution did not match his approach play and Alan Mannus saved his shot comfortably.
With the visitors content to hit on the break, the onus was on Killie to make things happen and Boyd went close with a low, left-footed drive from the edge of the 18-yard box.
Chris Millar was extremely fortunate not to receive a caution for a challenge on Gary Dicker which was both high and late, but referee Willie Collum chose to keep his cards in his pocket. That state of affairs would not last long.
Jones caused problems every time he was on the ball and an audacious piece of improvisation by the Northern Ireland star led to the breakthrough goal. He cut in to the centre and then suddenly dipped his shoulder while simultaneously knocking the ball against full-back Aaron Comrie in order to create some space for himself inside the penalty area.
Comrie, attempting to rectify the situation, merely worsened it, his desperate lunge taking the legs from Jones, thus allowing Boyd, pictured, to emphatically drill the inevitable spot-kick behind Mannus. It was the 34-year-old’s 12th goal in 14 games; Scotland manager Alex McLeish, who signed him for Rangers in 2006, must wish he was five years younger.
The full-back’s misery was compounded when he was booked for a foul on Jones after being nutmegged by him. Saints manager Tommy Wright clearly believed the latter had made the most of the contact, prompting Jones to shush him. Saints couldn’t keep him quiet, though, and he made another major contribution three minutes from the interval.
Dispossessing Millar 35 yards out, he hared in on goal and was brought down by Jason Kerr. Collum could not produce the red card quickly enough and Boyd’s free-kick from 20 yards narrowly cleared the crossbar.
Killie could have been further ahead before half-time. Jordan had a shot saved by Mannus, Lee Erwin hit the post with a rasping drive and Aaron Tshibola netted the rebound, only to have his celebrations curtailed by an offside flag.
The pattern remained unchanged after the break. The home side continued to surge forward at every opportunity and Boyd sent a glancing header wide from Jones’ pinpoint cross. It resembled the Alamo at times; Jones, wreaking havoc on the left flank, created an opening for Erwin, who sliced his shot wastefully wide.
As long as the winning margin remained at one goal, there was a puncher’s chance for the Perth club; alas, that hope evaporated when Erwin produced a more acceptable finish in the 58th minute, curling home a left-foot shot from 18 yards.
Substitute Kyle McLean became the third Saints player to be booked for halting Jones illegally, but this was a display by the visitors which has desperation stamped on it.
Erwin played in Stephen O’Donnell but Mannus’s outstretched leg thwarted the full-back.
Only Partick Thistle have scored fewer away goals than St Johnstone this season and at no stage did they seriously look like adding to their meagre tally of 12 from 15 fixtures. Having regularly qualified for Europe in recent seasons, they are now in a relegation battle. Just one win from their last ten league games has left them only six points above Partick Thistle in the play-off position.