We may score four against Rangers, says upbeat Kenny Shiels

KILMARNOCK manager Kenny Shiels knows how it looks, that today’s home match against Rangers has all the hallmarks of a processional.

In their last two league matches at Rugby Park, Killie have conceded nine, including six against the SPL’s bottom side, Inverness. Rangers, by contrast, are flying: unbeaten in the league, they have won all seven of their SPL matches on the road.

The last time the two sides met at Rugby Park was on the last day of last season when Rangers beat them 5-1. The Ibrox side won the league that day, saying goodbye to Walter Smith in imperious style. No wonder the bookies have Killie as 6/1 underdogs.

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“I’m trying to put that Rangers game to the back of my memory,” says Shiels, who says that Killie were on a hiding to nothing that day. “Kilmarnock were fifth and couldn’t finish fourth. Rangers had to win to finish as champions and were highly motivated, where we had players who were going to other clubs, several injuries, midfield players drafted into the back four; we just didn’t really have a team. A lot of Kilmarnock fans didn’t come to the game because they didn’t want to see Rangers celebrate, and that was difficult to take. We were three goals down after seven minutes and it was party on for Rangers after that.”

Yet Shiels remains optimistic ahead of today’s match. Rangers could be without Lee McCulloch, Kyle Bartley, Sasa Papac and Lee Wallace, while Gregg Wylde is suspended and David Weir and Steven Naismith are sidelined. More importantly, he says, the form Kilmarnock have displayed in their other key clashes this season – notably against Motherwell, Hearts and especially Celtic – provides grounds for optimism.

“Rather than look back to last season I’d rather concentrate on what we can achieve against Rangers if we play as we have done this season,” said the Northern Irishman. “We’ve built this team in a small amount of time yet no-one has dominated the ball against us. Even Inverness didn’t dominate the ball.”

The recent 3-3 home draw against Celtic, where Kilmarnock should have won, provides the greatest succour. “That was the only time in the history of the SPL that Celtic have conceded three goals in the first half, but when you assess our performance against Celtic we don’t see the fact that we scored three goals in the first half or drew the game 3-3 as a freak, it’s something we expect from our players. Who knows, maybe we’ll score four against Rangers.”

Far from being a one-off, Shiels says that performance against Celtic was symptomatic of a season when Killie have deserved much but received little. His priority now is to patch up his defence but he also needs to work out how to stop Rangers talisman Steve Davis, a player who Shiels coached with the Northern Ireland under-17s. “Steve’s totally professional, a pied piper captain who leads by example,” says Shiels. “He reminds me of David Weir: you won’t find either of them diving, complaining to the referee or going out to hurt other players.”

Shiels knows, however, that Davis can hurt Kilmarnock – and that he will unless the Killie manager can finally persuade his nearly men to discover the winners within.