With Kilmarnock gunning for their highest league finish since 1966 and confirmation of European football next season, there was almost a cruel twist of irony on 66 minutes when a double blow looked to have put a downer on what is expected to be Steve Clarke’s final game in charge. Then with two minutes remaining Stephen O’Donnell got in behind Borna Barisic, the Rangers left-back brought him down, Willie Collum pointed to the spot, and Eamonn Brophy stepped up to write his name into Rugby Park history.
Aberdeen’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory at Easter Road was ultimately for nothing, as the Dons finished in fourth place a spot behind the Ayrshire side on goal difference, and will have to wait on the winner of next week’s Scottish Cup final to see if they will be playing European football next season.
With their manager appearing certain to become the next Scotland boss, thereby bringing his highly successful 19-month spell at Kilmarnock to a close, the home side got the perfect ending as Brophy’s nerves-of-steel spot-kick added to Chris Burke’s early opener to give them a narrow victory. Alfredo Morelos’ 30th goal of the season had set up the grandstand finish. The striker netted at almost the exact same time as Aberdeen had found their winner in Leith, as the Dons went temporarily into third.
Clarke, banned from the touchline due to a recent two-game ban handed down by his potential future employers at the Scottish FA, spoke on the pitch after the game. After receiving a thunderous applause from the support, he insisted that Killie didn’t want Hibs to do them any favours, nor Celtic in the cup final next week. They wanted to defeat Rangers and win it on their own patch. And that’s exactly what they did.
They almost got off to the worst possible start when an uncharacteristically sloppy piece of play from Stuart Findlay allowed Morelos to go through. Making his first start since his red card in the 2-1 defeat at Celtic in March, the Colombian fired his finish right at Jamie MacDonald, who then saw Daniel Candeias’ follow rattle off the underside of the crossbar and bounce away.
Within a minute the home side were in front. Youssouf Mulumbu, playing in what could be his last game for the club before his loan from Celtic expires, was able to rob Glen Kamara in Rangers’ territory. He then lifted a beautifully weighted pass through for Chris Burke. The former Ibrox winger coolly slotted beyond Wes Foderingham and into the far corner. Rangers almost hit back immediately, but Ryan Kent’s deflected shot brought out a terrific one-handed save from MacDonald.
The party atmosphere inside Rugby Park was lifted further in the 29th minute when it was revealed that Hibs were defeating Aberdeen. It wasn’t the best of news for Rangers supporters in attendance hoping to see the bubble burst, though they were at least given a laugh after half-time when the stadium announcer read out the score from Easter Road, only to reveal seconds later that Aberdeen had, in fact, equalised.
It would have been academic had Killie finished a glorious opportunity two minutes into the second period. Mulumbu managed to sneak in around the back of the defence and was in the perfect position as Eamonn Brophy’s deflected shot landed at his feet. He looked set to walk the ball into the net, but Foderingham was somehow able to get a hand to it. Brophy’s follow up was then blocked as Rangers were able to clear.
At the other end, MacDonald had to be out sharpish to deflect a Candeias cross away from Morelos, while Alan Power almost netted what would’ve been an excellent solo goal, only to sky his finish.
Killie then received their double blow. Ryan Jack’s running created space for Kent on the left. When his low cross found Morelos the striker made no mistake, lashing it beyond MacDonald. Just as the Killie support were digesting this gut punch, news came swiftly through from Easter Road that Aberdeen had taken the lead. Things weren’t helped when MacDonald, deputising for the injured Daniel Bachmann, was forced off after failing to shake off the effects of an earlier collision with Morelos.
The hosts thought they had their winner on 81 minutes when a Rory McKenzie shot to the back post was finished by substitute Liam Millar, but the effort was ruled out for offside.
Despite the numerous setbacks, there remained a feeling of inevitability that this team, in Clarke’s final game, would not fall short. And so it proved when Barisic clumsily knocked O’Donnell over. Brophy faced an unknown opponent in Andy Firth, making his Rangers debut after Foderingham was forced off injured, but he expertly thumped the ball into the corner.
There was almost a late sting in the tale but Jermain Defoe could only stab a pass from Connor Goldson wide from close range deep into stoppage time.