Kilmarnock defender Mark Connolly was not being disingenuous or disrespectful when he claimed that the Ayrshire club have no reason to feel any trepidation ahead of the visit of reigning champions Celtic to Rugby Park tomorrow night.
By then, depending on results elsewhere today, Ronny Deila’s side could find themselves behind both Aberdeen and Dundee United and level on points with Hamilton, by the time they kick off in Ayrshire.
Connolly was born and bred in Monaghan, which has a large Celtic-supporting community (including his relatives, who will benefit from complimentary tickets tomorrow) but the former Republic of Ireland Under-21 international has no emotional ties with the club and was speaking quite dispassionately when he gave his assessment of the current Parkhead squad. Celtic have fallen behind in the title race after losing to Dundee United, drawing with bottom club Ross County and seeing their Ne’erday fixture at Firhill postponed and Connolly insists that the prospect of facing them should not frighten any Premiership team.
“There’s a few Celtic fans from where I live but my job – and I was delighted to be captain against St Mirren on New Year’s Day – is to get a result for Kilmarnock and I will be giving everything to do that,” said the 23-year-old.
“My family was over for New Year so they’ll get the Monday game then fly home Tuesday. My dad and his brother-in-law will go.
“There’s no divided loyalties – it’s Kilmarnock on Monday. No matter who I play for, that’s who they’ll be supporting. Where I’m from there are a few Celtic fans around but I supported Arsenal when I was younger. Since I moved over I haven’t really supported any teams – whoever I play for is the team I follow.”
Deila, whose team selections and tactics have regularly baffled observers, will find himself under increasing scrutiny should Celtic drop more points at Rugby Park – particularly the decision to reschedule Saturday’s home game against St Johnstone in order to play friendlies against Sparta Prague and PSV Eindhoven in Gran Canaria, if, as most would anticipate, league leaders Aberdeen beat St Mirren in Paisley.
“It’s unusual to be playing Celtic with them needing to win to get back on top of the league at this time of year,” said Connolly.
“I don’t think that really makes it harder for us because it doesn’t matter who we are playing – Celtic or St Mirren – we need to get results as much as they do.
“We want to get into the top six and they are obviously up there to win the league. It’s going to be a tricky game but, hopefully, we can get ourselves ready to have an upset on the cards.
“We totally take encouragement from the points Celtic have been dropping. I’m new to the league – I’ve only come up this year and don’t fear anyone.
“It’s different if you’ve been in the league and know the players and teams but I came here with an open mind.
“OK, we’ve been beaten by Celtic already and Rangers in the cup. But I don’t fear playing them and I don’t think anyone else should right now.
“At Parkhead, we started quite well until [Manuel] Pascali got sent off and I think it’s difficult enough with 11 men there. We defended quite well with ten men and were a bit unlucky.
“If we hadn’t a man sent off I reckon that could’ve been a different story. Hopefully, on Monday we can change that result.”
Kilmarnock will at least enter the fray with renewed confidence after beating Hamilton Accies and St Mirren in their last two outings, results which ended any concerns about being sucked into the relegation zone.
Connolly argues that, consequently, Allan Johnston’s men are now better placed to provide an upset tomorrow.
“Just sticking together has got us out the wee blip in results,” he said. “We’ve got good players and those wins we had earlier in the season weren’t down to luck.
“We played well, worked hard together and I think that we’ve recently gone back to the basics and re-started doing what we were doing before.
“I wonder if we were doing so well that we took our foot off the gas a little bit. That made it difficult.
“Look at St Mirren – if you’re down there and not winning games your confidence is low and you could see that [on Thursday]. The first half the wind was up and we were passing the ball and you could see they were getting frustrated because they wanted to do that but the confidence just wasn’t there.
“We’ve got our belief back from the last few games. It’s good to get a couple of wins again.”