WITHIN the space of an hour and a half Kilmarnock veered from the ridiculously bad to the sublimely impressive.
For much of the first 45 minutes they were execrable, devoid of inspiration and apparently short on perspiration. After the break, though, they were a side transformed: artful, incisive and purposeful. It was a metamorphosis that was as welcome as it was unexpected.
From trailing by a controversial goal with less than ten minutes of the first half remaining, and looking like they could play all day without scoring, the home side proceeded to dismantle fellow strugglers Inverness. In just over 20 minutes, Jim Jefferies' previously pitiful side fashioned four goals that culminated with a superb Iain Flannigan drive that was the end product of a 20-pass movement that had the crowd shouting "ol" for almost two minutes.
That fourth Killie goal was the coup de grace in a match that had looked finely poised after a gruesome first half in which both sides played like teams shackled by the fear of failure. Indeed, apart from Killie's opening goal seven minutes before the interval, when Flannigan's curling free-kick ricocheted off the post and crossbar to present Frazer Wright with an easy equaliser and a rare piece of quality, for most of the first half this was a disjointed affair characterised by stray passes, missed tackles and an almost total absence of shots on goal.
Not that the Killie crowd noticed the lack of quality. They were too busy stoking themselves up to a fit of righteous indignation at the performance of referee Stephen Finnie, and to give them their due they did have a point. The portly referee in his body-hugging luminous yellow Lycra managed to earn himself instant cult status – I'm sure that's what those Ayrshire voices were shouting – when he gave the softest of penalties after just 12 minutes, before proceeding to give series of outrageous decisions throughout the 90 minutes, virtually all of which seemed to favour the visitors.
But it was that early penalty which rightly earned him the eternal opprobrium of the home fans. It came when goalkeeper Alan Combe rushed out but failed to claim an innocuous cross, causing mayhem in the home defence. Still, Wright was extremely harshly done by when he was adjudged to have scythed down Ross Tokeley, Caley's bald bruiser theatrically slumping to the turf as if he'd been laid low by a Mike Tyson haymaker. Ian Black, consistently the coolest head on show for the visitors, calmly placed the ball to Combe's left as the keeper fell to his right.
Until the 38th minute, the home fans were right to fear that Finnie's perverse decision would decide this game. Yet as soon as Killie levelled, the home side went into overdrive and their previously assured visitors crumbled.
The onslaught began in earnest almost as soon as the second half began, and once again it was referee Finnie who was the catalyst for a match-changing moment. David Fernandez bore down on goal, only to see his shot parried by Fraser. Craig Bryson was following up though, and when he chested the ball goalwards it seemed certain to cross the line, only for Roy McBain to blatantly impede its progress with his hand. Yet as the crowd screamed their contempt at Finnie, the only one of the 5,000-odd souls at Rugby Park who missed the handball, Bryson moved to the edge of the area and then, when the ball came his way seconds later, threaded a low shot over Fraser's flailing right arm to make it 2-1.
From then on Kilmarnock never looked back. Mehdi Taouli had been their creative linchpin before the break, and with forward momentum the little Moroccan was the orchestrator at the heart of almost every Kilmarnock move, his close-quarter control mesmerising the Inverness defenders, his sprayed passes cutting them apart.
Within another five minutes, the home side had extended their lead with man of the match Bryson again shooting into the corner from the edge of the area after a determined run down the right wing by Tim Clancy was followed by a neat cutback. Five minutes later, when Flannigan's shot smacked into the roof of the net after some sublime interpassing by Kilmarnock, and particularly from Taouli and Fernandez, it was 4-1.
Kilmarnock: Combe; Fowler, Hay, Lilley, Wright, Invincibile, Fernandez, Bryson, Clancy, Flannigan, Taouli.
Inverness CT: Fraser; Tokeley, McGuire, McBain, Black, Bayne, Duncan, Munro, Niculae, Vigurs, Proctor.
Referee: S Finnie