GLAD IT'S OVER!
A season that started with hope back in August quickly became the proverbial roller-coaster - with more downs than ups and gave Killie fans despair, frustration, false hopes, and eventually relief and some genuine belief. For many die-hards it actually started with a couple of pre-season games at RP against Fleetwood and Barnsley. Little did we realise that all three clubs would change managers during the season with two ending up in play-offs and one of those for the wrong reasons!
Dundee were the first opponents in the league and the performance and result were to be a glimpse at what was to follow in numerous home games under Gary Locke. Frankly, we were a disorganised shambles with one half chance for Boyd being our only effort on target. We were lucky to lose 0-4 and it's interesting to look back at that starting eleven as a number were to be released by the club before the season even finished! MacDonald, Westlake, Findlay, Connolly, Smith, Johnston, Hamill, Robinson, Higginbotham, Boyd & Magennis.
The League Cup brought some respite from the league and after beating Berwick 4-1 the team were unlucky to go down 2-3 to Hearts at Rugby Park losing two late goals. It did seem that every time beleaguered boss Locke needed a result to avoid the sack from an overly patient board (who had supported him with signings) he got it. Away from home the team looked better organised and played with more confidence. There were no heavy defeats (until 23rd January!) and wins were recorded at Tannadice and Dens and a creditable draw at Parkhead. We had only lost once by more than the odd goal (until mid January) with that being in the first away trip at Pittodrie.
Having been thrashed by those Dons at Rugby Park I was convinced Locke's contract would be terminated if we didn't get a result at Accies. A fortunate effort from enigmatic Obadeyi scraped a 1-0 win which was then followed by a 2-3 loss in Dingwall. A New Year dawned with some hope that we may be able to start to show some of our away form on the plastic pitch in Kilmarnock especially after a fine 2-2 draw against a physical, bruising Hearts side. The Cup gave some more false hope when, despite an awful pitch in Perth, we secured a 1-0 win thanks to a sublime early free kick from Slater and a truly amazing TRIPLE save from PoTY MacDonald in the final minutes.
Changes were made for the Accies match at Rugby Park but only in team selection: McHattie McKenzie and Robinson returned for what was an awful game with Accies scoring the winner from a corner. Fans made their feelings known again about the manager during the game and Gary Locke duly "resigned" after the match. It was 30th January and a new manager would not be able to make any significant signings as the transfer "window" was about to close. It seemed that Locke had already lined up the signings of midfielder Gary Dicker from Carlisle and also full back Lee Hodson on loan from MK Dons - ironically they were to prove two of Locke's better signings!
Speculation mounted about who the next boss would be with Billy Davies the early favourite. The usual "suspects" were mentioned but eventually the board selected former Newcastle stalwart Lee Clark to try and save the season - by keeping the club in the top division in Scotland. Lee McCulloch was put in charge whilst the selection process was going on and he immediately had the team organised and harder to beat. Two cup games against a team from Govan saw Killie lose narrowly to a last minute goal in the replay at Rugby Park. In between those games there was a comfortable 2-0 victory at Fir Park which saw Killie move up above 'Well who dropped into the play off spot. Sadly that spot would belong again to Killie only a few days later and Lee Clark's team had a tough run of games coming up.
Five games were now left following the "split" with survival the objective. Fifty two minutes in to the next game in Inverness saw Killie leading - probably undeservedly - by a Higgy goal. Then Balatoni played a crazy back pass, Mr Beaton red carded Jamie Mac, awarded a penalty and we lost 1-3. Our backs were now against the wall and games running out. The following Saturday saw the team and over 1,300 fans turn up at Hamilton where one of the best performances of the season ( I know there weren't many really good ones) saw the black shirted away side win 4-0. It was great singing "Hamilton Accies we're coming for you!" and actually believing it...for a week!
Could a miracle really happen with Thistle the next visitors to Ruggers Plastic? Eh...no...a hapless Killie performance saw the Jags secure their top league status with a comfortable 2-0 win which condemned Lee Clark's side to the dreaded play off as Dundee United had been relegated by losing to their near neighbours. Two meaningless games followed against the Dundee sides with Killie and their fans focusing on the play offs and who would win through from the Championship to play the side who had been in the top league for 23 successive seasons? Raith Rovers were duly dispatched by Hibs so it was to be either Hibs or Falkirk in what has become known as the "play off final".
After a game changing decision by ref Alan Muir (who seems incapable of seeing a player handling the ball) in the first leg Falkirk scraped a 2-2 draw before scoring an injury time winner to win a thrilling second leg 3-2. So Falkirk it would be - the side who had lost to Killie in a cup final, a League Cup semi and then been relegated at Kilmarnock in 2010 when a Bairns win would have relegated Killie. Could history repeat itself...again? The first leg was a fairly dire game with Killie creating chances but not taking any. Typical of the current Falkirk side they played to the last whistle and created one chance in the last minute as the Killie players went to sleep. Goal - advantage to the Bairns.
Simply put Kilmarnock FC now had to beat Falkirk FC by two clear goals to retain their Premiership status. What was there to fear for a Killie side unbeaten at home when playing either Inverness or St Johnstone? Perhaps the shocking results at home to some of the other sides? The media pundits seemed to realise the tie was not over - which was understandable since the Bairns had created very little in the first game. Nineteen years may have passed since the Scottish Cup Final at Ibrox but Falkirk had still been using the long throw as one of their main attacking tactics - would we see it in the second leg?
Killie fans were pleased to learn that Euro bound Josh Magennis was back in the starting line up but the Killie boss surprised most of us by giving youngster Greg Taylor the left back slot - benching O'Hara with Lee Hodson moving over to his favoured right back position. Eight minutes into the game and the tie was almost over as excellent wing work from the Northern Irish duo of Josh and Lee had created goals for the on fire Kiltie and man mountain Addison. Despite persevering with the long throw tactic Falkirk lacked creativity and rarely troubled the yellow shirted MacDonald. The Bairns were then "picked off" and condemned to at least another season in the Championship when surging runs from Tope and Josh set up Young Player of the Year Kiltie and then goal machine Boydie to add two more goals.
What a performance...and a terrific result when it really really mattered...but mainly a sense of relief! The season may have ended happily but the re-building started the following day when Lee Clark announced players to be freed and those who could move on even though they were still under contract. Who knows what next season will bring but like most Killie fans I'm actually already looking forward to being part of Lee Clark's Blue and White Army in the Premiership. By the way, Falkirk did use the long throw a lot and Barnsley won their play off to secure promotion!