THIS was Motherwell's first game in three weeks.
Given what unfolded in an uneventful afternoon, they may be inclined to go back into cold storage for a while longer, if only to ponder how things turned out the way they did. There were no signs of rustiness as Stuart McCall's side dominated large swathes of the contest only to miss chance after chance. That ultimately proved costly as a Steven Hammell own goal and a second-half header from Willie Gros helped Kilmarnock to their first league victory since Boxing Day.
A frustrating afternoon for Motherwell was made worse in the closing five minutes when they had two players sent off. James Dayton was the victim on both occasions, dumped to the turf by first Fraser Kerr – just three minutes after the defender had come on as a substitute – and then Keith Lasley as injury-time approached. On both occasions referee Steven MacLean had no hesitation in flourishing the red card. Dayton felt both were merited, but waved off a suggestion he might have been singled out for heavy treatment. "Both were sending-offs, in my opinion," said the winger. "But I wasn't being targeted. They obviously just lost their discipline."
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McCall did not object to the decisions, though he sighed at the thought of the suspensions that will follow. "Both were rash challenges," said the Motherwell manager. "Fraser swipes at the ball and the lad's moved it away quicker than him, while Las's tackle was borne out of frustration. But it's still not acceptable from either of them."
There was a certain irony in Motherwell having shot after shot in the first half but only succeeding in beating their own keeper. Hammell was the man credited with the early own goal, sticking out a leg to redirect Ross Barbour's shot beyond Darren Randolph. Given they created little else of their own making in the first half, Kilmarnock would have been grateful for that timely intervention.
"I was sitting in the dressing room at half-time wondering, "how the hell are we winning 1-0?" admitted Kilmarnock assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl. "I knew we wouldn't survive another 45 minutes like that, we had to get up the park. And the players did that."
Kilmarnock switched to a front three in the second half and soon reaped the benefits as Motherwell ran out of energy and ideas. A second goal after 71 minutes made the victory safe. Dayton hung up an enticing cross to the back post and Gros, moved wide right as part of the readjustment, powered in a downward header that bounced beyond Randolph.
McCall felt that was harsh on his side, and agreed with Nicholl's interval assessment. "If it had been a boxing match it would been stopped at half-time," he said. "We just couldn't put the ball in the net and that's what the game is all about. It's a sore one to take."