KILMARNOCK went out to prove they were fit for a higher purpose, only to be halted by a rebel without a cause in the shape of St Mirren.
Following their 1-0 win over Ross County at the weekend, the Rugby Park club knew that victory last night, thanks to a superior goal difference over their rivals, would be enough for them to be part of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League's top six. With their visitors already condemned to the bottom half of the table, an easy night was surely on the cards. Not quite.
While the points dropped in this absorbing 1-1 stalemate mean Kenny Shiels' side must attempt to seal their place on Saturday against Dundee, the one point they did manage to garner is enough to ensure they go in to the last round of fixtures already in sixth place. And the character shown by the Ayrshire side, especially amid a rampant second-half performance, will offer hope that the job can be finished off at the second time of asking.
"If we do make the top six, we won't come up against a harder opponent," said Shiels. "They have quality all the way through the team. I'm looking for 7000 to 8000 to be here on Saturday. I'm really pleased to get a point, I felt tonight was a good night for football."
While Kilmarnock fell short despite their heroics after the break, the Ayrshire fans will grateful the game was still there to be salvaged. Danny Lennon's team led through a 36th-minute strike from Esmael Goncalves, bookended by chances for the Portuguese and Steven Thompson that should have put the Paisley side out of sight.
Their profligacy was to come back to haunt them as Kris Boyd, making his first home start since returning to Kilmarnock, netting just two minutes after the restart.
"I thought we brought a lot to the game in the first half. We dominated possession and played some beautiful and purposeful football," Lennon said. "We only had one effort to show for it though. We knew that going in 1-0 at half-time they were still in the game, and we expected the reaction they produced."
Kilmarnock's intent was mapped out from the outset. Gary Hay, Paul Heffernan and Borja Perez were all drafted in by Shiels as the hosts looked for the win that would earn their place in the upper half but it was Boyd who created the first chance. The 29-year-old showed excellent vision to play a quick free-kick through the St Mirren defence to James Fowler but the midfielder's fine finish in Dingwall last weekend was not replicated.
St Mirren were not without opportunities either as both teams jockeyed for the upper hand, and they could and should have been ahead after 30 minutes. Firstly Thompson came within a boot lace of prodding in Paul Dummett's cross, then Goncalves dragged a shot just wide of Cammy Bell's left-hand post after the stubborn Portuguese charged his way into the box.
However, the on-loan striker would atone for his error just three minutes later. The 21-year-old latched on to David van Zanten's through ball and this time demonstrated the kind of composure that has helped him score five goal for the club, racing clear of the chasing pack and drilling low under Bell. He almost created a second just two minutes later by blundering his way through the Kilmarnock defence to play in Thompson, but the former Scotand internationalist fired wide, just moments before the creaking home backline watched on helplessly as Bell produced a truly world-class save from Goncalves' fierce drive.
Yet for all that dominance, it took just 80 seconds of play after the break for Kilmarnock to prize open St Mirren's tight grip on the game. Perez, who was enjoying a role just off the front two, dinked a delicate ball over the defence for Boyd, who, showed a rare turn of pace move clear and smash the ball under Craig Samson, triggering a jubilant roar loud enough to drown out any protests of offside.
Boyd's menacing presence in Kilmarnock's attack was key as the game progressed and St Mirren's high defensive line looked increasingly vulnerable. He was a constant nuisance with a series of clever knock-ons and flicks, while he was unfortunate when Samson clung on to his powerful downward header at the back post.
The hosts were pushing forward with purpose in the closing stages, looking for that valuable win, and looked to have been rewarded with just seconds to play. With injury time approaching, Fowler broke purposefully into the St Mirren box, only to be sent sprawling under what appeared to be a clumsy challenge from Van Zanten. However, referee Crawford Allan opted to wave the play on. Which is exactly what Kilmarnock must do against Dundee on Saturday.