ALEXEI EREMENKO could not feel the cold for the warmth on Saturday.
The wind whistled round the stadium with ferocious vigour while the driving rain battered against the well-travelled Finn as he stood transfixed on the touchline, readying himself for a return which was two and a half years and 7079 miles in the making. It was a moment even the weather failed to dampen as the Kilmarnock midfielder was embraced back wholeheartedly by those he left behind in the summer of 2011.
It was a homecoming which also brought encouragement for the 3000-odd home supporters who ushered the 30-year-old on to the Rugby Park swamp with enthusiasm and genuine affection. Despite the 15 goals from Kris Boyd this season, his latest two coming in a fraught second half on Saturday, the spread throughout the rest of the squad has been decidedly thin, with Chris Johnston the next highest scorer with four. It is therefore understandable that Eremenko's arrival has brought about the expectation that he too can shoulder the creative responsibility for the remainder of the season. While his hit rate during his year in Ayrshire was far from prolific - he scored four goals in 34 appearances - it is hoped the former Lecce man's presence in a largely inexperienced team can trigger a creative spark throughout the side.
"It's great to hear the fans, it lifts you up and helps you," said Eremenko, who has spent the last two years playing in Russia and Kazakhstan. "That's one of the reasons I came back here. I got 20 minutes and it was okay, I didn't get too tired. But you have to consider this pitch was very heavy and this was my first game outside on grass for three months. It's great to be back, but of course it's not great conditions for your debut - the pitch was very, very difficult."
Despite the hazardous and dank conditions, which cast a doubt for much of the second half over whether the game would finish, Eremenko still managed to find his feet, even if he had left his wellies at home. Within seconds of coming on he played an intelligent slide-rule ball through to Rory McKenzie. His intuition as to when to play a pass posed a fresh problem to a Ross County defence which deteriorated as quickly as the pitch, while his ball retention and patience when in possession offered a calm head in a Kilmarnock attack which had the potential to run out of steam prior to his arrival.
However, it is his partnership with Boyd which will be of most interest in the coming weeks. The former Rangers striker was at his bullish best on Saturday; reacting fastest to thrash in his first after the break, before brushing off two bad sclaffs to nod home the equaliser in the dying seconds from a deep Johnston cross. "I only played for 20 minutes but I saw the way he moves," said Eremenko. "He always finds a space and I think he needs a player who can time that perfect pass - not too late and not too early."
Boyd's leveller may have come deep into injury time, but County's implosion was a slow burner from the second the Kilmarnock forward netted his first two minutes after the interval. Derek Adams' side turned in a Jekyll and Hyde performance by carving open their hosts twice while denying them any encouragement at the other end, before losing their direction and their discipline with Filip Kiss eventually ordered off for a second bookable offence. It cost them three points which would have hoisted them within a point of eighth-placed Kilmarnock, their draw instead leaving them languishing just above a play-off place on goal difference.
"All the boys are really gutted and annoyed as we've lost control of the game," said Ben Gordon, the Ross County left-back. "The decisions, the red card, the pitch, it all added up really and it turned against us in the second half. But the new boys have come in and settled really quickly. I think in the second half of the season we have a good enough squad to push on and put some points on the board."