THE dust settled around Manuel Pascali.
The first shots had just been fired in the battle to avoid the relegation play-off place in the SPFL Premiership and there was a moment of anxiety as the Kilmarnock midfielder awaited news of the damage. A television screen above him confirmed the final scores and that his side remain just above 11th place, only a point separating the Ayrshire club from both Hibernian and St Mirren, with Partick Thistle below on goal difference alone. It all left little room for subtlety. "If we don't get the positive results we are f*****."
Pascali was content to use a bad word, since relegation is another. It is a term whispered between the five clubs left in the bottom six of the league table whose players are not yet certain of when this trying campaign will come to an end. None will be keen on contesting a play-off next month with a team from the Championship. Flowery language can often wilt when it is rooted in the quagmire of the bottom six and so there is merit in speaking plainly. In six years at the club Pascali has played out the campaign in the top half of the league just once, with the Italian becoming so well versed in frustration that it is akin to a second language.
He has developed, too, a keen understanding of the psychology of teams sentenced to fight against relegation, when the final fixtures of the season are made simple. Ross County now occupy the play-off place and host Kilmarnock on Saturday. "They will play with fire, with determination and, sometimes, when you don't have anything to lose you find something more," said Pascali, a member of the Killie team which avoided the drop by earning a draw on the final day of the 2009/10 season.
"We love to complicate things, to do things in as hard a way as we can. This is a massive week for us. We have to try to stay positive but face the reality. If we go on and don't get the positive results we are in trouble. But I think that [a win in the Highlands] would be enough for us to be honest. It is still in our hands."
Their grip might have been tighter had it not been for the inaction of the match officials on Saturday when a shot from Michael Gardyne struck the underside of the crossbar and appeared to bounce over the line and out. "I hope it did not," said Pascali simply, not wishing to countenance that a moment of poor refereeing had denied his side a point.
The greater stir was created by Partick Thistle, a win on Saturday putting them back on their feet following a comprehensive loss to Hearts. That result had been a particularly sore one since it subjected the Firhill club to a further week in the play-off spot and they were able to dig an elbow into the ribs of Ross County on their way up to 10th. Only Jamie Hamill is likely to have left a bigger bruise at the weekend.
A semblance of momentum was greeted with alacrity by Thistle supporters inside Rugby Park, their celebrations reaching a crescendo as their players approached at full time. Kallum Higginbotham took it all in his stride and later sauntered into the media room free from the sort of apprehension which will often cling to a player during times of uncertainty. The Thistle midfielder is not one to hide - he became embroiled in a spat with the bulkier figure of Alexei Eremenko during the first half which resulted in the Englishman being upended in a meaty challenge - and carries himself with all the conviction of a top-flight player. That is likely to persist even though there is still the risk that he will be dragged into a tie to avoid the Championship.
"I don't do nerves," said Higginbotham, who scored Thistle's first goal with a free kick. "I just go out and do what I do every Saturday and I have never got nervous playing football, whether that is playing at Wembley, or Westfield for Falkirk."
His resolve will be tested most this week given that Thistle are at home to St Mirren on Friday night. Another three points will not be sufficient to steer the Glasgow side to safety - there will still be three fixtures to play - although it would cause their opponents to glance more nervously at the rocks.
"If we play like we did against Kilmarnock then we'll be fine," added Higginbotham. It is the only F-word that he intends to use at the end of the season.