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Kilmarnock 1 Hearts 0: Shiels' absence proves profitable

THERE might just be method in the madness.

James Dayton goes down under Andy Webster's challenge to earn Kilmarnock a match-winning penalty. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
James Dayton goes down under Andy Webster's challenge to earn Kilmarnock a match-winning penalty. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

While Kenny Shiels has been paying the price for his willingness to provoke the football authorities, Kilmarnock have been prospering.

The Rugby Park side may have lived on their nerves throughout this scarcely deserved 1-0 victory, but two wins and a draw is a decent return from the three matches they have played while their manager served a dugout ban.

Thanks to Liam Kelly's first-half penalty, Kilmarnock move into sixth place in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, although such is its nature Hearts, who could have reached fourth had results gone their way, now languish in ninth.

Jimmy Nicholl, Shiels' assistant, admitted: "It was backs-to-the-wall stuff in the second half. We didn't play the way the manager likes the team to play but sometimes you have to give the opposition credit for stopping you from doing that.

"We've had results [during Shiels' ban] but haven't done well in a football sense, not nearly as well as we can, but the points we've won should give us the confidence to play the game the way we want to."

Both managers made minor changes to their starting line-ups. Kilmarnock brought back their talisman Kelly after suspension and opted for Rory McKeown ahead of Jeroen Tesselaar at left-back, while John McGlynn brought in Mehdi Taouil at the expense of Dylan McGowan.

Scott Robinson, who had refused to be named as a substitute against Aberdeen earlier this month, occupied a seat on the Hearts bench this time. A sparse Boxing Day crowd greeted the teams, but this was a decent contest, with opposing wingers James Dayton and Andrew Driver very much to the fore.

Kilmarnock had the ball in the net early on but the offside flag ruled out Paul Heffernan's effort. Ryan Stevenson's went close to opening the scoring for Hearts but his low shot was deflected by Gordon Smith and parried out by the diving Cammy Bell before Michael Nelson slid in to clear the danger. Next year promises to be an interesting one for Kelly, whose name the home support chanted from the outset.

The 22-year-old is out of contract this summer and although Kilmarnock have opened talks about a new deal, a story circulated on Christmas Eve to the effect that Celtic are among the midfielder's admirers.

Kelly illustrated his worth yesterday by scoring his fifth goal of the season with a perfectly dispatched 27th-minute penalty after Andy Webster had to resort to fouling the dangerous Dayton, who had comprehensively outwitted the defender one-on-one.

For the visitors to be behind at the interval was a harsh fate after a first half in which they largely held their own. However, the defeat was all the more galling for them after their second-half performance.

Driver showed glimpses of his very best form, on one occasion outstripping three opponents during a mesmerising run before shooting wide.

Smith then had a goal-of-the-season contender ruled out when his 25-yard effort was disallowed for a supposed foul by John Sutton, even though it appeared the Kilmarnock defenders Mohamadou Sissoko and Michael Nelson had impeded each other. "The referee blew the whistle but it was two Kilmarnock players coming together and John Sutton was just in the vicinity really," said McGlynn.

The Hearts manager refused to "mump and moan" too much about his side's inability to score during a second half in which Bell became an utterly besieged figure. He dived to stop another sweet effort from Driver, got his body in the way of a stinging Taouil volley, then required treatment after appearing to take Sutton's boot on his jaw as he bravely went down stop to one low cross.

Callum Paterson, who had replaced Smith, was the next threat, profiting from a Sissoko slip-up to beat Nelson and run in on goal, but the teenager panicked and finishing too early and too close to Bell. Avydas Novikovas and Marius Zaliukas both went close late on but Kilmarnock held out.

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