WITH three minutes gone at Rugby Park, the ball hung in the sky on the edge of Ross County’s box and Chris Burke’s eyes lit up. Striding forward with the freedom of Ayrshire, he met it perfectly, arrowed it beyond Ross Laidlaw, and ran off to accept his teammates’ embrace. 

With six minutes gone it was 1-1. This time Michael Gardyne was thrust into the spotlight, the Staggies’ own wily fox sensing enough hesitation in Zech Medley to ghost in, chest down Billy McKay’s flick, and slot home. 

And with that the pace of this seesaw, jab a minute contest at the bottom of the table had been set. Two more goals would follow - Mitch Pinnock’s volley later cancelled out by Alex Iacovitt’s head - but in the end it was a result which did neither any real favours in their bid to avoid the drop. 

 

HeraldScotland: Kyle Lafferty was later booked following a challenge which forced Iain Vigurs off Kyle Lafferty was later booked following a challenge which forced Iain Vigurs off

Some choice words during the week between the two managers teased this would be a contest of grudges and chips on shoulders but the tension visibly eased when Tommy Wright and John Hughes shared a full throated laugh pre-match. 

Such has been Killie’s recent upturn in form, their team has become easy to predict. Kyle Lafferty leads the line, Burke hurries on the wing, and Rory McKenzie buzzes across the pitch, rarely sticking to one position for too long, always making a nuisance of himself. 

It’s a system Wright seems to have settled on and three minutes in he had more vindication, even if it was, on the face of it, a scrappy goal. But that would be doing it a disservice. 

Killie forced a corner, County struggled to clear, and Aaron McGowan’s hopeful cross back into the box eventually found the foot of Burke. Few players on the pitch could have slowed down time or found space quite like him and he made the most of it, rifling beyond a shellshocked Laidlaw.

For Hughes, who had made five changes from a Scottish Cup defeat to Inverness, it was the worst possible start, so he must have been delighted to see his side lift themselves off the canvas and lay their own blow on Killie just seconds later. 

The cleverness of Gardnye was behind it, his motor running the second a hopeful punt toward McKay left Jason Naismith’s foot. When the little striker too easily got the better of Kirk Broadfoot, Gardyne’s headstart was enough to give him the momentum to glide past Medley and fire past Colin Doyle. 

Unbelievably, it took a full 11 minutes for the next goal to arrive and again Hughes will have felt his side could have done better. Another poor headed clearance presented the ball to a Kilmarnock player in a dangerous position and this time Pinnock kept his wits about him to swivel and fire through Laidlaw for 2-1. 

It was just the Englishman’s second league goal of the season, a titanic weight off his shoulders, and before the half was out he had pulled out an audacious, Zinedine Zidane-esque turn to bamboozle two County players. 

For all Killie had the lead, it seemed a slender one. Gardyne’s signature step inside created him another yard of space, only to drag an effort wide, while a McKay cross seemed to hit an arm but the shouts were halfhearted. 

HeraldScotland:

The Staggies’ stride continued to gather pace after the break. Headers from McKay and Ross Draper missed the target while Jordan White crashed one against the bar but Killie could only hold out for so long, especially with Iain Vigurs beginning to increasingly dictate the pace of play. 

When his dipping free kick was pushed away by Doyle for a corner, Vigurs simply stepped up, floated the ball in, and found Iacovitti’s head among a tangle of bodies to give the defender the easy job of nodding it into the net for a deserved equaliser just short of the hour mark.

Maybe it was the uncharacteristic quietness of Lafferty. Maybe it was the two managers barking at their players to calm down every time a pass was misplaced, or a clearance harried. Maybe it was Vigurs going off with a blood soaked face after a blow to his nose. But it was a bit of a slugfest from there. 

Still either side could have won it but when White slipped into space and later Burke did the same, the goalkeepers were there to deny them. 

More to follow...