Fight to the finish: How Kilmarnock could be Scotland’s shock relegation
As the top six split approaches, it’s becoming all the more apparent that the exciting season climax is going to come from the bottom half of the table rather than the top. Some heavyweights of Scottish football are in real trouble, with Motherwell lingering near the bottom once again alongside fellow strugglers and relegation battle regulars Ross County and Hamilton Academical. But the big surprise in the final few games is that Kilmarnock sit in danger with 25 points from 32 games. They were at one stage fifth, but things have changed drastically, and Alex Dyer’s reign in Ayrshire came to a crushing end against St Johnstone. But like we all know in this game, it ain’t over till it’s over.
Scotland’s oldest club Kilmarnock have become a mainstay in the top flight, and have almost become a household name of the league. Just two seasons ago, Steve Clarke’s famous words “Bye bye Rangers” showed a real statement of intent as they finished third in the league with Rugby Park bellowing into the Ayrshire town; the club was on a true high and looked well up for a venture into Europa League qualifiers. Then it all went wrong, and Clarke was snatched away by the national side, leaving Angelo Alessio the task of taking them to Europe and enjoying another attempt of challenging the top two teams of Scotland in Celtic and Rangers. Instead, Welsh minnows Connah’s Quay Nomads ended their European adventure without them needing their passports in what was quite frankly, an embarrassing result for Scottish football. The result kept on worsening, and eventually, Alessio was sent packing. Dyer arrived with a serious task on his hands that didn’t require a squad rebuild, but essentially necessitated a mental rebuild that would bring confidence and results back to the team. It did enough in the short term, but in the long run the side looked nowhere near like breaking their 9 year trophy drought, or getting a second attempt at Europa League qualifiers. Now, with Tommy Wright in, it wouldn’t be fair to assume they are down and out. They sit one point off eleventh and a relegation play-off with likely opponents Dunfermline Athletic, Raith Rovers or Dundee. They do however have a four point gap to overcome if they want to avoid any potential play-offs, and that makes an impending clash with County all the more like a do-or-die fixture for Killie. John Hughes men managed a stunning win over Celtic to keep their hopes of top-flight football alive next season, but a final clash with St Johnstone before the split could give them a seven point cushion if they can beat the League Cup winners, and based on form, you’d give County more chance of pulling clear than you would give Kilmarnock in overtaking them.
Brian Rice has once again got a bottom three finish on the cards; Hamilton are no strangers to that position given they have ended up there every season for the last five seasons. They host St Mirren in the final pre-split fixture knowing that a win would pull them clear of Kilmarnock and give them a lifeline of a play-off. Accies have to get better to avoid this stress every season, because you can’t expect to dodge the bullet every time. Graham Alexander has cracked the whip on Motherwell in the last few weeks, and with two wins and a draw in their last three fixtures to their name, you’d put your money on the Steelmen to hang on one more time. Only three points separate them from eighth place Dundee United and seventh place St Johnstone, so there is scope for them to even top the bottom six come the end of the season. Add all of these elements together, and you quickly see why Wright is in for a tough start to his summer. Kilmarnock are a household name in the eyes of Scottish football fans, as they’re almost in every fixture list without fail, having not been relegated since the 1980’s. They have put Ayrshire on the footballing map, and they are a vital component of the top-flight. Relegation would be a death sentence in the current climate for the club, but the way Kilmarnock have been this season, a relegation feels like the reward they have been asking for. One last push, two or three really big results, and they should live to fight another day, but they’ve got a long way to go if they ever want to have the confidence to say bye bye to Rangers again.
Written by Ruaraidh Britton