By Stuart Gillespie at St Mirren Park
St Mirren fans have been saying all season that the goals would be flying in when things finally clicked – and so it proved this afternoon as the Buddies romped to victory against Kilmarnock.
But on the basis of the first 20 minutes or so only one team was going to rack up the goals and it wasn’t Saints. Killie looked like they could have scored with every attack, Gary Harkins cracking the post before Dieter van Tornhout fired them into a deserved lead. It didn’t last for long, a well worked goal at the other end seeing Steven Thompson pull level and finally spurring Saints into action.
After an exciting first half the fans got ready for more of the same from two teams that love to play football. They weren’t disappointed, especially for the home support. It looked as if it would be another afternoon of failing to make possession count but just after the hour mark Steven Thomson headed home Dougie Imrie’s brilliant cross, Nigel Hasselbaink getting the third a few minutes later. Thompson – the bigger of the two – added the gloss with a wonderful finish 10 minutes from time, rendering Dean Shiels’ thunderbolt a few minutes from the end little more than a specatcular consolation.
It was also an afternoon for returning heroes – Darren McGregor making his Saints comeback after being out since the third game of the season, while the arrival of Liam Kelly a few minutes from the end drew applause from just about everyone in the ground after his recent heartbreak.
The three points mean Saints are up to eighth and back on course for their best ever SPL season – and that three month wait for a league win is finally at an end. The signs were positive even before kick-off when Jeroen Tesselaar was deemed fit enough to start, Thomson also coming into the side as Imrie and Gary Teale dropped out. Kilmarnock were without top scorer Paul Heffernan so League Cup Final hero van Tornhout started up front with Shiels in behind and Lee Johnson and Harkins providing the supply from midfield.
Harkins is renowned for his drive from midfield but it was a drive from 20 yards that almost had his side in front inside a minute, Craig Samson helpless as the shot cannoned off the outside of the post before bouncing to safety. Harkins seemed to be able to dance past Saints players at will, seeing a shot from much closer crash into the advertising hoardings. The Buddies were struggling and even at this early stage were in danger of being played off the park by their Ayrshire opponents, who looked capable of scoring at will – if they could just find an opener.
It duly arrived in the 13th minute. Paul McGowan lost possession just outside the Killie box and they quickly countered, passing their way upfield before Garry Hay slipped a pass to van Tornhout, who took a touch to steady himself before drilling a shot into the bottom corner. Rather less important than his a goal a fortnight ago, the only surprise this time around was it had taken the visitors so long to find the back of the net.
The goal did little to stir Danny Lennon’s side into action, Kilmarnock preferring to look for a second rather than sit back and hold onto their lead. At least van Tornhout’s next attempt was rather less accurate as he managed the notable feat of clearing the stand at the Gasworks End. Perhaps that was what was needed to wake up the home side as 10 minutes after going behind they were back level. A superb pass from Marc McAusland found Thomson in acres of space and he ran into the box before squaring for near namesake Thompson to prod the ball home, despite the best efforts of Cammy Bell.
There was no doubt the goal had come against the run of play but it suddenly brought Saints to life, Nigel Hasselbaink squirming free of the Killie defenders’ attentions before curling a shot towards the top corner that Bell did superbly to palm away. The little Dutchman was looking dangerous and almost teed Thompson up for his second, Bell blocking his close range effort as he tried to force home Hasselbaink’s pass from the byline. Just before the break Saints lost Graham Carey to injury, with Dougie Imrie replacing him, but there was still enough time for one more Saints chance, a great turn and run from McGowan seeing him set up Hasselbaink, who cut in from the right before shooting straight at Bell.
Half-Time: St Mirren 1-1 Kilmarnock
It would have been difficult for the second half to have as frantic a start as the opening 45 minutes and so it proved, Saints having plenty of possession but failing to carve out a chance before Hay tried his luck with a long range daisycutter that was always going wide. Before the hour mark Saints made their second change, captain Jim Goodwin being replaced by Hugh Murray. But it was the other sub who made a difference, Imrie firing the ball into the danger zone and Thomson arrived late at the back post to head back across goal and out of Bell’s reach to put Saints in front.
As Killie got ready to make their own change they suddenly found themselves two goals down. A Kirk Broadfootesque run from McAusland looked to have been wasted when his pass ran loose but the visiting defenders left it to each other. Sissoko looked to have recovered the situation but Hasselbaink bundled the big defender off the ball before running on and coolly slotting past Bell. Killie claimed Hasselbaink had fouled the much larger Sissoko but referee Brian Colvin was having none of it and the goal stood.
Killie got to make their change as James Dayton replaced Johnson and the substitute tried to make an instant impact but fired a free-kick into the wall. Hasselbaink was withdrawn 20 minutes from time and given a rousing reception, but his replacement got an even bigger one. After being out since August it was time for Darren McGregor to return and he slotted into defence, Imrie joining Thompson up front. Almost as soon as he’d done that he nearly ended the lengthy wait for his first Saints goal as he cut in from the right before stinging Bells hands with a fierce piledriver.
Danny Racchi scored a late winner when the sides met at the start of the year and Killie were obviously hoping for him to cause similar problems when he arrived with 10 minutes left. Instantly Sissoko had a chance but swung his foot at the ball and it flashed wide, but it was some comic defending at the other end that put the game beyond doubt. Lewis Toshney tried to clear the ball and instead whacked it off Thompson, who gathered it before curling a stunning strike past Bell into the far corner.
With the game over Kilmarnock put Liam Kelly on for the last few minutes, fans on all four sides of the ground applauding as he replaced James Fowler. Sissoko had another go at reducing the deficit when he brought the ball down before seeing his shot blocked by Samson’s chest. However, there was nothing the goalie could do a few seconds later when Shiels cracked one past him from the edge of the box. McGowan tried an even more spectacular effort in stoppage time but Bell was always saving it before Samson pulled off a terrific save to keep out a van Torhout effort and ensure there wasn’t an even more frantic end to stoppage time.
Full-Time: St Mirren 4-2 Kilmarnock
St Mirren: Samson, van Zanten, Mair, McAusland, Tesselaar, Goodwin (Murray 58), Thomson, Carey (Imrie 44), Thompson, McGowan, Hasselbaink (McGregor 71).
Subs Not Used: Mooy, Teale, Reilly, Smith (GK).
Kilmarnock: Bell, Toshney, Hay (Racchi 80), Fowler (Kelly 87), Nelson, Gordon, Sissoko, Harkins, Johnson (Dayton 67), Shiels, van Tornhout.
Subs Not Used: McKeown, Pursehouse, Gross, Letheren (GK).
Referee: Brian Colvin.
Assistant Referee: Alasdair Ross.
Assistant Referee: Alastair Mather.
4th Official: Calum Murray.
Star Saint: If you take the first 20 minutes or so out of the game there’s no shortage of candidates. Nigel Hasselbaink was inspired, Dougie Imrie was outstanding and Craig Samson made some great saves. It comes down to the Thommo twins and the smaller Steven Thomson just gets it purely on the basis of the timing of his key contributions – a brilliant pass for Steven Thompson’s equaliser and then a fine header to put Saints into a lead they wouldn’t lose.
Match pictures by Allan Picken – © Allan Picken Photography.