Blair Alston’s dramatic last-minute winner swung an epic title cliffhanger in Kilmarnock’s favor and denied Dick Campbell’s part-time side in Ayrshire a happy ending in Ayrshire.
The second-placed Lichties have been the story of the season and were fitting protagonists in this finale too, taking the lead early on. For most of the evening they looked to have taken the title race to the final day – and would still have done despite Ash Taylor’s close-range driven equalizer 13 minutes from time. However, Alston struck the decisive blow in the final minute to send a section of the capacity home crowd spilling onto the pitch in retirement, and relief.
They partied long beyond the final whistle too as 1500 away fans left before Chris Stokes lifted the trophy and signaled Kilmarnock’s return to the top flight a year after relegation.
Arbroath’s players may have sank to the turf in despair at full time but their dream is still on, via the play-offs and their guaranteed second-placed finish.
It was an emotional sight for the 10,500 supporters in the Kilmarnock end – and they went through the highs and lows during the 90 enthralling minutes.
There were no nerves on show given what was at stake. An open start began with Derek Gaston denying Kyle Lafferty and the expectant home crowd with the first clear-cut chance. It would not be the last time Gaston was involved but once Arbroath saw to the corner, they scored a goal that summed up their season and caught everyone unaware.
A quick-moving counter attack launched by Scott Stewart saw the ball shuttled into his overlapping run for a cross to three Arbroath attackers who had given their all to join in the break at the opposite end of the field. The ball found James Craigen at the backpost and the former Raith Rovers midfielder’s scuffed shot fooled Zach Hemming and skipped into the net, sucking the life from three sides of the ground – and launching one into a frenzy.
The finish was effective, but hardly clinical, and the midfielder’s bashful grin during his celebrations suggested his relief as well as the unbridled joy that was matched in the stands. “We are going up,” the away end roared. At this stage they were in pole position to do so. Ayrshire expectation had turned to anguish.
Arbroath could have been two goals ahead before the break had Luke Donnelly’s backheel flick made better connection to Michael McKenna’s cross, but afterwards they were under pressure almost immediately and had Gaston to thank for prolonging the fairytale into the final moments of the match.
In times of need Lafferty has come to Kilmarnock’s rescue but Gaston frequently foiled the Northern Irishman, who was also denied by the offside flag.
However, Kilmarnock’s revival began when Ash Taylor ignited the home stands with a scrambled equalizer on 77 minutes lashing in after Gaston had saved Oli Shaw’s header.
That should have sent the title race into the final weekend with Killie in control of their destiny, but there was still time for Alston – denied promotion to the Premiership with Falkirk on this ground in 2016 – to earn their spot back at the top table.