Last weekend Rugby Park was different.
Kilmarnock had lost in extra time to Dundee United after a captivating 120 minutes of Scottish Cup football. However, after a slow and at times rocky start, Killie’s faithful rallied, urging his team on and when the match whistle blew they showed their appreciation for the team’s efforts.
It was natural to draw comparisons to a moment very early in Steve Clarke’s tenure when the team were applauded despite losing 3-0 to Hibs at Rugby Park. Killie fans liked what they saw.
It was the same on Saturday.
Killie played like a non-Championship side, something United boss Tam Courts noted afterwards.
“They are a Premiership club,” he said. “They have a lot of the best players. We gave them total respect.”
The reality is that they are a championship team and they have turned to Derek McInnes to bring them back to the top level.
After a win in their opening match at Queen of the South followed by a draw at Partick Thistle, United’s cup match was their first meeting in front of a home crowd.
rediscovering a connection
“It’s going to be huge going forward, especially at home,” he said of the support the team received.
“Everyone came to win the match, we didn’t succeed but the fans were there at the end and recognized the players’ effort. This is a lot.
As soon as McInnes arrived, he talked about rediscovering a connection between the team and the fans after relegation and then the inconsistency with Tommy Wright in the second level.
Through his words, his actions, the level of performance and energy against United, that connection is being rebuilt.
A big thing for McInnes has been the way the players have responded to his instructions, what he wants to do.
Rory McKenzie described the new manager, his backroom staff, training and ideas as a “breath of fresh air”, saying it has been “utterly delightful” to work with him.
Against United, after the first 15-20 minutes, they looked like a team that was enjoying themselves again. The intensity of McInnes, as well as Paul Sheerin and his right-hand man Tony Docherty on the sidelines, carried over to the field.
“Did I think we would be capable of that performance so soon when I arrived? I’m not so sure,” admitted McInnes. That will do for me.
It was a performance that suggested Kilmarnock remains favorite to win the Championship.
Arbroath has been the story of the season so far. What Dick Campbell has done at Gayfield is remarkable. They deservedly have a three point lead over Inverness CT at the top of the table with Killie a point further back.
And it’s third against second this weekend in Ayrshire, while the Smokies take on Partick Thistle.
It is one of those weekends that can be defining in the Championship. A draw at Rugby Park with Arbroath winning would be absolutely huge for the half-time team.
For Kilmarnock, however, this is the opportunity to send a message to his rivals in the Championship.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.