CELTIC'S championship aspirations were struck a crippling blow at Rugby Park last night when they were beaten by a Kilmarnock side who have every chance of avoiding relegation if they continue to play with such vigour. Killie had just lost 1-2 to bottom club Raith on Mar 5th, and this win set the stage for 4 straight SPL wins, and a fantastic run in the 97 Scottish Cup.
Kilmarnock scored in each half, first with a Paul Wright free kick and then with a rising drive from the irrepressible Alex Burke. Celtic twice hit the crossbar but, in truth, it took a fine performance by their goalkeeper, Stewart Kerr, to prevent Kilmarnock scoring another two or three.
Celtic were warned about the consequences of their laid-back attitude when Jim McIntyre laid off neatly for Burke to take a look at the target but Kerr was able to get across the line of the shot and belt it out.
Still, the Celtic defence was slow to react to the continuing danger and when the ball rebounded from the goalkeeper, John Henry was allowed another attempt. This one, too, rebounded back from the penalty area and Celtic, as though stung, moved smartly to the other end of the field.
Now it was Kilmarnock's turn to be exposed as Peter Grant, pushing towards the edge of their penalty area from midfield, saw Colin Meldrum off his line and lobbed the goalkeeper. The ball smacked back off the crossbar and fell to Jorge Cadete, but by the time the Portuguese forward returned it Meldrum had got back into position and clutched safely.
Cadete had another chance to beat Meldrum when Andreas Thom snaked through the left edge of the Kilmarnock defence and directed a cut-back ahead of his attacking colleague. This time Cadete hit the ball on the drop but saw it sweep high over the crossbar. He was to regret his lack of accuracy swiftly when Malky Mackay fouled McIntyre outside the Celtic box.
Paul Wright struck the ball hard and accurately high to Kerr's left and although the goalkeeper reached the ball he could not prevent it crossing the line. Even then Celtic still looked below par, although they were unlucky when Cadete headed off the crossbar from a Tosh McKinlay corner kick.
Celtic revived after the break but, unable to make progress, threw on Brian McLaughlin and Simon Donnelly for Grant and Mackay. Kilmarnock were unperturbed and after Enrico Annoni had cleared off the line and Kerr had blocked, both times from Alex Burke he struck the final blow, shooting high into the net after David Bagan's effort was beaten out by the keeper.
Kilmarnock: Meldrum, MacPerson, D Kerr, Roberts, McGowne, Reilly, Bagan, Henry, Wright, McIntyre, Burke.
Subs: Brown & McKee