Rangers 1 Kilmarnock 1
(Scot Premier Division, Match 36, Ibrox, May 23rd 1999)
THEIR body language said it all. Shoulders sagged and heads drooped as disappointment weighed mighty heavily on Kilmarnock at the end of their long and often thrilling season.
The players, captained by former Ibrox favourite Ian Durrant, applauded their own fans before sloping off the Ibrox pitch.
One or two of them left shaking their heads but perhaps when the pain of a final-day failure subsides a smile of satisfaction might just crack Bobby Williamson's round face.
After all, by failing to beat Rangers they got it absolutely right so far as European places are concerned.
It is virtually certain they will still gain a place in next season's UEFA Cup because Scotland top the European game's fair-play league - Manchester United and their fans in Barcelona this week would have to do something extremely cheesy to edge England into first place - which carries a reward of an additional cup place.
The Rugby Park side are, of course, way out in front in the domestic fair play table and should make it all right.
For that alone we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
Think about it, if they had been a dirtier or more cynical side with a penchant for the late tackle or flailing elbow their card would have been marked down and the extra cup place would have gone to either Dundee United or Aberdeen.
If you ask me there would have been nothing at all fair about that.
The under-achievers, who all season masqueraded as professional footballers for these two sides, deserve nothing other than the contempt of their supporters and such abject failure should never be rewarded, not even unwittingly.
By way of stark contrast, Kilmarnock and St Johnstone, whose win against Dundee gave them third place in the Scottish Premier League and also automatic entry into Europe, are due immense praise.
These teams have worked hard, played well and entertained throughout the entire campaign and finally justice will be seen to be done.
Of course Williamson's side had wanted to win their European passport through their own points total and that's why they and their supporters at Ibrox looked so forlorn at the end of yesterday's match.
This is a team which looks for no favours and they are a team who believe in doing things for themselves, but by drawing at Ibrox they made sure we would be spared the possible agonies of watching a much poorer side carry our already tarnished reputation back into the European arena.
Kilmarnock have no reason to be embarrassed about accepting UEFA's backdoor pass because they are worthy of the place, having just completed their best-ever season in the top division.
Killie have scored more goals, conceded fewer than ever before, and amassed their highest number of points in the big league.
That can't really be considered failure and it is a measure of this team that even after they had fallen behind to an early Rangers goal they regrouped and caused Dick Advocaat's side some serious problems.
With a little luck Kilmarnock could have done more than take a share of the points, even if towards the end of the game they began to look like a team running on empty.
Some of their players were dragging their legs and others were gulping in oxygen as their season rushed towards its conclusion but all of these players can look back content in the knowledge that they did their best.
Yet, when Gabriel Amato rose to head Jonatan Johansson's lob from the left after the Finn had surged through Gus MacPherson's challenge it seemed as though the last day was going to be a long and punishing one.
Luck appeared to have deserted them entirely in the fifth minute as the ball looped off Amato's head and drifted over Gordon Marshall.
The keeper stretched every sinew and although he managed to get one hand up far enough and slap at the ball he couldn't prevent it from dropping into the net.
Rangers, anxious to maintain enough momentum to drive them into the Tennents Scottish Cup Final, then started to knock the ball about with precision and purpose and for a while it looked as though Kilmarnock would lose more goals.
Lorenzo Amoruso clipped a sweet pass through to Johansson, whose pace almost caught Gordon Marshall by surprise but the keeper was able to reach out and gather the ball.
Then, a few minutes later, Andrei Kanchelskis zoomed down the right but his cutback was missed by Claudio Reyna.
The American was having a productive time in midfield, along with Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Jorg Albertz, and Rangers began to look ominously powerful.
Their play was sweeping at times but the trouble was that after a while they seemed to become hypnotised by the regularity of their own passes.
Eventually Kilmarnock imposed themselves, with their captain Ian Durrant finding holes in the Rangers defence, but there were never enough players surging forward in support.
As a consequence Killie didn't threaten Stefan Klos too much, even if Amoruso was becoming more uncomfortable, and the Italian was fortunate to escape punishment in the form of a caution, especially after he had given Mark Roberts a couple of dull ones in rapid succession.
Yet Kevin McGowne was booked for his first hefty challenge - on Johansson - and it all seemed a bit unfair. However, the central defender proceeded to drag his side right back into the game by scoring the equaliser in 41 minutes.
Durrant dinked a delivery and McGowne, up in support, applied the most perfect of glanced headers and the ball shot into the right-hand corner of Klos's net.
Rangers kept Johansson and Tony Vidmar indoors after the break, which allowed Neil McCann and Derek McInnes to stretch their legs with a view to Saturday's big one.
McCann will start that match, of course, but McInnes will probably have to settle for a place on the bench again, although he did present a case for his inclusion in the first 11.
The midfield player was busy and effective as he broke down moves and supplied his own flair players. He also managed to get forward in support of attacks and might even have scored the winner if a powerful shot from the edge of the box hadn't been deflected away by Dylan Kerr.
Gradually the game slowed down and began staggering towards the final whistle, although both keepers still had to endure some moments of anxiety
Kilmarnock: Marshall, MacPherson, Kerr, Holt, McGowne, Lauchlan, Mahood, Durrant, Mitchell, Henry, Roberts.
Subs: Vareille, McCutcheon, Burke