FOR a number of weeks now, Motherwell boss Stuart McCall has scoffed at suggestions his side could finish the season above Rangers in second place.
Time and again, he has been asked about the tantalising prospect only to claim his sole focus is on finishing third, a position which would bring Champions League football to Fir Park for the first time in Motherwell’s history.
Saturday’s defeat at Rugby Park, coupled with results elsewhere this week, goes to show exactly why McCall currently only has his eyes on third place.
Before kick-off, Motherwell had the opportunity to leapfrog Rangers into second place and maintain a massive 11-point gap between themselves and the chasing pack, namely St Johnstone and Dundee United.
But following Rangers’ victory over Celtic on Sunday, the Ibrox side are now three points ahead of the Steelmen, with a vastly superior goal difference, going into the game between the sides on Saturday.
Of more concern to Motherwell, however, is the fact St Johnstone have quietly closed the gap between third and fourth to just five points following victory in their game in hand at Inverness last night.
Many pundits have virtually made it a given that Motherwell will finish at least third, salivating at the prospect of potentially splitting the Old Firm.
But the form of St Johnstone has suddenly set up a nervy end to the season for Steelmen fans with the prospect of the two sides squaring off for a straight shoot-out after the split to determine who gets that coveted Champions League spot.
Given Rangers’ travails, forget second, never has finishing third in the SPL meant so much.
That is why McCall is unstinting in his determination not to take his eye off the ball. Motherwell have been third for most of the season and to throw it away at this stage of the season would be a travesty.
Of course they are still in pole position to claim that lucrative Champions League place but any more displays such as the one at Rugby Park last weekend could make for a nerve-jangling few weeks.
It was always going to be an emotional occasion for the home side on Saturday and despite Killie gaffer Kenny Shiels’ assertion his team would be tired following their League Cup winning exploits last Sunday, the players were desperate to get the win for teammate Liam Kelly.
The midfielder’s joy at winning the first piece of silverware of the season was cut short by the tragic news that his father Jack had passed away shortly after full-time at Hampden Park, following a heart attack.
Understandably, Kelly missed the clash with Motherwell but the Killie players paid tribute to Kelly wearing T-shirts with his number eight on them and the words ‘We Are All With You’ during their pre-match warm-up.
Another of the shirts was brought out as they celebrated Paul Heffernan’s first goal of the afternoon in the second half.
Before kick-off, a minute’s silence to remember Jack Kelly was perfectly observed and injured club captain Manuel Pascali then paraded the trophy.
The Motherwell players formed a guard of honour for the Hampden heroes as they made their way on to the pitch.
Motherwell’s large travelling support of 1300 showed their class by unveiling a banner which read ‘RIP Jack Kelly.’
On the pitch, Kilmarnock were able to put emotion to one side by producing an accomplished performance as they went on to claim all three points.
After a fairly listless opening 30 minutes, which saw Motherwell dominate most of the possession, Killie took control and they got their rewards five minutes into the second half.
Paul Heffernan squeezed his shot past Darren Randolph at the second attempt after clever build-up play involving the influential Gary Harkins and James Fowler.
Heffernan then added a second from the penalty spot.
Midfielder Steve Jennings, who had a day to forget, along with most his teammates, was caught in possession and when the ball eventually found Garry Hay his shot was blocked by the arms of Tom Hateley inside the area.
The resultant penalty was Heffernan’s 11th goal of the season.
Kilmarnock and probably should have scored more goals but in Darren Randolph they found a goalkeeper determined not to turn this into a rout.
Motherwell’s off-day was best summed up by the fact it took them 64 minutes to produce a shot on goal but Henrik Ojamaa’s effort failing to trouble substitute ‘keeper Kyle Letheren.