Danny Armstrong grabbed a deadly double as Kilmarnock returned to winning ways in the Scottish Premiership with a 2-1 victory over St Johnstone at Rugby Park.
The 24-year-old winger opened the scoring in the 11th minute with a stunning free-kick from distance then added a second at the start of the second half before Saints substitute Theo Blair reduced the deficit just as four minutes of added time began.
It was only the second win in nine league matches for the newly-promoted Ayrshire side, who had lost three on the bounce away from home, and the man-of-the-match performance from Armstrong helped take them out of the bottom two, above Ross County and Dundee United.
Killie boss Derek McInnes opted to start with Kyle Lafferty, the Northern Ireland striker facing a 10-game ban from the Scottish Football Association.
Kilmarnock issued a fine to the 35-year-old over an alleged sectarian comment after a video appeared on social media and he faces a Scottish Football Association tribunal on October 20 accused of not acting in the best interests of football.
Lafferty led the line – he would have a quiet game before going off with an injury in the second half – while Chris Stokes, Rory McKenzie, Armstrong and Blair Alston also came into a side desperate to get more points on the board.
James Brown and Ali Crawford returned for the in-form Perth side.
The home side got the start they wanted but only after Rugby Park keeper Zach Hemming had parried decent efforts from Perth attacker Nicky Clark and midfielder Crawford.
After Killie won a free-kick 25 yards from goal, Armstrong set the ball down before sending it over the wall and high past despairing Saints keeper Remi Matthews.
The match turned into a scrap for possession and in the 26th minute Hemming tipped Crawford’s powerful drive from 20 yards over the bar for a corner which the home side survived, after Clark came close with a near-post header.
At the other end, the unmarked Alston failed to connect properly with a Jordan Jones cross and the ball trundled past from 16 yards.
There was barely a minute gone in the second half when Armstrong grabbed his second in a busy penalty area, heading into the empty net after a Stokes effort had rebounded off the bar.
It was the cushion Kilmarnock needed to attack further with more freedom and an Armstrong hat-trick was in the air.
That almost arrived on the hour mark when he confidently jinked into the St Johnstone box and curled a shot inches past the far post.
St Johnstone’s response was muted as confidence and belief surged through the Ayrshire side as the substitutes began to flow on to the pitch.
Saints pushed forward in desperation in the closing stages and Blair fired in from the edge of the box but the home side held out for a deserved and much-needed win.
What the managers said…
Kilmarnock boss Derek McInnes hailed “different class” Armstrong.
He said: “Every game needs those moments of quality. It was important that we got the first goal and what a goal it was. It was different class. I thought at first it was too far out. Fair play to him, he is always practising with a few of the lads every day after training and it came good for him and for us.
“On the back of so many away games and three defeats in a row it was important to be at home and important to demonstrate to the supporters to show that we are here and we are fighting. The body language, the effort, the tenacity and the ground covered was far more what I want.
“It is a case of making sure that being strong at home is going to be a big part of us doing well this year. That is seven points from nine now at home, aside from the Celtic game. It is important we enjoy being at home but it was important that we won the game and we got a bit of confidence.
“Even in the warm-up St Johnstone looked confident. We had to work for that – and by Christ we worked for it.”
St Johnstone boss Callum Davidson, who revealed that missing Adam Montgomery broke his small toe and Connor McLennan had popped his shoulder and was on the bench due to lack of numbers, bemoaned the second goal at the start of the second half which he believes was crucial.
He said: “In the first half we actually created some really good chances and we could do better.
“We concede with a wonder free-kick, which I can accept – but what I can’t accept is the start to the second half.
“That two-minute spell cost us the game. It is really frustrating.
“We had numerous chances to clear our lines, we don’t deal with the cross, with the second phase, a lot of things that I was really disappointed in and ultimately that cost us the game tonight.
“In the second half when we go 2-0 down we need to be braver and ask more questions of the Kilmarnock defence. Be brave, go past people and make things happen – it is the only way you get back into the game. We didn’t do that until the last few minutes.”
St Johnstone will be live on Sky Sports on Saturday as they take on league leaders Celtic; kick-off 12.30pm. Kilmarnock host Hearts in the Scottish Premiership on Sunday; kick-off 3pm.