Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock clinched third place in the Scottish Premiership for the first time since 1966 – and a Europa League place – after a late penalty winner against Rangers.
The hosts shrugged off speculation that Clarke will be named Scotland boss this week to edge out Aberdeen.
Veteran former Rangers winger Chris Burke’s early strike was cancelled out by Alfredo Morelos’ thundering finish.
But Eamonn Brophy’s late penalty sealed the victory Kilmarnock needed.
The goal kept them ahead of Aberdeen – who won at Hibernian – on goal difference and secured a return to European football for the first time since 2001 and a record points total.
They also ended the Steven Gerrard side’s run of seven consecutive victories as Kilmarnock finished their season with a flourish thanks to three straight wins of their own.
Resilience, record scorer and hero’s reception
If the Scottish FA does persuade Clarke to leave, he will do so with the club and the team transformed in his 19 months in charge of the team he supported as a boy.
Kilmarnock had halved Rangers’ normal allocation of tickets, yet 12,248 – the best at Rugby Park this season – turned up in the hope of a crucial result and perhaps say goodbye to their manager.
Yet Rangers, despite Gerrard making five changes, started the game with the swagger you would expect from a side fresh from a derby victory over champions Celtic.
Morelos, back up front despite Jermain Defoe’s fine form, had already scored nine times in six meetings with Kilmarnock this season and was only to be denied by a fine block from Jamie MacDonald, before Daniel Candeias fired against the crossbar.
Resilience has been the watchword for Kilmarnock under Clarke and they survived that early pressure to take the lead when on-loan Celtic midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu pounced on Glen Kamara’s loss of possession and found Burke with a clever chip before the winger to slotted low past Wes Foderingham.
Rangers were almost back level straight from the restart as MacDonald, restored in place of on-loan Watford goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann, beat away a Ryan Kent shot then Morelos fired wastefully into the side netting.
Morelos was to play a crucial double role in his 30th goal of the season – his 18th in the Premiership edging out Aberdeen’s Sam Cosgrove to finish as the division’s top scorer.
Moments after Aberdeen had edged into the lead at Easter Road, the striker crashed into MacDonald and minutes later sent a drive flashing past the ailing goalkeeper, who was soon to be replaced with debutant Devlin MacKay.
When Liam Millar had a goal disallowed for offside, it looked like it was not going to be Kilmarnock’s day. But Stephen O’Donnell went down after a tug on his shirt by Borna Barisic and Brophy’s spot kick evaded the fingers of goalkeeper Andy Firth, who had replaced the injured Foderingham.
The scene was set for manager of the year Clarke, who had been sitting in the stand because of a Scottish FA touchline ban, to come down to join in the justifiably wild celebrations, address the crowd but leave the question unanswered about whether it was a last triumphant bow as Kilmarnock manager.
‘These boys will be here next season’ – reaction
Kilmarnock assistant manager Alex Dyer: “We couldn’t worry about what Aberdeen and Hibs were doing and the boys have pulled it out again. We came here to do a good job and it has worked well.
“We have a good squad, a hard-working squad. They took on board what we said and it worked out well. Those boys will be here next season and the club have a good base again.”
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard: “I’m disappointed with the outcome of the game. I don’t think Kilmarnock’s general play deserved to beat us – I think we have beaten ourselves.
“I thought we were better in the second half until we scored, and then we stopped playing. The referee has then given Kilmarnock a soft penalty to give them the day they wanted.”