Kilmarnock manager Derek McInnes praised his team for achieving their primary objective of staying in the cinch Premiership after they beat Ross County 3-1 at Rugby Park to avoid a relegation play-off.
The Ayrshire side, who were promoted from the Championship a year ago, have spent most of their first season back in the top flight in a dogfight at the foot of the table.
But they managed to get themselves out of the bottom two going into the final weekend of the campaign and then held their nerve to stay in 10th place by defeating County and consigning their opponents to a two-legged play-off against Partick Thistle.
“It’s a huge pat on the back for my players in how they have dealt with the last few games,” said McInnes.
“We are pleased we have met the demands for this season to stay in the league.
“I would have taken 40 points at the start of the season all day long.
“In the last 18 months we have got the team up and we have kept the team up, but the demands shift again now.
“We have to be ready for next season but we also have to recognise the effort involved in getting the job done.”
Killie took a first-half lead through Brad Lyons before further goals in the second half from Danny Armstrong and Kyle Vassell either side of a penalty from County’s Yan Dhanda.
“Danny has carried the fight all season for us and it was fitting that he got the all-important second goal,” said McInnes.
“Then when we needed that calmness at 2-1, Vassell came up with the big moment.”
County boss Malky Mackay lamented aspects of his team’s play at both ends of the pitch as they failed to get out of the play-off spot.
However, he was determined to accentuate the positives of their finish to the campaign after they fought their way into 11th place having been cast adrift at the bottom following a 6-1 defeat away to Hearts five weeks ago.
“When we were beaten 6-1 at Tynecastle and went four points adrift I don’t think anyone gave us a chance of still being in the division,” he said.
“For us to come off the bottom and not be the relegated team, I’ve got to give real credit to team.
“I’ve got to look beyond today when I thought we could have been better. I’ve got to put it in perspective and realise the effort the group have put in over the last few weeks to climb off the bottom and give ourselves a fighting chance on the last day of not being in the play-off position.
“If somebody had said after Tynecastle, I’ll give you the play-off position now, I think most people would have been thinking ‘you’re not going to be there, you’re going to be relegated’. I’ve got to look at it like that.”
County are sweating on the availability of top scorer Jordan White for Thursday’s play-off first leg away to Partick – who have scored 16 goals in their last four games – after he went off at half-time at Rugby Park with a head knock.
“Partick Thistle is undoubtedly going to be a tough game,” said Mackay. “They’re playing well and I’m sure plenty of people will think we’re the underdogs for the game but Ross County are always underdogs in the Premiership so it will not be any different.
“We’ve got two legs to play to stay in the league and we’ve shown over the piece in the last five games we’re a tough team to play against.”