Football: Kilmarnock ready to run with the giants

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GREY MIGHT be the new black this season for the followers of fashion but followers of Scottish football have seen blue replace maroon, with Kilmarnock becoming the new Hearts.

The vogue has been for a provincial club to challenge Rangers during their period of domination, with Aberdeen and then Motherwell taking up the gauntlet while Celtic were in disarray. Last season Hearts challenged both Rangers and Celtic until the final weeks of the season.

This season Bobby Williamson has taken Kilmarnock a step further. A Scottish Cup triumph 19 months ago has been followed by a Uefa Cup place and now the Ayrshire side are joint top of the Premier League with Rangers and just one goal behind as they prepare for today's trip to Ibrox.

Williamson, a former Rangers striker, has astounded everyone at Rugby Park. With an average gate of 9,000, Kilmarnock will never be able to compete with the Glasgow giants in the transfer market, but Williamson pulled off a signing coup in the summer when he attracted Ally McCoist and Ian Durrant to the club.

Both were huge influences in Rangers' decade of domination and at Kilmarnock they have injected new life on and off the field. As players they are showing they still have something to offer and they are the focus of attention in the dressing room with their particular brand of high spirits and humour.

It was thought the emotional trauma would ensure that neither would ever play against Rangers but both are looking forward to running out again in front of a full house at Ibrox and Williamson has no doubts as to their commitment.

"They are professional people and we are the ones who are paying their wages," he said. "Ian Durrant has been turning in some great performances for us and he will relish the chance of going there and showing his mates what a good player he is."

Kilmarnock's rise has not been achieved with just two players and Williamson's brand of alchemy has been to transform bit players and journeymen into stars. Gary Holt began his career in the British Army before joining Celtic when Lou Macari was the manager. After leaving without playing a first- team game his career was undistinguished before his performances of last season and this attracted the attention of Craig Brown, the Scotland manager. Mark Reilly, an influential midfielder left in the summer for Reading but has since returned.

Paul Wright and Jerome Vareille have formed a potent striking partnership to the extent that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

This afternoon's game will represent the biggest test so far with many people expecting, indeed waiting, for them to fall flat, a situation Williamson knows all about.

"They have been waiting a long time now," he said. "Since I took over they have been saying it can't continue but why can't it? We've got good players here, they are very conscientious and they work hard so I don't see why it should burst if there is a so-called bubble."

Williamson is about to find out how difficult it is for smaller clubs to compete for the League. Aberdeen, Motherwell and Hearts all won a cup around the time they rode high in the League but found the demands of a campaign bit deeply into their resources. Kilmarnock, too, have limitations.

"That's the way it is - Rangers could turn round and buy half our team if they wanted to and we'd probably have to sell," Williamson said. "But who knows what can happen in football. We just have to keep continuing to do what we do and produce good players to have any chance against the Old Firm.

"However, we have seen Rangers demolish St Johnstone 7-0 and they beat us 3-1 down here. We've seen how dangerous they can be and on Saturday we'll have to be guarded because we know if we don't play as well as we can we could be on the wrong end of a serious hammering."

Perhaps, as Aberdeen proved in the 80s, provincial sides have to go to Glasgow and win if they are ever to compete with Rangers and Celtic. By tonight Williamson and his team will have a greater appreciation of that fact.