It has taken longer than expected but Dundee United really missed Lawrence Shankland at Rugby Park.
One of the most remarkable things about the Tangerines’ return to the Premiership has been their ability to cope just fine without their star man.
Let’s be honest, no one would have predicted that would be the case when the top flight campaign began a month ago.
Until the wheels came off at the weekend, United’s Shanks-less performances had been full of discipline, optimism and positivity.
When his name failed to show up on the team sheet yet again on Saturday, you were disappointed but not surprised.
In his pre-match media conference days earlier, manager Micky Mellon gave Shankland an outside chance of making it – just as he had done in the weeks before – but deep down you suspected it would be another no-show.
The ankle injury not only sidelined him for his club but he also had to pull out of the Scotland squad for the Nations League matches against Israel at Hampden this Friday and the Czech Republic the following Monday in Olomouc.
Over the last few weeks, when you have watched United you have slowly but surely realised they were getting by OK without Shankland.
This time, though, was different.
They definitely could have done with the man who scored 28 times for them last season and played the most significant role of all in their promotion.
United enjoyed the bulk of the possession against Kilmarnock – a huge 67% – but couldn’t find a breakthrough and somehow ended up two adrift at the break.
They particularly threatened up the right flank, with on-loan Manchester City man Luke Bolton sending over cross after cross without any takers. For a split-second, as each inviting ball whizzed into the box, your eye searched for Shankland to see if he was ready to pounce.
Having lost a goal after half-an-hour to Nicke Kabamba’s close-range header, United were still right in it only to concede another to Eamonn Brophy in first-half stoppage-time.
Even after that hammer blow, the Tangerines dominated play following the break only to keep missing opportunities that, you imagined, a fit Shankland would have relished.
The Tannadice men then pressed the self-destruct button when Mark Connolly’s day-dreaming defending let in Kabamba for the third.
Sub Rory McKenzie then finished them off with a brilliant chip after a sweeping move to make it 4-0.
United skipper Mark Reynolds reflected on the continued absence of the club’s top striker, saying: “You’re always going to miss Shanks but the boys who’ve come into the team have done well and games like this are going to happen. We just need to learn from this.”
Reynolds labelled the performance as “naïve” and that description chimed with his manager Micky Mellon, for whom this was his first real disappointment since taking over from Robbie Neilson.
Mellon said: “I don’t want to be one of those managers who bleats about what did happen and didn’t happen but I certainly feel that there was a wee bit of naivety, and that we had to be clinical in those moments to give ourselves a chance of winning.
“We didn’t take care of the details at important times, which you have to be able to do.
“We found ourselves down 2-0 at half-time and I am scratching my head as to how that has happened because I thought we dominated most of anything that happened in the first half. But that’s football at this level, you need to understand and get better at that.
“You will get punished if you don’t attack every moment, or if you think: ‘That one might not be the one you’ll get punished for.’ Well, it was and that’s a lesson for them.”
For once, too, the tactical plaudits went to the opposition manager instead of Mellon.
Killie gaffer Alex Dyer gave United a headache by telling Kabamba to join the midfield any time the Tangerines had the ball in that area. The striker would then quickly team up with Brophy in attack when the hosts gained possession.
That meant they usually matched United’s five in the centre of the park but still got the use of Kabamba when going forward.
Indeed, he and Brophy proved more troublesome for the Tangerines’ defence than anything champions Celtic could muster seven days earlier at Tannadice.
The afternoon was a particularly painful one for central defender Connolly, who has been one of the success stories of United’s return to the big league.
He was not far behind goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist in the contest to be man-of-the-match against the Hoops and tried his damnedest to get on the scoresheet against Killie, coming close on a few occasions at set-pieces.
However, this match, for him, will be one to forget and not just because of the final scoreline.
He blundered big time at the third goal, dithering too long with the ball at his feet before seeing it get whipped away from him by Kabamba.
However, Connolly had his central defensive partner Reynolds speaking up for him after full-time.
Reynolds said: “It’s not even a mistake – it’s one of those decisions you make.
“He has tried to check back inside and, unfortunately, the striker read it and that third goal made it insurmountable for us.
“We had no option then but to keep chasing and that cost us another goal.”