With as many as six teams still in contention for the Super Premier Division title, it is Kilwinning Rangers who begin the year in pole position.

They leapfrogged previous front-runners Beith with a 1-0 adrenalin-fuelled victory away to Auchinleck Talbot on Saturday, delighting manager Chris Strain who had to make an early morning drive from a family holiday in Inverness for the game.

He was rewarded with the Buffs sitting atop the standings going into 2018 and he was quick to lavish praise on the defensively-disciplined display.

Kilwinning had survived a typical opening onslaught by their hosts in which Dwayne Hyslop passed up a great scoring opportunity and Graham Wilson came close, before they stunned home supporters with what proved to be the game’s only goal near the 20th-minute mark.

Sam McCloskey’s cross from wide left was only half cleared by Auchinleck’s defence and the ball dropped kindly for Bryan Boylan, standing just inside the penalty area, and he despatched a low left-footed volley past goalkeeper Andy Leishman.

Talbot dominated territorially in their search for an equaliser but never seriously threatened Adam Strain’s goal.

Frustrations boiled over in the closing stages as an alleged dive by Jamie Glasgow, seeking to win a penalty kick, led to the striker’s dismissal for his second yellow-card offence.

Strain said: “Craig Pettigrew gave a truly outstanding display against his old club and standing shoulder to shoulder with him were Tommy Maitland and Joe Coleman but the truth is we didn’t have a failure on the day.

“And that’s what is needed coming to Beechwood because Talbot lose precious few games on their own patch so our win has hurt them and it’s all the more praiseworthy given that we had five players posted missing and Carlo Monti playing while only 70 per cent fit.

“We were down to the bare bones to the extent that I was named as one of our three substitutes but I didn’t have the guts to put myself on.

“The guys have worked hard and shown great resolve to get top spot and I’m happy to be up there from a vanity point of view. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that league titles are not won in December.

“The big ask for us now is to maintain the same consistency and standards over the second half of the season.”

Kilwinning are on the road to face Hurlford United this weekend when there is a strong possibility of adding to their two-point lead given that nearest challengers Beith are away to arch-foes Kilbirnie Ladeside, currently four points further back in third.

Strain added: “We have to focus on our games and nothing else because it would be a big mistake to depend upon results going our way elsewhere.

“There are going to be hiccups aplenty between now and the end of season and we will drop points but so too will the other title challengers whom most pundits reckon are Beith, Kilbirnie and Auchinleck, but I wouldn’t rule out Pollok and Glenafton from going on winning runs to push themselves into the frame.

“Six contenders in a 12-team league sounds a lot but it says everything about how competitive this season’s Super Premier Division is panning out to be.”

Auchinleck’s manager Tommy Sloan was disappointed with their latest setback.

“I can take the good with the bad but hunger and desire are attributes needed when playing at this time of the year and it’s disappointing to think Kilwinning showed more than us.

“They were dangerous on the counter but there was a definite nervousness about our approach. We put in a big effort but were found wanting in the final third despite creating some clear-cut chances.

“A big improvement is needed before we face Glenafton next week.”

SATURDAY, JANUARY 6 FIXTURES:(kick-offs 1.30pm unless stated):

Scottish Junior Cup third round:Dyce v Irvine Meadow.

Third-round replays: Cumbernauld Utd v Newtongrange Star, East Kilbride Thistle v Thorniewood Utd, Wishaw v Dundee Downfield.

McBookie.com Super Premier Division (1.45pm): Glenafton v Auchinleck Talbot, Hurlford Utd v Kilwinning Rangers, Kilbirnie Ladeside v Beith, Pollok v Arthurlie, Girvan v Rob Roy, Cumnock v Clydebank .

McBookie.com Super First Division: Cambuslang Rangers v Larkhall Thistle, Darvel v Renfrew, Kello Rovers v Troon, Maryhill v Largs Thistle, Petershill v Rutherglen Glencairn, Shettleston v Kilsyth Rangers.

McBookie.com Central First Division: Blantyre Vics v Forth Wanderers, Greenock v Port Glasgow, Neilston v Rossvale, Shotts Bon Accord v Lesmahagow, St Rochs v Benburb, Yoker Athletic v Glasgow Perthshire.

McBookie.com Central Second Division: Ashfield v Carluke Rovers, Johnstone Burgh v Gartcairn, Newmains Utd v Vale of Clyde, Royal Albert v Lanark Utd, St Anthonys v Bellshill Athletic, Vale of Leven v Dunipace.

McBookie.com Ayrshire District League: Ardeer Thistle v Saltcoats Vics, Craigmark v Ardrossan Winton Rovers, Dalry Thistle v Irvine Vics, Lugar Boswell v Annbank Utd, Muirkirk v Whitletts Vics.