Kilmarnock fans have quickly had to come to terms with two, new aspects of their…
As the ball dropped towards the much-maligned Rugby Park astroturf, the home crowd braced their joints and inhaled half the oxygen in Ayrshire. For in a moments time, Youssouf Mulumbu would stride forward, hunched as always, to meet the descending ball with expert precision. The net would soon ripple – if not burst – and the Congolese would have the send-off that he was owed on what is surely his last Kilmarnock appearance.
Football, however, can be a cruel game. The ball deviated from its destiny, flying over the crossbar before crashing into the Chadwick stand. The stone-faced Hearts fans barely flinched, zombified by another desperate away performance.
Perhaps Kilmarnock supporters had gotten a little carried away. Mulumbu turned with a smile and shuffled back into position – his position. For that is what the midfield usually is – his. Sunday was no exception, especially against a Hearts team filled with players – some of whom were playing in blatantly unfamiliar roles – young enough to think that tweeting an emoji-laden message after the game was an integral part of the cool-down.
Mulumbu was released by West Brom in 2015 and again by Norwich last summer. After 24 appearances in two years, the midfielder arrived in Kilmarnock simply aiming to “show the real Youssouf Mulumbu”. He was, he explained: “A fighter – but the most important thing is to show it on the pitch and not just speak it.”
Kilmarnock supporters, caught in the initial euphoria of Steve Clarke’s appointment and imbued with fond memories of Mulumbu’s rampaging performances for West Brom in the English Premier League, swung between wild optimism and more familiar pessimism. He had been named the West Brom player of the season in 2011 and made 17 Premier League appearances as recently as 2015. But doubts over his fitness lingered.
His debut came in a 5-1 mauling of a limp Partick Thistle. As is the case with good footballers, his first touch stood out. Showcasing deceptive strength, he shielded the ball as if it were a Faberge egg that had belonged to the Mulumbu family for generations. His legs, though, appeared heavy and he was substituted after an hour.
The legs soon regained their strength. As did Gary Dicker’s, who made his first appearance of the season after suffering a serious abdominal injury. Together they joined forces with Alan Power – who had been appointed as Kilmarnock’s sole fit senior central midfielder for the season by Lee McCulloch.
The trio, at their best, out-muscled any side in the division. And with Mulumbu as the fulcrum, they could outplay them too. Dicker, stationed in front of the back four, and Power, who shuttled to his right, allowed the new signing more freedom than he had ever been allowed in England. When the three of them have started together, Kilmarnock were only defeated twice.
Suddenly, a team with no midfield had one of the league’s best – as Rangers realised when they visited Rugby Park two weeks after Mulumbu’s debut.
The television cameras came to Ayrshire that day and as should be expected of a veteran of the world’s most marketable league, the Congolese tended to steal the show.
Celtic swaggered into town in February having won seven out of their last eight games. But Clarke’s malleable squad had been drilled like never before, producing a tactically-mature display that combined close-knit defending with opportune, well-structured pressing.
Mulumbu truly grabbed the attention of the Scottish footballing community that day. He was both at the centre and forefront of Kilmarnock’s performance, battling against Celtic’s comparatively meek midfield and charging forward into the space that was vacated behind it. In the 70th minute, he underlined the freedom Clarke allowed him with a fine finish inside the box.
If Kilmarnock fans did not already adore him, they certainly did so from then on. Soon, trips to Firhill, New Douglas Park and Easter Road were brightened up with a proudly-unfurled Democratic Republic of Congo flag. The favour was returned in Africa, with images of Congolese fans adorning Kilmarnock shirts sighted on social media.
The Mulumbu story, though, was not all a fairy-tale. He missed six games through injury. His passing did not always reflect the level of his ball control and he underperformed in games he had the potential to dominate. In the end he totalled one assist and one very memorable goal and will soon be on his way in search of “one last bumper contract”, in the words of his manager.
And yet, the loudest noise from the home supporters on Sunday – louder perhaps than the goal and the booing of panto villain Kyle Lafferty – came in a moment after the final whistle when Mulumbu separated from the crowd to thank the West Stand. He was serenaded with not one but two dedicated songs. He responded in typically modest fashion, with a worshipping gesture towards the fans.
Going by the stats, his cult status is perhaps nonsensical. But romanticism does not follow in the footsteps of logic. SPFL fans, especially those outside the old firm, had long given up hope on seeing stars who dazzled under brighter lights coming north. Such people, used to seeing their club’s best prospects heading the other way, were ready to give in to romanticism.
In the end, Mulumbu did not rip one in from 30 yards. There was no perfect send-off. But Kilmarnock fans, and many Scottish football fans, will have been glad just to have had him at all.