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The date was 30 August 2010. The transfer window was about to close and clubs were involved in the usual last-minute deals as they desperately attempted to push through transfers before it was too late. Anthony Stokes moved from Hibernian to Celtic in one of the more eye-catching transfers of the day but the best piece of business that summer was taking place somewhere in Ayrshire.
Alexei Eremenko had flown in from Ukraine to finalise a loan deal that would prove to be one of the best decisions made in Kilmarnock’s recent history. The Finland international was unwanted by his parent club Metalist Kharkiv and was offered a place at Rugby Park by his compatriot Mixu Paatelainen, who had joined Kilmarnock in the summer. Eremenko has since said that he didn’t know much about Kilmarnock or Scottish football, but the chance to work with Paatelainen made the decision a no-brainer. Paatelainen knew Eremenko’s strengths and weaknesses and how to get the best out of him, the playmaker reasoned.
It would turn out to be the signing of the season. Only a few minutes into his debut against St Mirren in September 2010, it became clear to the Rugby Park faithful that they had a special player on their hands. Eremenko wasn’t the fastest player but his quick feet, coinciding with impeccable technique, made him stand out on the pitch for all the right reasons. Every touch oozed composure and every pass was weighted to perfection as he skillfully exploited gaps in the Buddies defence. With the scores level at 1-1 in the second half, Eremenko announced himself in emphatic fashion with a superb free-kick from the left wing. The game finished 2-1 and a star was born.
Although the Russia-born midfielder was never a prolific goalscorer, it wouldn’t be his last spectacular goal for Kilmarnock – his 30-yard lob at Tynecastle is a goal that will live long in the memory of Killie fans, for instance – but the Finnish international truly excelled as a traditional playmaker. His eye for an incisive pass underlined his technical ability and was seemingly always composed on the ball. By the end of the 2010/11 season, Eremenko racked up 10 assists in 31 appearances – 19% of Kilmarnock’s total goals scored in the league that season. He was providing decisive moments for the team on a regular basis and when he was on form, he was seemingly unstoppable.
Things were going well for Kilmarnock until Mixu Paatelainen left the club in March 2011 to take up the vacant managerial post for the Finland national team. The Kilmarnock board were desperate for him to stay after the Finn knocked back an offer from Scunthorpe United. They offered Paatelainen an improved deal to remain at Rugby Park, but he found the call of his country irresistible.
Fifth in the league and only a point behind Dundee United with eight games to go, it looked as if the side from Ayrshire were going to challenge for a European spot. In the end, Killie appointed Kenny Shiels and the decline was apparent immediately. In an underwhelming end to the season, Shiels drew four and lost four of Kilmarnock’s remaining fixtures as they finished fifth – twelve points behind Dundee United in fourth. Despite missing the final eight matches, Paatelainen was named SWFA Manager of the Year for his work at Kilmarnock and Eremenko made the shortlist for PFA player of the year, ultimately losing out to Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre.
Eremenko left Scotland in the summer of 2011 to join his younger brother Roman at Russia’s Rubin Kazan, who at the time showed great ambition and wanted to establish themselves as regulars in European competition. It was a step up for the playmaker and one that few Kilmarnock fans begrudged him. For that one season, Eremenko was one of the best players in the country and put on a spectacle week-in, week-out for Rugby Park season ticket holders. That, it seemed, would be that.
Sadly for Eremenko, it never really worked out at Rubin Kazan. After making only seven appearances in two years, the technical midfielder moved on a free transfer to Kairat Almaty. Once again, things never really clicked for the Finn and he terminated his contract a few months later. Kilmarnock noticed Eremenko was available and asked if he’d like to come back to Scotland until the end of the season. Eremenko signed a six-month contract in January 2014 but struggled for fitness, only playing around 800 minutes of football during the second half of the season.
The then-manager Allan Johnston was convinced that with a full pre-season under his belt Eremenko could return to the level of form that made supporters fall in love with him in the first place. Eremenko signed a one-year extension as he sought to regain his form and once again put in a series of tremendous performances to secure his place as an icon of Kilmarnock.
The central midfielder made 27 league appearances in 2014/15, scoring four goals and assisting a further nine. He wasn’t quite taking the league by storm as he had during his first spell as age was catching up with Eremenko. But his contribution was undoubtedly sizeable in a season where Killie flirted with relegation for the majority of the campaign. The Rugby Park side finished the season in tenth place, five points ahead of Motherwell, but without Eremenko they would have almost certainly been relegated.
Going into the second last game of the season, Killie travelled to Firhill knowing that a win would be enough to secure their top-flight status for another season. It would be one of Eremenko’s finest performances in blue and white stripes. Kilmarnock won 4-1, with Eremenko finishing the match with three assists and a standing ovation from the away support when he was subbed late on in the match.
It would prove to be Eremenko’s farewell, as the midfielder returned to his native Finland after failing to agree a new contract at Rugby Park. He spent the next two years at a couple of clubs before eventually deciding to retire from playing in 2017.
The Finn made 69 appearances for Kilmarnock across his two spells and it’s hard to think of any other Killie player in recent memory who could match his technical ability. He wasn’t here for a long time, but his exceptional close control and nimble feet cemented his place amongst the Rugby Park greats. Kilmarnock might not see a player with such obvious class and skill again, but fans will always remember his outstanding contribution to the team, particularly during his debut season. He doesn’t have the longevity of a traditional club icon, but Eremenko will always be remembered fondly by the Rugby Park faithful.