Kilmarnock fans have quickly had to come to terms with two, new aspects of their…
Scottish football is often unfairly maligned as a boring, predictable concept. Celtic win the league every year and not much else changes. Yet, every so often someone comes along and flings a large rock in to the supposedly calm, undisturbed waters of the Scottish Premiership. On October 14, 2017 Kilmarnock chairman Billy Bowie did exactly that when he convinced Steve Clarke to take over the reigns at Rugby Park.
Following a commendable but ultimately doomed project under the enthusiastic but inexperience Lee McCulloch, the Ayrshire side found themselves sitting dead last in the Premiership table with just three points from their opening eight games. Relegation was staring Kilmarnock in the face and a drastic change was necessary.
As chance would have it, the solution to Kilmarnock’s problems was a familiar face at Rugby Park. Steve’s brother, Paul, was a regular punter at Rugby Park and despite an avalanche of applications for the managerial position the club turned to the former Killie central defender to enquire about his younger brother’s availability.
A year had passed since Clarke’s stint as assistant manager at Aston Villa had come to an end and despite an impressive CV showcasing the coach’s talents across English football’s biggest clubs Clarke had simply slipped out of the limelight. It may seem odd to suggest now, but the current Killie boss was rarely mentioned for positions in the Scottish game last summer and certainly wasn’t on any bookmaker’s shortlist for the Rugby Park post.
Clarke obviously decided that Kilmarnock was a smart fit for him at this point in his career and since that day in October the centre of gravity in Scottish football has shifted. Sure, Celtic were still on top but the status quo would never be the same and the number one reason for that would be the team Clarke built.
In our recent Talking Tactics interview with Clarke’s central midfielder, Gary Dicker, the senior player remarked on the media’s constant desire to know what his manager had to say before, during and after their games. Narratives within Scottish football have always demanded iconic scenes of coaches unleashing dramatic, emotional speeches in the dressing room. Perhaps it’s because we’re a dramatic, emotional country or perhaps we simply use passion to compensate for a lack of technique or genuine ability. But when it comes to Clarke he lets his ability as a coach do the talking long before any game.
“He’s not one to be jumping up and down,” said Dicker. “Our work is done Monday to Friday. It’s built all week. Whether it’s a possession game or a small-sided game or anything: it’s all designed for the game that weekend.”
Where some coaches rely on mythical metrics like “passion” or “desire”, Clarke knows that a well-trained team will rely upon experience and education to overcome their opponents. And that’s how his Kilmarnock side overcame all before them: with one game at a time.
With limited funds and a team that were supposedly destined for the Championship, Clarke got to work rebuilding Kilmarnock in a system that his former boss, Jose Mourinho, had had so much success with at Chelsea. Where McCulloch’s youthful side had thrown caution to the wind in the hope of attacking football winning the day, Clarke’s new-look side would be a defensive, rigid side that eliminated risks and punished teams on the counter attack.
And it worked wonders. His first match was a 1-1 draw at Ibrox which ultimately cost Pedro Caixinha his job. A week later he locked horns with the seemingly unstoppable Brendan Rodgers and demanded a point from the Scottish champions. And in the 10 games that followed before the winter break the Rugby Park side lost just two.
Although Kilmarnock took in the new year still battling among troubled sides in the bottom six, their fans couldn’t have been happier. Momentum and serious, genuine purpose had returned to the team and there was little doubt that 2018 would see Clarke’s side push on even further up the Premiership table.
And they did. In spectacular fashion. Not content with simply avoiding relegation, Clarke’s side pushed on seemingly destined to claim a top-six finish before the split in April. Although a quarter-final defeat to Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup would end any hopes of silverware, Killie fans still celebrated wins over Celtic and Rangers in the league with just one defeat – again, to Aberdeen – in 13 Premiership matches.
We now find ourselves looking at a league table with Kilmarnock sitting fifth on 55 points. A comfortable tally that remarkably has them just seven points behind Rangers in second place. And only a fool would say this imperious, Clarke side couldn’t possibly catch them.
To appreciate Clarke’s Kilmarnock you have to acknowledge the manner in which the 54-year old has not only mastered the art of tactically preparing his side for the next opponents, but also his ability to get the very best out of the players at his disposal.
Perhaps the most obvious example of that is the striker that leads the line for Kilmarnock every week. Many were convinced – including the man himself – that Kris Boyd’s best days were behind him, yet the 34-year old has fired home 21 goals in 37 games so far this season. Last year he got eight.
Boyd’s success is obviously no coincidence. Behind the Killie target man is a line of exquisite, young attacking forwards that have only gotten better under Clarke. Jordan Jones, Eamonn Brophy and Lee Erwin all look like potential stars at Rugby Park this season, while dominating full-backs in Greg Taylor and Stephen O’Donnell have added an extra dimension to Kilmarnock’s attack.
Behind them is a midfield trio of Dicker, Youssouf Mulumbu and Alan Power that can happily wrestle control off of any opposing side in the country. And even if a talented foe can tip-toe beyond that barrier they still have to contend with a much-improved pairing of Kirk Broadfoot, Stuart Findlay or Gordon Greer at the heart of defence, as well as one of the division’s most in-form goalkeepers in Jamie MacDonald.
If it sounds as though Clarke simply has the Midas touch then that’s kind of because he has. In just six months the Kilmarnock boss has improved every single aspect of the club and the very same team that was struggling to pull themselves off the bottom of the league table have now gone toe-to-toe with Celtic and Rangers and won.
That may eventually change but for the time being Clarke has no equal in the way he has transformed and improved his team. The Kilmarnock manager is the gold standard of coaching in the Scottish Premiership at the moment and it will take something special to dislodge him from that well-earned position.