We’ve got just three games left until the split in the Scottish Premiership now and…
Kilmarnock fans have quickly had to come to terms with two, new aspects of their supporting life this season. The first one is rather obvious: they’re simply superb under Steve Clarke in almost every metric. The second one, unfortunately, leads on from the first: that every single improved player will be linked with bigger, richer clubs. And so will their manager.
Indeed, we’ve seen Clarke’s achievements at Rugby Park link him to a number of available positions. Perhaps the most notable one was the recently-vacated post at Hampden. Yet now the Killie boss is being linked with a move to Ibrox. And it doesn’t really make any sense.
At this moment in time Rangers sit second in the Scottish Premiership, two points above Aberdeen, 10 behind Celtic and still in with a chance of winning the Scottish Cup. And on paper, Graeme Murty is not only doing a decent job at Ibrox but perhaps even finds himself in an enviable position – yet it’s unlikely that Clarke would see it that way.
Sure, Clarke – like many ambitious managers – may look at such a challenge and feel slightly enticed to jump in with both feet, but the Ayrshire tactician doesn’t come across as a man who acts on impulse or without calculating the consequences of his actions.
Like the defensive, effective tactics that have sent Kilmarnock flying up the league table, the 54-year-old’s success is built on the foundations of minimising risk. And although there may be some glory in coaching a club the size of Rangers there’s also an undoubtedly high amount of risk as well.
Rangers may have a number of talented players within their squad, but no less than four of their key talents are on loan and will leave this summer if permanent deals aren’t agreed. And on top of that, both Kenny Miller and David Bates’ contracts expire at the end of the current campaign too.
This coming pre-season will be one of upheaval for whichever manager ends up taking on the Rangers job and it will all need to be done against the backdrop of qualifying for a continental competition that the club’s own board and chairman have confirmed are crucial for maintaining the current levels of spending.
Even if Clarke can tiptoe around such initial obstacles, the long-term goals and aspirations at Rangers will still prove to be a daunting task for even the most ambitious manager. To pull away from Aberdeen or Hibernian and then set your focus solely on toppling Celtic may sound like a handy soundbite at the AGM each season, but it’s also a demand imposed by the fans and board that has proved to be something of an albatross around the neck of each coach that has tried it.
Clarke need only look at the way Mark Warburton went from flavour of the month to an unceremonious sacking under Dave King, how quickly Pedro Caixinha was flown in and then carted out, or the manner in which Graeme Murty has gone from plucky underdog and potential long-term coach to desperately underqualified for the job in the space of just two defeats to Celtic and then Clarke’s own Kilmarnock. Each and every coach is a warning of how quickly things can turn on a manager at Ibrox.
Similarly, the fiasco surrounding Derek McInnes’ proposed appointment will be considered a serious red flag to any manager of Clarke’s calibre. The Aberdeen boss was undoubtedly enticed by the size and gravitas of Rangers but was also clearly far from impressed or convinced by the men running the show. And the manner in which the club then attempted to steer public opinion against him would have troubled Clarke deeply.
Without intentionally bashing the Ibrox club too much, there are simply too many ifs and buts surrounding Rangers at the moment. And the harsh reality of the situation is that a coach like Clarke may feel fare more inclined to avoid the unnecessary drama at this point in his career.
Of course, this isn’t just about Rangers. While Clarke may be flattered by any potential interest shown by the club or indeed the Scottish FA a few months ago, there’s very little to suggest that the former West Brom and Reading manager would at all be interested in another job in Scottish football.
Clarke’s decision to move to Kilmarnock was based largely on the club going through his Killie-supporting brother to convince the former assistant to Jose Mourinho that the Rugby Park side were an ambitious club that would give him all the time and space he needed to get his career back on track.
After four years of bouncing off the walls at three separate English Championships clubs, Clarke was undoubtedly encouraged by the idea of taking a step back to take two forward. And as such his move to peaceful Ayrshire was confirmed.
That’s not to suggest that Kilmarnock or Premiership clubs, in general, possess the reputation of backwater, rehab centres for troubled coaches. Far from it. But as Neil Lennon, Alex Neil, Robbie Neilson and the speculation surrounding Derek McInnes, Jack Ross and even Brendan Rodgers this very season can attest to; if you prove your coaching credentials in Scottish football then it isn’t long before English clubs of all shapes and sizes come calling.
If Clarke’s ultimate goal is to return to English football then he can already do that from the comfort of Kilmarnock. Perhaps 10-15 years ago a Scottish-based coach would need the aura of Celtic Park or Ibrox to take the next step up but the modern game completely negates the need for it. Clarke simply doesn’t need Celtic, Rangers or Scotland to land a job at the biggest clubs in the Championship.
That, ultimately, is Clarke’s most likely plan in the foreseeable future. Rather than take on further jobs within Scottish football, the Killie boss is well aware that Rugby Park offers him the perfect platform to showcase his talents and earn a return to the English Championship, or perhaps even higher, on his own terms.