IF THERE was a Man of the Year award in Scottish football, then Kenny Shiels would already have his name engraved on the 2012 bauble. The Kilmarnock manager has made the Rugby Park club vital again.
In the context of where they stand in the country’s football firmament, no club has pulled off as many monster wins, the most notable a League Cup final triumph over Celtic.
Yet, Shiels’ newsworthy status has hardly been reliant on the Kilmarnock team’s on-field fortunes. The Irishman is facing the possibility of a ten-match touchline ban for questioning fourth official Andrew Dallas’ account of an incident that led to him being sent to the stand earlier this month.
Shiels is forthright to the point of being deliberately antagonistic but his regular spats with other coaches and officialdom have merely served to make him an even more captivating presence.
You do not require to make the case for Shiels and his club being shining lights in the past 12 months, though. Under gentle prodding, he will do that expansively himself, thank you very much.
“I think we’ve been kept under the radar by the whole spectrum of the media and the tension, if you look at what we’ve achieved in this last year,” he says. “I went to the Sunday Mail [Scottish Sports] awards, we never got a mention, went to the PFA dinner at the end of the season, the football writers dinners, and we barely got a mention. We only had one player [his son, Dean] nominated in the shortlist. The manager, nobody was nominated for anything, and what we’ve achieved last season way surpassed any other club.
“I think the calendar year has been fantastic for us. We’ve beaten almost every club. For a small club like Kilmarnock, on our budget with our infrastructure, with over £9 million debt, what we’ve achieved on the football pitch has been phenomenal.
“If you look at it, four or five players of ours put together get less money than the referee, do you know what I mean? It’s a disgrace,” the 56-year-old says. “Celtic were on a 26-game unbeaten run going into the League Cup final and had won 24 of them. In the last year the records we broke were, we beat Celtic in Glasgow for the first time in 55 years, then towards the end of the year we beat them at Parkhead for the first time in 57 years. We beat Rangers twice in the one season for the first time ever in SPL history. We’ve travelled and beaten Celtic, travelled and beaten Aberdeen, travelled and beaten Hearts, travelled and beaten Hibs, travelled and beaten all the big fish in this calendar year.
“That is a remarkable achievement for the crowd of whisky-kickers that we are, with players signed from York and non-league clubs in England and some young lads on £10,000 a year. You know it’s amazing what we’ve achieved and people don’t understand it. We have played against people who are earning £20,000 a week. It’s fantastic and I have great pride in what we’ve achieved. It has been an exceptional year for Kilmarnock.”
He could have added that the League Cup triumph marked the first time Kilmarnock had ever lifted the only domestic trophy to have previously eluded them, and the first time a Glasgow club had lost in a cup final for 14 years. Moreover, he is the first manager in living memory to be undefeated against the big two when a calendar year has brought games against them at Hampden, Celtic Park and Ibrox.
Yet, such remarkable feats are in danger of being overshadowed by Shiels’ propensity for putting noses out of joints and commandeering headlines for comments considered unbecoming. Unsurprisingly, he objects to that reading of his run-ins, within which the Dallas ding-dong is out on its own. “It’s nothing to do with me, it’s about the team. I’m newsworthy but one thing I have that not everybody does is a clear conscience. If you’ve a clear conscience you don’t fear anything and that’s a great place to be.”
Shiels, according to Shiels, is a great man for a football club to have at their helm. He has the pedigree to back up the claim with 13 honours accumulated at previous clubs Ballymena United, Coleraine, Carrick Rangers and Tobermore United. In his homeland, the Northern Irishman reputedly adopted the same approach to upsetting others (especially those imposing the laws of the game) as he has in Scotland, in that his only consideration on speaking out is to stand up for the “integrity and values” which he deems non-negotiable.
“I’ve been successful at every club and won trophies at every club I’ve been at, and from a personal point of view my ego has been stroked,” he says. “I’ll be successful everywhere I go because I keep working with a clear conscience and I know that’s a big advantage to have over a lot of rivals.”
Kilmarnock are currently only eight points shy of second-placed Motherwell, who have played two games more. The games in hand will be reduced when Hibernian visit Rugby Park this afternoon, the first of four games in ten days that will shape the season for Shiels’ team, if not necessarily the season for Shiels himself. He refuses to set any targets.
“Those are difficult because you can go to Celtic and win then lose at home to St Johnstone. You can’t target games and say you’ve got a good chance of winning there. It’s not like that any more, it’s such an inconsistent league. There’s not one team you can say are consistent. Inverness and Hibernian have taken opposite paths this season. Inverness started really poor and they’ve hit a run where they’ve been really successful in their outcomes and Hibs is a role reversal to that. Dundee United have been down and up and Kilmarnock have been the same but I think it’s unfair to say that we’re inconsistent or United are inconsistent. It’s because of the type of player we’re shopping for. We’re not bringing in Carlos Tevez where he’s going to be consistent every week. We’re shopping for players where we are and, while Inverness are shopping in the upper echelons of the market at clubs like Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool, at Kilmarnock especially we’re more down the leagues a little bit.”
When it comes to manager who demands attention, though, Kilmarnock are at the very top of the pile.