THE assertion the other night by Allan Johnston that he needed to strengthen “in all areas really” was hardly a ringing endorsement of the squad the new Kilmarnock manager has inherited.
In his month-long tenure, Johnston has acquired only one player, Darren Barr. In the month before, the Ayrshire club shipped out almost a team’s worth of personnel.
That is precisely why 32-year-old James Fowler, now the Ayrshire side’s longest serving player after fellow one-club man Garry Hay was released in the summer, didn’t take personally the comments made by Johnston following Friday’s 2-2 friendly draw at home to Carlisle.
“It’s been a hard pre-season and we are quite a lot down in terms of squad numbers,” he says. “I think you would have to say we are light in terms of bodies and that little bit of quality so I know where the gaffer was coming from.”
One tricky aspect for Fowler has been employing the correct parlance when addressing Johnston, his one-time team-mate at Rugby Park.
“It took me about a fortnight to stop calling him Sticky. That was his nickname when he was here but you can’t use nicknames for your boss. I kept in touch with him after he left so it takes a bit of getting used to making sure you give him his proper place but I’m getting there. At the moment he is just assessing everyone in the squad and seeing what we need, but with the money tight it isn’t easy to bring in players.”
Kilmarnock seem to have been a lightning rod for disharmony since Kenny Shiels was sacked. In the aftermath, various supporters groups and business backers have mounted a relentless local campaign to have Michael Johnston ousted as owner. Fowler, with great understatement, acknowledges that there has been “a bit of negativity round the club”.
“As players we can’t concern ourselves with that. We just have to get on with what we can control and that is getting fit and getting as ready as possible. If we do that and get ourselves in good shape and start to win games then maybe we can give the fans something else to think about when they are focusing on the club.”
That may not be easy with the “Not A Penny More” pressure group petitioning Kilmarnock fans not to buy season tickets or spend money on merchandise until Johnston sells up. It will only be in the weeks and months ahead that the full effect of that campaign becomes known.
Fowler believes that Kilmarnock need to “bridge the gap” between experienced heads such as 31-year-old captain Manuel Pascali, Paul Heffernan, who is the same age and 29-year-old Northern Ireland internationalist Sammy Clingan and the crop of impressive youngsters headed up by Mark O’Hara, Chris Johnston, Rory McKeown, Rory McKenzie and Jude Winchester. “We have good young players who deserve and are getting their chance but they might also need a little help,” he says.
It is only 17 months since Kilmarnock beat Celtic at Hampden to claim a trophy for the first time in 15 years. It doesn’t seem so recent but Fowler refuses to believe a repeat is all too remote. “It was fantastic to experience that relatively late in my career and it might seem longer ago because there are not many of the people involved that day still in the club. I still think we should be aiming for the top six and an extended cup run. The League Cup win showed you never know where getting to the latter stages can take you.”