If Steve Clarke’s name wasn’t already on the short-list of candidates for the Scotland managerial vacancy which Stewart Regan left behind in his in-tray this week, then someone in the SFA offices should perhaps now be scribbling it somewhere near the top.
The former West Bromwich Albion and Reading boss saw his stock continue to rise with this fully merited victory over Celtic on a day which saw the Scottish champions’ injury woes escalate as defenders Dedryck Boyata and Kristoffer Ajer limped off in the first half.
Youssouf Mulumbu capped an exceptional individual display with the only goal of the game to hand Kilmarnock their first victory over Celtic at Rugby Park for eight years.
Fixtures against the Old Firm are proving to be meat and drink for Clarke whose transformational effect on Killie now sees them unbeaten in four outings against Celtic and Rangers under his command. Supporters of the Ayrshire club can only hope the 54-year-old continues to operate under the SFA’s radar.
Clarke’s personal influence in the successful recruitment of Mulumbu back in November has been a key factor in Kilmarnock’s progress and it has emerged that they almost lost the 31-year-old Congolese midfielder to Bordeaux in the closing days of the January transfer window.
“It was a crazy week for me,” said Mulumbu. “On Monday, I had a great offer from a big club in France. I would have been sad to leave Kilmarnock so soon but it was a great opportunity. But on Wednesday, the board and Steve Clarke cancelled it because it was taking too long. I am happy to stay now and I want to help Kilmarnock finish in the top half of the table.”
Killie became only the second Scottish side to inflict a defeat on Celtic during the Brendan Rodgers era as he was left waiting anxiously to learn the full extent of the respective groin and ankle injuries suffered by Boyata and Ajer, with their Europa League tie against Zenit St Petersburg this month looming large.
“We will just have to assess them,” said Rodgers. “Of course when you lose two of your defenders so early, it is disruptive, but I wouldn’t use that as any excuse today.”
It was an eventful afternoon from Jack Hendry’s perspective as he made his debut for Celtic following his deadline day move from Dundee. The 22-year-old began the match as part of a back three alongside Boyata and Ajer but then found himself in the company of Nir Bitton and Kieran Tierney at the base of Rodgers’ 3-2-4-1 formation as the defensive injuries forced the hasty reshuffles.
While Celtic’s system afforded them their customary dominance of possession, it was not matched by any significant degree of penetration as an attacking force in a first half which saw Kilmarnock create the more dangerous openings. On-loan Chelsea playmaker Charly Musonda made little impact in his first start for Celtic.
Jordan Jones, whose pace and directness posed a threat to Celtic whenever the hosts were able to get on to the front foot, troubled Dorus de Vries with a shot the keeper spilled and from the resulting melee, Greg Taylor might have done better than pull a shot wide.
De Vries did manage to hold a driven effort from Kris Boyd as Kilmarnock showed increasing levels of enterprise and ambition as the interval approached.
Apart from a couple of efforts from distance by Olivier Ntcham, the second of which fizzed narrowly over, Celtic caused precious little concern to Killie keeper Jamie MacDonald in a largely forgettable opening 45 minutes.
The visitors increased the tempo of their play after the break but while they managed to hem Killie in for a spell, their struggle to create anything resembling a clear-cut sight of goal continued.
When Mulumbu’s goal arrived with 20 minutes left on the clock, Clarke’s side had firmly re-imposed themselves on the contest and were not flattered by taking the lead. Celtic’s defence was stretched by Mulumbu’s crossfield pass to Jones on the left. The winger held the ball up smartly and then picked out
the supporting run of Mulumbu who was left unmarked to sweep a close-range shot beyond de Vries.
Kilmarnock passed up a series of chances to make life more comfortable for themselves in the closing stages, Jones wastefully skying a shot over, while Mulumbu saw another close-range effort saved by De Vries.
The closest Celtic came to grabbing an equaliser was a sweetly struck free-kick from Ntcham in the 90th minute which forced MacDonald into his first genuine save as he threw himself to his right to divert the ball wide.
“We could’ve played here until midnight and not scored,” observed Rodgers. “We were very disappointing. There have been very few occasions in my time here when I’ve said that but we weren’t so good in all aspects today.”