“Maybe Hibs fans were right to call me a fat so-and-so” - Tommy Wright on being back in football at Kilmarnock after losing weight in lockdown

Tommy Wright is a shadow of the manager he once was, although this observation should not alarm Kilmarnock supporters.

Tommy Wright has been unveiled as the new Kilmarnock manager after signing a two and-a-half-year contract at Rugby Park
Tommy Wright has been unveiled as the new Kilmarnock manager after signing a two and-a-half-year contract at Rugby Park

It’s just that of all the qualities recommending the Rugby Park club to him – large catchment area, good potential crowds, several players he admits he tried to sign previously – the renowned Killie Pie won’t be something he is tempted to try.

The weight has fallen off him since he chose to leave St Johnstone during the first lockdown nine months ago. It has made the 57-year-old reconsider his objection to being baited by Hibs fans near the beginning of last season when his side equalised before quickly losing another goal in an eventual 2-2 draw at Easter Road.

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Wright’s playful celebrations when St Johnstone equalised again in the last minute did not go down well with the Easter Road faithful. References to his belly might have been aimed in his direction.

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After a poor start to the last campaign, St Johnstone recovered to the extent that it felt like a shock when it was announced their Scottish Cup-winning manager was leaving the club last May. Covid-19 restrictions nixed Wright’s plans to go on holiday. He paced along local roads in Northern Ireland instead. “I walked the length of the Sahara desert according to Fitbit, so I have,” he said.

“Unfortunately, with my knees I cannot do any running, so I did a lot of walking. I built up to 70kms a week – my actual training shoes have done more kms than my car over the last period of time. I lost about 16 kgs. Maybe the Hibs fans were right to call me a fat so-and-so! The one thing (about lockdown), people out there stay safe, but I tell you what – it’s good for you!”

A trim Wright regards Killie as a good fit. Once a goalkeeper, he resolved not to let this opportunity go past him. A third of the 12 clubs in the Scottish Premiership have changed managers since he departed McDiarmid Park. If he did not secure the then-free Northern Ireland manager’s position, which went to Ian Baraclough in the end, it was assumed he would walk into the first vacancy that came along in the Scottish top flight.

But Dundee United, Motherwell and even the Ross County jobs came and went without Wright being invited to hold a scarf above his head in time-honoured tradition. Then Kilmarnock were compelled to make a change – ironically, after losing 3-2 to St Johnstone.

Some wonder whether Wright will be able to create the same alchemy at Kilmarnock as he did in Perth. After all, his new club seem to suffer from similar problems, such as limited squad investment, that meant the Northern Irishman did not always rub along well with his chairman at St Johnstone, Steve Brown. And then there was the further potential issue of the artificial surface at Rugby Park.

Wright has gone on record in the past to register his dislike for such pitches. He refused to play striker Steven MacLean on them at St Johnstone and once admitted he was “very much in the grass camp” when it came to surface preferences. Did this feature in the deliberations over whether to accept the two-and-a-half-year deal? “No, I’m not the one playing on it,” he said. “Good question, I knew it was coming ...”

Other than the weight loss, he hasn’t changed in his time away. He’s still straight to the point, he still doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

He’s certainly blunt when asked about the bigger clubs many believe should have snapped him up when they had the chance. “There were big clubs who could have taken me and have ended up in worse positions with the managers they took,” he said. “If they cannot see what I can do for them then that’s not my problem. It does not bother me.”

Killie are big enough in any case. Steve Clarke showed what can happen there. Crowds flocked back, the Old Firm were in their sights. Things haven’t gone quite as planned since Clarke left to take over Scotland while the squad is an ageing one. It also contains a large proportion of players due to be out of contract this summer.

“It’s got potential to be big in terms of the fanbase because of the catchment they have got,” said Wright, when asked about the possibilities at Kilmarnock. “Steve Clarke was able to eventually fill three sides of the ground and that is something that will happen here if I can get near the success I had at St Johnstone, so that’s the challenge.

“It is also a club that is in the stages of needing a re-build – there are 17 players coming out of contract. I enjoy that side of it. I re-built two squads during my time at St Johnstone. I have experience of that.

“The timing is right,” he added. “I was starting to get itchy feet in terms of wanting to get back.”

He is looking up rather than down. A win in his first game against Motherwell tonight will see Kilmarnock swap places with the Fir Park side, who are currently ninth. Kilmarnock would then only be three points behind St Johnstone, in eighth.

“Callum [Davidson] has done well,” said Wright with reference to his successor. “I’ve spoken to him a few times. I take a sense of pride as he’s probably got three of the best young centre-halves in the league and [Shaun] Rooney has turned out to be a good signing, which is one I did before [I left].

“Callum has gone in and done his own thing with them, but it was probably the best young squad in the league. We were finishing on a high. But I am the Kilmarnock manager now. That will be my focus.”

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