There isn’t a week that goes by without a former professional talking up the job Steve Clarke has done at Kilmarnock.
While the Rugby Park faithful would rather his name was left out of conversations about Scotland, Rangers or any other team which doesn’t call KA1 home, you cannot argue against all of the praise coming his way.
Everything about his time in Ayrshire has just been so impressive. He’s taken the club from relegation battlers to assured top six finishers, reigniting a spark among the supporters which had lain dormant in the previous few seasons before his arrival.
While some signings have helped - Youssouf Mulumbu, most notably - largely he’s managed to achieve this with the same bulk of players he inherited from Lee McCulloch. This is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the job he’s done thus far. It’s one thing to take a floundering squad and overhaul it completely. It’s quite another to take an unimpressive core and improve it to an extent where they’re one of the best teams in the country.
Here are the eight players who’ve transformed the most under the former West Brom and Reading manager’s stewardship...
There’s every chance Alan Power wanted to go on holiday last summer and instead sent a non-football-playing lookalike to start for Killie in the Betfred Cup. There is little other rational explanation - apart from Steve Clarke’s magical transformative powers, of course - to explain how someone would look so out of his depth against League One Ayr United and then go on to have a sustained spell in the early winter months where he was literally Killie’s man of the match in every game.
A plodding, cumbersome looking right-back has steadily reverted back to the player he was with Partick Thistle: a marauding powerhouse capable of influencing play consistently at the attacking end. He also looks like a more dependable defender than his days in Maryhill. Killie fans were recently calling for him to be included in the Scotland squad. Considering the nation’s dearth of options at right-back, it wasn’t the most ridiculous shout.
While he still has his wild moments, he’s certainly more reliable now than at the beginning of the campaign. After several shaky performances he was banished from the starting XI following a daft red card against Hearts for pulling the hair of Esmael Goncalves. Between then and Lee McCulloch’s exit he only featured once more, coming on as substitute in a 2-0 defeat to Motherwell. As soon as Clarke stepped through the door he was a player transformed. The new boss didn’t even have to manage the team to improve his fortunes, as Broadfoot was one of the best players on the park as Clarke watched on from the stands while academy director Paul McDonald led the squad to victory at Firhill. He’s barely been out of the team since and can count himself among the best centre-backs in the league this season. Yes, that’s right - Kirk Broadfoot has been one of the best centre-backs in the league this season.
This is probably the most impressive transformation. While Alan Power was adjusting to Scottish football, and the likes of Stephen O’Donnell and Kirk Broadfoot were getting their fitness levels and match-sharpness back, Boyd had already been playing regularly at the club for two seasons. Fans wouldn’t have said he was terrible over that stretch, still chipping in with a goal now and then, but he was nowhere close to replicating the form showed in his talismanic season before his ill-advised return to Rangers in 2014. With eight games still to play in the current campaign, he’s only one goal shy of matching his total from his previous three league seasons - and one of those was in the second tier! More than his strike-rate, though, he’s no longer an ageing poacher hanging about the final third waiting on a chance. He’s contributing to the attack even when he doesn’t find the net, bullying defenders, holding the ball up and creating space for others.
Another attacker who’s been reinvented under Clarke. He always looked an intriguing prospect during his time with Hamilton, though he never quite put it all together. Often he would drift around the attack with little purpose or idea on how to influence play. Now he’s regularly at the centre of things. In addition to being a ruthless finisher in the final third, he’s shown himself to be an excellent link-man with midfielders and his attacking partner, a characteristic which beguiles his diminutive frame.
The gradual improvement of the former Motherwell striker has highlighted Clarke’s patience. It would have been so easy to pick out the most underachieving member of the first-team striking corps and look to discard him in January in order to get his own type of striker in. Instead, he’s tried to build Erwin’s confidence back up after it was slowly eroded during a difficult spell south of the border following an ill-advised exit from Fir Park. If recent performances are anything to go by, he’s returning to the player he was at Motherwell: dynamic, strong, direct and capable of scoring goals.
The midfielder has always been willing to run himself into the ground for the cause, though sometimes he does so without discipline, simply haring around without actually influencing the game much. Clarke has used his stamina and work rate and channelled it in order to maximise his worth to the team. It’s no coincidence that McKenzie now tends to start most of the tougher games and you have to wonder whether he’s having cold feet about his pre-contract agreement with St Johnstone.
The youngster started Clarke’s tenure on the left of the back four but has looked much more comfortable playing at his natural centre-back position. With his poise in possession and calm demeanour he’s the sober yin to Broadfoot’s raging yang. Getting the 22-year-old on a permanent deal would be huge for Kilmarnock going forward as the other first-team centre-backs are all over the age of 30.