PAUL WRIGHT will forever be known as the man who scored the winner for Kilmarnock in the 1997 Scottish Cup final.
Assessing the Rugby Park club now takes him back to his days as a boy. As under-17s coach at the Ayrshire club, the 45-year-old has witnessed the remarkable dedication with which Killie’s manager and seemingly professional controversialist, Kenny Shiels, goes about his business behind the scenes. It draws the highest compliment.
“I tell you now, I was brought up under the [Alex] Ferguson regime at Aberdeen in 1983 and he watched every single game that he could. Kenny does the same. He’s been to two of our last three, with Jimmy Nicholl at the other, and we are talking Sunday mornings here. We all like our Saturday night but he’s been there for these, first thing.
“It says a lot for his ambition and for the club’s ambition. He loves to play youth. That’s his remit and what he wants. I feel part of it running the 17s and some of our players are blossoming. He took a training session before we played Northern Ireland under-16s recently and, an hour before that, he took an under-10s session. He knows them all by name right through the youth structure and has taken his time to get to know them and their parents. When you see that interaction with the manager from the bottom up, it’s a great place to be right now. It is the way clubs should be.
“Kenny has many things up with him but, I tell you one thing, he’s fantastic for this club. His knowledge of the game is fantastic. I wasn’t too sure when he came in first. Was he the right man for the job? But he’s been unbelievable.”
Wright marvels at the five-year plan Shiels is in the process of executing. The Irishman has stated his intention for Kilmarnock’s first team to be housing eight academy players regularly by the completion of it. The fact that the squad to face Hibernian in the Scottish Cup quarter-final at Rugby Park will feature teenagers Ross Barbour, Rory McKeown, Jude Winchester and Mark O’Hara demonstrates intentions are being backed up with actions. But Wright accepts that there can be no guarantee Shiels will be around to see his remodelling work completed.
“Why should we not go on and win it?” the former striker offers up over the prospect of Shiels completing the set of domestic knockout trophies, following the League Cup final success over Celtic which, he confesses, “I didn’t see coming and no one else did, so fair play to the man”. Such an outcome would, though, change more than Wright being the last player to net the decisive goal for Killie in the final of the Scottish Cup. It could make competition for Shiels’ services difficult to fend off.
“I think he is loyal. He has had jobs over in Ireland but this is maybe his first major job. Don’t get me wrong, anybody who wins cups is sought after and bigger clubs will come and look at you. He used to work down in England. He was head of youth at Tranmere so a lot of folk down in England will be taking notice. If he does put another cup win on his CV then that is how managers get their jobs. You have to be successful. If he wins this Scottish Cup it could be hard to hold on to him. He is decent bloke, intelligent. He will listen to you. I used to hate managers. They used to tell me what to do and I would be like ‘what?’ But he is different. He is fantastic for Kilmarnock.”
The same could be said of Wright during his six years at Rugby Park from 1995, a spell that provided him with “the best moments” of his career. Chosen by sponsors William Hill to promote today’s Scottish Cup tie because he is a former player of both the clubs contesting it, Hibs hardly registers when he reviews his playing days.
“I was only there for a season [1990-91] but out for six months after Neil Berry did me in a derby and done my ligaments. It was just one of those places for me. I went to St Johnstone and it worked, I went to Kilmarnock and it worked. You don’t know why.”
When it stopped working at Rugby Park a young striker called Kris Boyd came in and “replaced” him. “And he replaced me well. Now he’s back and it’s a fantastic signing,” says Wright, who remembers taking the young Boyd for training drills because “his first touch wasn’t the best” but then appreciating his special instinct for goals. “If you put the ball in the box, he’ll put one out of two in the net and that is the ratio you want. I have an old saying: You can be a million-pound player but switch off at five to three or a donkey who can turn a switch on at five to three. I know which way you want a player to go.” You want them to score goals at the right time. A knack Boyd and Wright share.