Kilmarnock’s Steve Clarke was the recipient of PFA Scotland’s manager of the year award for the second successive season on Sunday night but he has admitted that returning to Scotland in October 2017, after 30 years in England, was a gamble which could have ended his coaching career.
By then he had been out of work for a year following the decision by new Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce not to retain him on his coaching staff after he had replaced Roberto Di Matteo.
Clarke admitted at his unveiling that he had returned to his Ayrshire roots not because he still had relatives in the area and not because he would visit Rugby Park regularly as a child to watch his older brother, Paul, play for the club.
His sole reason for coming back was more prosaic; he simply wanted to work with players on a daily basis again.
Even so, he has revealed that he did background checks on Kilmarnock before accepting their offer, recognising that he would never manage again if he failed to revitalise a club which was then propping up the Premiership.
“To come back here was, for me at the time, a slight risk,” he said. “I’d had a good time at West Brom. I don’t care what anyone says; to take them to their highest points tally in the English Premier League is something I was proud of.
“It didn’t last too long in the second season but the first was one I could be proud of.
“At Reading, I took them to an FA Cup semi-final for the second time in their history and over 75 years since they had been there before.
“I didn’t get the chance to do a full season there, so I probably missed out on getting them their record points total.
“But coming up here, if I hadn’t done a good job at Kilmarnock, I would probably have been dusting down the clubs and looking forward to many rounds of golf.
“You have to be realistic and, if this one hadn’t worked out, it may have been more difficult to get back in.
“Obviously, I could have gone somewhere as a coach but I’m talking about being a manager.
“I wanted to make a good fist of it at Kilmarnock with my brother’s connection to the club. They were in the doldrums and had been been for a number of years, due to finances and a disconnect between the board and the support.”
Clarke knew that much from a distance but he carefully examined the problems and potential of Kilmarnock before agreeing to succeed Lee McCulloch in the hot seat.
“As a manager, you have a shelf life, so I had to choose the job carefully,” he said.
“I did quite a lot of research on it, a lot of work on the squad, and I spoke to people who knew players and decided that I could get them off the bottom of the table.
“If you’d told me in the first season we’d come off the bottom and into the top six with a record points total, I would have doubted you a little bit as we certainly overachieved last year.
“At the moment, it looks as though we are going to overachieve this season, which is great. I keep saying that we’ve come a long way in a short space of time.”
However, even though he is a genuine local hero, Clarke is no badge-kisser and, with his family still living in Buckinghamshire, he intends to be reunited with them sooner or later.
With vacancies at Fulham and the Scottish national team yet to be filled, the opportunities for him to do that are out there.
“If we take Kilmarnock into Europe, it would be a big thing,” he said. “To try and win a trophy for Kilmarnock next season would be a big thing. Getting a third top-six finish would be another.
“But people wiser than me in the footballing world always say you never know.
“My phone is in my pocket and one call and one good conversation with someone and suddenly you have another decision to make.
“At the moment, it’s only personal and professional, between my job at Kilmarnock and missing my family down south. That’s the only choice I have to make.
“I’ve been open with [chairman] Billy Bowie from the start and try to be as open as possible with everyone in my life. It’s why I sometimes get myself into trouble.
“Sometimes I say things I should keep to myself, but it’s the way I am. It’s better to be honest with the fans and not to try to kid them on that I would be there forever when that might not be the case.”