Perform with distinction against Rangers and especially at Ibrox and they will probably come for you. Embarrass them and that’s almost a definite.
This has been a grumble of fans of provincial clubs for decades. They’ve seen their best men lured to Govan on the back of shock wins there. There’s a famous old photograph indeed of Alex Ferguson, feet up in his parlour, reading a newspaper’s rave review of the hat-trick he scored for St Johnstone in 1963. Admittedly Fergie first went to Dunfermline Athletic – they were a force in the game at the time – but three years later was turning out in light blue in the ground where he enacted the dastardly deed.
Rangers didn’t need a second look at Jim Baxter. Watching through tiny slits in trembling fingers, the dazzling performance by Slim Jim in Raith Rovers’ 1959 victory, capped by a wonder goal, had been all the proof they needed that here was a Gers legend in the making.
A quirk of these seismic moments is that they usually happen around Christmas. Admittedly Allan Johnston’s Ibrox hat-trick was a couple of weeks into 1996 and as with Fergie there was a detour before the Hearts striker ended up at the club – but it was on 27 December, 2014, that Scott Allan tormented Rangers who after that were determined to prise him from Hibernian. “Whatever it takes,” was the bumptious boast of the Ibrox hierarchy, although on that occasion, with Rangers’ power denuded, the player didn’t come.
So what are we to make, then, of this out-of-season “story” about Steve Clarke and Rangers? Is it even a story when, with a break in the fixtures and no let-up in the need for words and blethers to fill column inches and airtime, voices from Punditland claim it would be a “dereliction of duty” if Dave King and his board didn’t have the Kilmarnock manager in their sights as the next Rangers boss?
Alex Rae, the ex-Rangers midfielder, has questioned whether allowing Graeme Murty to take charge for the rest of this campaign was the right thing to do. Advancing the case for Clarke, he said: “He’s done a remarkable job with Killie, taking on and beating the Old Firm with a fraction of their resources. I’d be extremely surprised if he wasn’t on [Rangers’] radar.”
Well, Rae is probably right – on both counts. Clarke’s revival of the Ayrshire club has indeed been remarkable. When he arrived at Rugby Park last October they were propping up the Premiership. Now, having dumped Rangers on their backsides twice and handed Celtic only their second domestic defeat, they are comfortably top six and eyeing up Hibs in fourth place.
That’s seriously eye-catching form and once again it’s viewable right on the doorstep. The Ibrox faithful witnessed Clarke’s Killie outsmart their team just six days after Celtic’s tactical switch had won the Old Firm derby. Rangers had made a fair bit of noise before the latter match about how they were firmly back in the game, thanks to Murty’s leadership. But these two losses seem to have changed everything.
Rangers’ home form, decidedly dodgy before, has officially become record-equallingly lousy. Murty could not match or counter what Clarke did tactically, just as he had been bested by Brendan Rodgers, and now his long-term prospects have taken a pronounced and possibly fatal dive.
Murty’s excitement before the Old Firm game apart, he has impressed with his quiet leadership in the madhouse, or madhoose. Well, Clarke would be even quieter. There’s been chatter from Punditland of Rangers needing to appoint an “A-lister”, the inference surely being that personality and a touch of glamour would be necessary attributes along with the coaching smarts.
Clarke, though, disregards such fripperies.
Who thought there was any more usefulness to be squeezed out of Kirk Broadfoot, or any more goals to be extracted from Kris Boyd as the striker began feathering his nest in Punditland? Who thought the Moffat Stand at Rugby Park would ever resound to the songs of home fans again as it did in the Scottish Cup replay against Aberdeen? Clarke has performed minor miracles at Killie and this surely can’t have gone unnoticed at Ibrox.
Understandably Kilmarnock’s majority shareholder Billy Bowie is irked by the speculation about his manager’s future. “Steve has never mentioned anything about going anywhere,” he said. “As far as we’re concerned he’ll be here next season.” Maybe his reasoning goes like this: “The gaffer going to Ibrox just because we’ve duffed up Rangers in their own backyard? He can’t be – it’s not Christmas.”