Kilmarnock go into Saturday’s clash with Celtic top of the league. Joel Sked looks at Steve Clarke’s influence and how they achieved such a feat.
“The past few years we’ve suffered, crowds have dwindled through the years, always fighting relegation has only brought along more fears.”
So the song goes around Rugby Park or when the passionate and noisy Kilmarnock travelling support roll into town. It suggests a dispirited and bleak future as the fans revel in fatalism. Except it is the first three lines of a more buoyant and prosperous chant about a forward-looking and upbeat football club.
Suffered. Dwindled. Fears. Three words that set the scene. Three lines to tell a story. A story of a flailing club. One which was lacking in direction and imagination. One without an identity.
What Kilmarnock lacked in leaders it made up for in disgruntlement and apathy in the stands. Disenchanted fans had drifted away, not turning their back once, not even for a wistful look at what once was or what could be again.
Now former chairman Michael Johnston’s mere presence was like that of a Dementor, sucking the life and soul out of the fans. Ambition seemed to be outlawed, a taboo word. For many he was persona non grata. Even when the club wriggled free of his shackles which were drowning this Ayrshire establishment further and further, the managerial choice left a lot to be desired.
A young, energetic and ambitious manager in Lee McCulloch was understandable, his recruitment in hindsight impressive. Prior to him Lee Clark jilted the side, but this was a club which needed a manager to drag them out of a rut: reinvigorate the playing squad, the staff, the fan base, a community.
What was required was someone with firm beliefs, with gravitas, an aura that encourages people to follow rather than rebel.
Enter Steve Clarke. An FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup winner as a player. A Premier League manager. An assistant to Jose Mourinho. A training ground coach to John Terry and Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben, Hernan Crespo and Ricardo Carvalho.
Now he was back home in Ayrshire. At Rugby Park. To say Killie pulled off a coup would not do the appointment justice.
Announced ahead of the club’s visit to Partick Thistle - a game he wasn’t in charge of - in October 2017, Killie sat bottom of the Ladbrokes Premiership with just three points from the first eight fixtures.
“Within a week you could see the work he had done,” said Gary Dicker, who was injured at the time. “You knew straight away that this was going to change a lot and you want to be part of it. You could see the shape of the team and the understanding of everyone’s role in the team was simplified. The effects of it started straight away.”
After away draws with both sides of the Old Firm in his first two fixtures, the team lost 3-0 at home to Hibs. The team, however, weren’t booed from the pitch. The fans recognised that times were in the midst of changing, they had witnessed a team who were positive, had a plan and an idea.
Arsenal boss Unai Emery once said: “Fans want their emotions to come to the surface. And how do they do that? Watching their team win, watching their team transmit emotion: intensity, attacking, scoring goals, competing, fighting. That’s what awakens them.”
The win might not have been there, nor any goals, but there was emotion. Emotion breeds a relationship, and the connection between team and support can be a powerful combination.
It has fostered a positive mentality around the club and it all traces back to Clarke. His personality is such that he would play down any attempt to paint him as a messiah-like figure, but that’s how Killie fans see him.
No team have won more points in 2018 than Kilmarnock Football Club. It is the Rugby Park side who sit top of the Ladbrokes Premiership. The first time they have done so after 10 or more matches since they won the 1964/1965 league title - the only time they have done so.
It is an incredible achievement, especially when you consider the club’s wage bill. Figures have yet to be released for the year 2017-2018 but, to give an idea, in 2016-2017 it was £2.2million - lower than both Ross County and Partick Thistle.
Thankfully, as Roma sports director Monchi said: “No one takes a ‘what great economic results’ banner to the stadium.”
This success has been built on the training ground, through man-management, attention to detail, simplicity, control and organisation.
“Controlled is the best word you could use for what’s gone on here,” said Dicker.
Clarke is in complete control. Players are willing to genuflect and allow their manager to act as guide. Dicker also compared his boss to good teachers.
“The ones that are able to explain things better and get their point across are usually the better ones,” he said.
In Germany, Clarke would be called a menschenfanger which translates as man catcher. He is able to talk players into doing things beyond their capabilities. That may be doing a disservice to some of the Killie squad but such is the influence the manager has had. Standards have increased, demands need to be met.
One of the key reasons for the player’s willingness to buy into Clarke’s ideas is the way they are treated by the manager. He has fostered a strong relationship between management team, which includes Alex Dyer and Billy Thomson, and playing squad, as well as among the team itself.
He treats every individual the exact same. It doesn’t matter if it is Kris Boyd, Miles Ndjoli or Ross Millen. This is reflected in training where every single player has to be giving 100 per cent all the time. No player is assured of their place. Boyd has been dropped, as have Jordan Jones and Jamie MacDonald.
Clarke has no qualms because he has full trust in his squad, for players to seamlessly transition into the starting XI without a drop-off. And this is down to his ability to transmit his ideas and what he expects of players clearly and succinctly.
“It’s strange because he makes everything seem so simple,” said centre-back Stuart Findlay. “You’d think he’d done something dead magical to turn us around but it was just a matter of getting us back to basics. Every single player knows what he wants from them.”
Clarke, as seen in his dealings with the media, doesn’t waste a word. He doesn’t have the time for that.
Players are not bombarded with information, instead it is steady drip feed throughout the week. The training ground is his domain, working Monday to Friday, preparing for 3pm on a Saturday. Dicker called it “working smart”.
“He doesn’t do something for the sake of it and the training is exactly the same,” he said. “It is all structured in a certain way for the build-up to that game and it’s enjoyable.”
The same sessions he was putting on for those Chelsea stars are benefiting the likes of Greg Stewart, Alan Power and Stephen O’Donnell.
A paragon of organisation and control, Clarke keeps it simple for his players because he has distilled every single detail down to a bite-size revision pack. Everything from positions certain players take up on the field to the dimensions of opponents’ pitches, he has chewed it over.
This control and organisation is replicated on the field. The 4-4-2 system may be outdated to some but Kilmarnock make it work because the individuals know the collective is the most important aspect if they are to enjoy the success and because they know their roles. It would be no surprise if they trained blindfolded.
Killie have one of the best pair of full-backs in the league, players who can play both ways. Kirk Broadfoot and Findlay have formed a balanced centre-back partnership, while Scott Boyd is a dependable replacement. Alan Power is one of the best all-action midfielders in the division and then there is the threat going forward. Jordan Jones and Eamonn Brophy, plus veterans Chris Burke and Kiris Boyd give provide plenty of creativity and goal threat as well as competition.
There those within Scottish football who will say the key weapon is the club’s plastic pitch. Yet, Killie have the best away record in the division. The true x-factor on the pitch is Greg Stewart. The man who has replaced Youssouf Mulumbu, not positionally but as a figurehead and the epicentre of the team.
The foundation Clarke has built is allowing these players to flourish. This is a team representing a club which the fans have fallen in love with again. The support have a totem in Steve Clarke, a leader who has provided the club with an identity, one which has been missing for too long.
With the club top of the league in December it is tempting to offer Killie fans a salient piece of advice courtesy of Van Halen front man Samuel Roy Hagar: “Yesterday, s**t that’s history. And there’s no point of worrying about tomorrow because might not ever come. There’s no guarantee about tomorrow, f**k tomorrow. All we have is right here, right now.”
Yet, this is football, fans should be allowed to dream. And, plus, the Killie boys still have a story to finish.
“But now we have our leader, his name is Stevie Clarke, you’ll never take the Killie, the boys from Rugby Park.”