There is no doubt that Lee Clark has had to roll with the punches across his three months as Kilmarnock manager. In defiantly presenting himself as a man who will never be bowed, the 43-year-old projects that scrapping quality his team need to replicate this afternoon. They simply must come out punching to avoid a top flight knock-out at Rugby Park.
Clark this week came out swinging to counter the jabs that have accompanied his record and methods since the Geordie took charge in February. The first leg of the Premiership play-off on Thursday night typified the Rugby Park side under his tutelage. There was much to recommend about them, except the result. The added-time goal from Falkirk that condemned them to a 1-0 defeat means, though, Clark has only two victories in 13 attempts. If that win ratio isn’t improved on today then Kilmarnock’s 23 years in the upper tier of Scottish football comes to an end.
On radio before the first leg the other night there was also a preoccupation with Clark’s insistence on his players training at the kick-off time for their next game. It was claimed that many in Clark’s squad have had their noses put out of joint by finding themselves travelling home or to Rugby Park during rush hour to satisfy training at 3pm or 7.45pm. Maybe these supposed disgruntled individuals might be better placing their noses to the grindstone in an hour of need at the club that they, not Clark, bear the heaviest responsibility for.
The Kilmarnock manager doesn’t hold back in responding to accusations that his training programme hasn’t gone down terrifically well. “It’s good enough for David Wagner at Huddersfield, good enough for Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, good enough for Luis Enrique at Barcelona: How many more do you want me to rattle off?,” he said.
“I’ve never had any feedback. The players train very, very well. The win ratio and the training programme aren’t right? That’s absolute bollocks. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. Was the result at Falkirk down to our training programme? The players seem fine, they work hard, they’re buoyant. The previous regime, whatever time they trained, was that right, because they weren’t getting the results then either? That’s why I listen to good music on the radio and not all that bollocks that they talk.”
Clark’s default seems bullishness, despite unhappy endings from his three previous managerial positions with Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City and, most recently, Blackpool. Acknowledging “absolutely” the need to provide some succour to a town that has suffered much economically, he maintains that his budget for next season has “already been decided” and that it won’t change irrespective of whether the club is playing in the Premiership or the Championship.
The home masses expected to swell the crowd at Rugby Park to a three-times-the-average 12,000 might be heartened that their manager isn’t contemplating rebuilding from the second tier. “I don’t massage my own ego. I don’t look after my own ratio. All that matters to me is that we win the game and we stay in the league. I know what I’m doing behind the scenes is correct. I’ve had a short period of time, things have improved but ultimately you’ve got to win games.
“I know over the summer that I can produce a group of players that can take this club forward. My short-term remit was to try and keep the club in the highest possible league then to rebuild and not have it where it’s been over the last four or five years, at the wrong end of the table.
“This is the biggest game, because it’s the biggest game for a group of fans who I’ve got total respect for and the backing that they’ve given me and the group. It’s huge for them, we’ve got to do it for them, and then I can deliver, with my training programme, a team that’s worthy of them. That’s all in my mind.”
All, too, in the mind of on-loan defender Lee Hodson. The 24-year-old full-back, whose temporary stint at Rugby Park from MK Dons will end today, was this week named in Northern Ireland’s 28-strong provisional squad for the Euro 2016 finals. The final cut for that travelling party will come this week. Making that, and playing his part in Kilmarnock avoiding the deepest cut, would be “the dream come true” for a player who just happened to be given a senior debut by then Watford manager Brendan Rodgers.
Hodson seems wounded at the suggestion that his hired hand status could inure him to Kilmarnock’s peril in some ways. “This matters to me as much as all the other lads. I’m contracted until the end of the season and it doesn’t make any difference that it’s just on loan. This means the world to me so I want to keep the team up as much as the fans and everyone else at the club does. This is my last game and I want to go out on a positive note.”
It might be the end for Hodson at Kilmarnock. Clark, whatever might be said or be ahead, sees only fresh new beginnings at Rugby Park.