Steve Clarke has not been involved in Scottish football since he signed for Chelsea from St Mirren 30 years ago but he hardly needed to be given a guided tour of Rugby Park when he met the media for the first time as Kilmarnock’s manager yesterday.
His earliest memories are of travelling from his home in nearby Saltcoats to watch brother Paul, seven years his senior, turn out for Killie in the 1970s. He would go on to make almost 400 league appearances for the club. Another brother, Michael, regularly attends home games.
It would have been easy, then, for Clarke to have come in kissing the badge and talking about returning to his homeland and his first love. To his credit, he did not, instead revealing that he had rejected the opportunity to take charge of the club on several previous occasions, that he only accepted this time because he felt the need to work again after a year out of the game following his dismissal as Aston Villa’s assistant manager (along with the boss, Roberto Di Matteo) 12 months ago.
He also explained that he now regards England as his home and announced that he would be returning there as soon as his time with Kilmarnock comes to an end.
None of which is to say that he is either desperate or unambitious, merely unusually honest. He also feels he has a point to prove after feeling that he was treated unjustly in his two previous managerial posts.
In 2012-13, his first season with West Bromwich Albion, he took the Midlands club to eighth place, their best top-tier finish since 1981. Yet he was sacked midway through the following season, in spite of beating Manchester United at Old Trafford for the first time in 35 years three months earlier.
“I still don’t feel I got the credit I deserved there,” he said. “I’m not a bitter person but I felt it ended too quickly and that was disappointing, especially since it’s so difficult for a Brit to get a manager’s job in that division. But we shook hands and moved on, new chapter.”
His other experience with his hand on the tiller, at Reading, also ended prematurely. Appointed in December, 2014, he guided them to their first FA Cup semi-final for 88 years only to be dismissed after a year, with his team ninth in the table: they would finish in 17th place.
Clarke is driven by a determination to prove he can be a successful boss in his own right (he has served as No 2 to luminaries such as Ruud Gullit, Jose Mourinho, Gianfranco Zola and Kenny Dalglish, and alongside Brendan Rodgers when they were youth coaches). His CV suggests he should not have had to wait so long for offers to come in but he believes that he is one of the more fortunate members of his profession.
“There’s a select group of managers who’ll always be employed,” he said. “Roy Hodgson, Tony Pulis, big Sam Allardyce… they’ll always get jobs. But there are hell of a lot of other managers who get one chance and never get another one. There are even more who get two chances and never get another. I feel quite fortunate to have a third opportunity.”
Clarke has committed himself to Kilmarnock until 2020 but he could have been in the hot seat long before now.
“There have been similar roundabout approaches,” he said. “I don’t need direct approaches because I have friends and family in this area and somebody always knows somebody who’ll ask :‘Would Stevie be interested in coming back up?’ It was always ‘No, not at the moment’. This time was slightly different – it ticked a lot of boxes for me.
“Coming back to Scotland didn’t play a part; definitely not. My brothers and sisters are still here, my dad’s still here. Karen, my wife’s from Kilmarnock. Her mum and sister and brother are still here. My family are down south. I’ve grown-up children who are living with their partners down south, I’ve a grandson now.
“Our family are there. When this job finishes I’ll be going back down south because that’s home to me.”
Kilmarnock moved off the foot of the table by beating Partick Thistle 2-0 at Firhill on Saturday. Clarke was present on a watching brief.
“It was quite humbling to sit amongst so many people chanting your name – all I did was say hello to the players and wish them luck,” he said.
“The fact so many fans were there tells you there is maybe a little bit of excitement around the appointment. My task now is to make sure I don’t disappoint them and I can promise them I’ll do everything in my power to get a successful team on the pitch.”