Rob Kiernan is relishing his return to Rugby Park tonight but there has been one major change at the venue he briefly called home which causes him dismay.
The Rangers defender enjoyed a loan spell with Kilmarnock in 2010, making his bow for the Ayrshire club on the night they spoiled Robbie Keane’s far higher profile debut for Celtic with a shock victory.
That match was played on grass but Kilmarnock have since joined the growing trend in Scottish football for artificial surfaces, an issue which is currently causing significant controversy.
Kiernan is supportive of the PFA Scotland survey which revealed an overwhelming majority of players prefer grass pitches.
Rangers are in the midst of a run of three successive games on artificial surfaces. Following their 1-1 draw at Alloa on Saturday, they face Kilmarnock in tonight’s Scottish Cup fifth round replay before travelling to Queen of the South on Sunday.
Kiernan believes the surfaces are both unfair and potentially damaging to the health of players.
“I don’t agree with them at all,” said Kiernan. “It gives an advantage to the team who train on it every day. It’s so different – the run of the ball, the flight of the ball.
“Injury wise, it causes nightmares. I’m not a fan at all. I find it harder the day after playing on an artificial pitch. My joints, my body, my back. It makes an impact.
“Obviously it is going to put more stress on your body. I know there are a couple of teams with astroturf pitches in the Premiership so they are going to be there next year whatever league we are in. You just have to get on with it. But in my personal opinion, I don’t like them and it would be nice to see them gone.
“It’s also not great for the image of Scottish football. When you play a pass, the black pebbles come up and the ball doesn’t bounce nicely.
“I can’t use it as an excuse, because everyone has to play on them up here. But it’s not something you see in England. We don’t have them and there is a reason for it. During the winter, when it is freezing and snowing, you have to get training done. But not during the season.”
Pitch concerns aside, Kiernan only has warm regards for Kilmarnock and fond memories of what he regards as an important part of his career.
“I stayed in the hotel opposite the ground,” recalled the 25-year-old. “It will be nice to see a few familiar faces who are still there.
“I remember my debut clearly for obvious reasons. Jimmy Calderwood, who manager at the time, put me on as a right back with about 20 minutes to go.
“He asked me if I had ever played there before and I said ‘yeah loads of times,’ but I’d never played there in my life! I was just desperate to get on. Afterwards, he grilled me and told me my positioning wasn’t great and I said that was because I’d never played there before. He said ‘so you lied to me then?’ and fined me!
“Playing against Robbie Keane was incredible. He was so sharp. I wasn’t ready for his movement at that time. One moment, he was there, the next moment he wasn’t. It was a great experience and I will always be grateful to Kilmarnock for giving me the chance to play at that level at that stage of my career.”
Rangers travel down the M77 as odds-on favourites to progress and claim a home quarter-final against Dundee or Dumbarton.
Despite the goalless draw at home to Kilmarnock and the misfiring 1-1 draw at Alloa in their last two games, manager Mark Warburton shares the confidence the bookmakers retain in his team.
“The only time you are concerned or frustrated is when you are not creating chances,” said Warburton. “Look at Saturday’s game, for example – we had 23 corners and 25 chances. So 99 times out of 100, we win that game. If we’d only had four corners and seven chances, then we would have a problem. The number of chances and the quality of chances you create are the biggest indicator. In terms of looking at a striker, it’s the quality of chances and not the number of goals he scores that we look at.
“Against Kilmarnock at Ibrox, we played very well, especially in the second half when we dominated. Should we have won the game? Absolutely.
“But it’s not a frustration, it’s another learning curve for us. Now we go away to Kilmarnock, another different surface and a stadium our young players haven’t been to before. I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.”
Warburton is dismissive of any instant effect Kilmarnock’s appointment of Lee Clark as manager will have on tonight’s tie.
“I’ve spoken to our players about this,” he said. “Everyone speaks about the impact of a new manager. I don’t think it exists. Why does a club sack a manager? It might have lost 12 out of the last 13 games. The law of averages says you are about to win one.
“If they suddenly win a game just because of a new manager, then you could say the players weren’t trying as hard under the previous one, which would be an indictment of the players. Lee McCulloch has done a great job in the past couple of weeks, drawing against us at Ibrox and then getting a good win at Motherwell on Saturday.
“I managed against Lee Clark when he was at Huddersfield and then again when he was at Blackpool last year. He’s a nice guy and he had a great playing career. He has since had a lot of managerial experience in the English Championship and League One. So I’m sure he will do a great job for Kilmarnock.”
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