Can Steve Clarke be manager of year if Celtic win treble?
It is just as probable, and not a little remarkable, that he could also complete the extraordinary feat of winning back-to-back domestic trebles while missing out on being named as the country’s Manager of the Year.
Last season, just as Celtic’s invincible dominance on the home front turned their march to a clean sweep into a procession, so too were the winners of the various individual awards beyond any reasonable dispute.
Indeed, in a rare show of unanimity both the Scottish Football Writers’ Association and PFA Scotland hailed Brendan Rodgers, Scott Sinclair and Kieran Tierney as Manager, Player and Young Player of the Year respectively.
This year, as both organisations begin to ballot their members, it isn’t so clear cut. There is genuine competition and multiple contenders in all three categories should ensure some lively debate and entertaining controversy as the votes are cast.
It is the Manager of the Year prize, however, which has the potential to cause the biggest stooshie and leave history to reflect that an injustice was served on Rodgers.
For some weeks and months now, a bandwagon has been rolling from the direction of Rugby Park for Steve Clarke to be acclaimed as Scotland’s outstanding gaffer in the 2017-18 campaign.
Clarke is too modest and reserved to bang the drum on his own behalf but his record since replacing Lee McCulloch in the Kilmarnock hot seat last October speaks for itself. He inherited an apparently directionless squad sitting at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership and the transformation he has effected has been astonishing.
Kilmarnock have soared up the table on his watch, securing a top- six finish with something to spare and are now eyeing the possibility of the top four and European qualification. Clarke has revitalised a club that lay moribund for too long. If he does win either or both of the Manager of the Year awards, it would be churlish to suggest it is anything less than merited.
Yet where would that leave us if Rodgers, as the bookmakers and most observers expect, becomes the first man ever to win the treble of league, Scottish Cup and League Cup in consecutive years?
Celtic still have a Scottish Cup semi-final hurdle against Rangers at Hampden to overcome on 15 April before they set up the possibility of another slice of history with a return to the national stadium on 19 May to face either Aberdeen or Motherwell in the final.
The complication for those of us who have the privilege of voting for the annual awards, however, is that time constraints and scheduling mean the individual prizes are handed out before the Scottish Cup Final takes place. This year, PFA Scotland’s event is on 29 April with the SFWA gathering for its awards dinner two weeks later.
The PFA Scotland Manager of the Year award, which was introduced in 2007, is decided by a ballot of every manager in the four divisions of the SPFL. It has often recognised the work of bosses lower down the leagues at the expense of trophy-winning success.
In 2008, for example, Billy Reid took the prize for leading Hamilton Accies to the then First Division title in a season which saw Walter Smith win both domestic cups at Rangers and also lead them to the Uefa Cup final, while Gordon Strachan claimed the league title and made it to the last 16 of the Champions League with Celtic.
In 2011, finishing runners-up in the First Division with Raith Rovers was enough to earn John McGlynn the PFA honour, while two years later Allan Johnston claimed it for his Second Division title win with Queen of the South – despite Neil Lennon winning the league and Scottish Cup double at Celtic.
For the members of the SFWA, there have also been occasions when their Manager of the Year votes have looked beyond the basic currency of silverware. Tony Mowbray took the plaudits in 2005 for a third-place finish in the SPL with Hibs, then Csaba Laszlo won the award for the same feat while in charge of Hearts in 2009.
In 2011, there was also perhaps a precursor of the situation which could unfold this season. For finishing fifth in the top flight in charge of Kilmarnock – the status Clarke is currently on course to emulate – Mixu Paatelainen claimed the SFWA award ahead of trophy-winning Old Firm bosses Smith and Lennon.
The vagaries of determining the country’s leading manager even predate both the SFWA and PFA Scotland’s official prizes. Back in the 1970s, Scottish Brewers sponsored an award which saw them gather a selection of the country’s journalists, broadcasters and administrators towards the end of each season for a voting lunch.
In 1977-78, Jock Wallace became only the second man after Jock Stein to win two domestic trebles. Yet the Rangers boss was overlooked for the Manager of the Year honour, which went to Billy McNeill. The latter’s fine Aberdeen side were runners-up to Wallace’s men in the league and Scottish Cup.
It’s a choice which, 40 years down the line, appears inexplicable. If Brendan Rodgers doesn’t have to prepare an acceptance speech or two over the next few weeks, it may come to be regarded with similar bewilderment.