The astonishing revitalisation of Kilmarnock under Steve Clarke – they have won ten and lost only one of their past 15 league games – means his record against Premiership top two Celtic and Rangers reads played five, won three and drawn two.
The Ibrox’s side fallibility within their own environs means that the ground has witnessed seven home league defeats in a season for the first time in 103 years.
You are entitled to wonder whether Celtic’s closest title challengers might have been Clarke’s team had he been in charge from the start of the season, instead of picking a moribund team off the floor in late October. No wonder the normally reserved Clarke turned effusive as he reflected on a win he clearly relished. Inevitably, it was delivered by a 54th minute tap-in from Kris Boyd, the 20th goal of the season from the rejuvenated striker who has now twice condemned his old club to defeat in the space of three months.
No wonder that Rangers manager Graeme Murty strove desperately to keep a lid on his emotions. A week ago, he had Rangers supporters talking up his team’s prospects of a title challenge. Now, with yesterday’s reverse following on from the derby dunting by a ten-man Celtic, these same supporters have cause to fear being unable to hold off Aberdeen, and even Hibernian, for second place. The Pittodrie men are only two points behind Rangers, having played a game fewer.
Aside from an opening spell when they had Kilmarnock wobbling, and a Russell Martin header that smacked off the crossbar in the 76th minute, the home side could not rival their visitors for adeptness and game nous. Clarke’s men won because they had pattern, patience and poise, largely thanks to their canny coach.
In taking over from the deposed Pedro Caixinha, Murty is responsible for five of the seven home league defeats that place such a stain on the club’s season.
“It’s not about my record... On the club’s record, absolutely, we know this season at home we haven’t been good enough,” the Rangers manager acknowledged. “That’s been encapsulated by today, where a team has come and been very organised and made it difficult for us to play and capitalised on us making a mistake. That seems to be a theme of this stadium this season and it’s one we’re keen to break.”
Murty said he had no “harsh words” for his players at full-time. “If anything they are more disappointed than me,” he said.
They never looked like avoiding an historic defeat after Stuart Findlay launched a header from deep into the box, that Kirk Broadfoot headed down in to the path of Youssouf Mulumbu. Wes Foderingham could only divert the midfielder’s scuffed shot into the middle of goal, allowing the ball to sit up for Boyd to dink in from point-blank range.
It set Kilmarnock up for a win that had the visiting fans cavorting wildly at full-time. Boyd – who praised the belief that allowed his team to pick themselves up from their penalty shoot-out Scottish Cup exit to Aberdeen in midweek – delights in the growing backing a club previously hemorrhaging supporters is now receiving.
“I’ve been fed up over the last couple of years begging supporters to come back because, when the product is rubbish, why would you? Now, though, they have a genuine belief that we are a team going places,” Boyd said. “We’re all playing with a smile on our face with a belief. I just feel the people around the club want to be part of it.
“Over the last few years we’ve had a lot of managers at the football club but to get somebody of the ilk of Steve Clarke with his CV [has changed everything]. The first thing he said was: I will put on excellent training sessions but they’ll only be excellent if you buy into them. From then the players had a genuine belief that we had a real manager coming in here and in buying in to everything we are doing we’d definitely become better players. By doing that we’d become a better team, and we’ve shown that. The run we’ve been on is excellent.”