Rory McKenzie, who featured in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Dundee, still has to rub his eyes at training. “Sometimes I just look at him and I think I remember him from the TV talking on Match of the Day and now he is here at Kilmarnock,” said the winger yesterday. “The players listen to every word that he says. The experience that he has got can only benefit this club. It just keeps getting better and better.”
And so it does. Tuesday’s win was Kilmarnock’s seventh in succession at Rugby Park. But it means Clarke’s impact is also becoming harder and harder to play down.
As the latest edition of fanzine Killie Hippo, on sale before the victory over Dundee, points out in its editorial: “The biggest worry at the moment for all Killie fans is the constant media plugging of Sir Steve as the next Scotland boss”. Often rightly miffed that they are ignored by a media more accustomed to highlighting stories elsewhere, Kilmarnock would prefer for their upturn in fortunes to remain in the shadows.
Some hope. Not since the late 1970s, when Clarke’s older brother Paul was a mainstay of the team, have Killie put together such an impressive run of home victories.
So used are they becoming to tasting victory at home it was as if they were seeking to make things interesting for themselves by conceding a soft penalty and then getting a man sent off. They still managed to overturn Dundee’s 2-1 lead in the last 15 minutes.
Only goal difference keeps Kilmarnock out of the top six at present. When Clarke was appointed in October they were bottom. No wonder he is the popular choice to be Gordon Strachan’s successor as Scotland manager.
“The change has been huge,” reflected McKenzie. “The whole place has been lifted. Training, games on a Saturday, we can see it for ourselves.
“It is night and day. It is the way the manager goes about his business at training as you know if he is around then everything is elevated and you want to impress him.
“We have a very good squad of players all of a sudden and we know if we are not at it that we will not play on a Saturday. This is a good place to be.”
McKenzie has been at the club for eight years and can’t ever remember times like these at Rugby Park.
“I was out for lunch last Sunday and some of my family are Kilmarnock fans,” he added. “It felt strange talking to them about a Killie team that is winning on a consistent basis.
“Usually they ask me how I am getting on and the stock reply is not too good. But in the last two months all we have been talking about is winning matches.
“That is the first time that has happened since I have been here. It is really good. The turnaround is incredible. I remember sitting here talking to the press when we hadn’t won at Rugby Park. Ever since the Hibs game, when we actually lost at home but the fans stayed to cheer us and were on their feet, we have not looked back. The stand was full even for the Scottish Cup game against Brora Rangers and the manager has brought the feel good factor back.”
When teenagers are coming on to score late winners via solo runs from the halfway line you know there’s something afoot. Iain Wilson has been out since September and was sent on for Scott Boyd just after the hour mark against Dundee. Clarke played down the extent to which it was an inspired substitution.
“I can’t tell you much about Wilson,” he said, truthfully. “He’s been out injured since I came in.” Everything Clarke touches at the moment seems to turn to gold.
“The way things have been going of late shows that we have got a real belief in the side,” said McKenzie. “When Gaz [Dicker] got sent off there was a momentum change.
“I think Dundee thought it was too easy and the game just changed. We were the better side for the last half hour. The crowd were on our side and it was a really good feeling.
“Ibrox [where Kilmarnock drew 1-1 with a Chris Burke goal in time added on] was similar because we scored in the last minute but this was better as we won. But that [v Dundee] is the best I have felt at Rugby Park in all my time here.”