Club of the Month: Kilmarnock – the Clarke revolution

IT HAS been a long time since anyone south of the border thought about Kilmarnock Football Club. It has been more than 50 years since they won their only Scottish title and nearly as long since they made their impact on Europe when they reached the last four of the Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup.

But in the first half of the 2018-19 season, Kilmarnock became one of the pacesetters in the Scottish Premiership to remind people that football isn’t all about the Old Firm in Scotland.

Much of the “Killie” revolution is down to Steve Clarke, the former Chelsea defender who has been one of English football’s unsung heroes, proving to be an excellent support artist to much more celebrated managerial figures at Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool.

Clarke arrived at Rugby Park in October 2017 and took the club from bottom to fifth place in the table. He did so well that he was immediately linked with other clubs, but Kilmarnock kept their man and the result has been a phenomenal season for the club that remains one of the few Scottish outfits that have played in all of UEFA’s inaugural competitions.

Kilmarnock have not been in Europe since 2001-02 when they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Norway’s Viking.  If 2018-19 continues in the same vein, there’s every chance of a taste of the post-Brexit continent later this year.

Kilmarnock’s revival has been all the more remarkable given that just over two and a half years ago, they reported a loss of £ 724,000 attributable to falling income, poor attendances and lower than expected season ticket sales. In December 2017, they demonstrated a turnaround, however, reporting a trading profit of £ 968,000 for the year-ended May 31 2017.

Gates are currently averaging 5,900 at Rugby Park, just under 10% higher than 2017-18. They ended 2018 with a 7,000 attendance for the 2-1 win against Clarke’s old club, St. Mirren.

Killie have lost just four league games this season, two at home and two away. With the exception of a 5-1 drubbing at Celtic at the beginning of December, they have all been by a single goal. They’ve won 12 of their 21 games, including that 2-1 victory against champions Celtic on September 23.

Clarke added a number of new players in the summer, including making Stuart Findlay, a 23 year-old central defender from Newcastle a permanent signing and securing loan players Aaron Tshibola, a DR Congo international from Aston Villa, Birmingham’s Greg Stewart, a 28 year-old centre forward and Mikael Ndjoli, a left winger from Bournemouth.

Stewart and Eamonn Brophy are Kilmarnock’s leading scorers this season with eight Premiership goals apiece. They’ve formed a decent partnership up front with under-21 cap Brophy consolidating on his debut campaign with the club in 2017-18. He was previously with Hamilton but had loan spells with Queens Park and Dumbarton before joining Killie in August 2017 on a three-year deal.

Stewart, meanwhile, has settled in well and Steve Clarke has said he is keen to keep him for the long term. The ball may be in Stewart’s court, though, as his contract with Birmingham expires in the summer. “He’s doing great…we’re happy with him and I know he’s happy with us,” Clarke told the media.

One player who looks set to leave Kilmarnock is winger Jordan Jones, whose contract is in its last six months. The 24 year-old Northern Ireland international has upset the Killie faithful by signing a pre-contract agreement with Rangers. He’s described the potential move as “a dream come true”. Ironically, Kilmarnock’s next game is at home to Rangers!

2019 is a special year for Killie as they celebrate their 150th anniversary. There’s not many people who can recall their 1965 title, a prize they won on the final day of the season, beating leaders Hearts at Tynecastle. More likely, people will have better memories of their 1997 Scottish Cup triumph.

Whether they can add to their honours list is a big challenge – the gulf between Celtic and the rest of the league, in terms of resources and financial clout, is considerable. And now there’s Rangers, who are staging a comeback of a sorts, so finishing high enough to get into Europe has to be the target.

Third place or the Scottish Cup will get them into the Europa League, which will rekindle memories of the 1966-67 season. Kilmarnock, led by manager Malky MacDonald, worked their way past Antwerp, Gent and Lokomotive Leipzig before losing to Leeds United in the semi-final.

Anything approaching an achievement of that nature would make 2019 an appropriate way to celebrate 150 years of football in Ayrshire’s second largest town. This was the place where the first collection of work by Robbie Burns was published (in 1786), but success for the blue and white striped shirts of Killie in 2018-19 would be sheer poetry for its 46,000 people. They might even raise a glass of Johnnie Walker whisky (which also originated in Kilmarnock) to Steve Clarke and his lads!

Photo: PA

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