My team went to the top of the league last night. No mean feat in a league dominated by the two Glasgow giants and their financial clout, the Edinburgh clubs with their large swells of season ticket holders and Old Firm-splitters Aberdeen, for too many times the bridesmaids but never the bride.
The achievement is a culmination in consistency. The record shows that in the calendar year, from January until now, Kilmarnock, a team who plays in a less than half empty stadium every other week, a team with less season ticket holders than most other teams in the league, a team who pays less to their top earners than an average bench warmer at Tranmere Rovers might earn in a week, has somewhat incredulously gathered more points than their competitors and is now the best team in the country. Today we sit at the top of the pile, looking towards a genuine top of the table box office clash at Celtic Park on Saturday.
If you’d suggested this a year ago, you’d have been laughed out the room. By then, our previous manager, Lee McCulloch, had fallen on his wobbly sword with the team rooted to the bottom of the league we’re now winning. Relegation, even at that stage in the season, was looking very likely. The appointment of the ‘correct’ manager was absolutely key to our team’s survival, not only in the top flight but also to our very existence. Enter Steve Clarke. A one season wonder at West Brom, he’d taken them to their highest-ever Premiership position before starting the following season poorly and paying the ultimate price. With family ties to the club (brother Paul was a stalwart in defence at Kilmarnock in the 80s), Clarke was enticed to take over the reins from McCulloch.
The difference between the two managers is there for all to see. The team is currently on a short but impressive run of 4 (or is it 5 now?) clean sheets in a row. Of the starting 11 in these games, 9 of the players played under our previous manager. Clearly, our success is down to Mr Clarke. At the club’s open day last season, I found myself face to face with his predecesor.
“Hi Mr McCulloch. What d’you think – top 6 this year?”
“Whit?!? Hahahaha!” (nudges one of the other coaches standing next to him. “Peter! Get this guy!” (looking back to me) “Tell him what you just asked me…..top 6! TOP 6!!! Hahahahahaha. Aye, right!”
Now. Even if you’re the manager and you think there’s zero chance of achieving the frankly average position of ‘Top 6’, you don’t go around laughing at the suggestion, let alone laughing your season ticket holders out of the room, especially with the season yet to kick off. The opening to a season, when a ball has yet to be kicked in earnest and all possibilities are endless is the best of times for a fan, especially for a supporter of one of the wee clubs. “This might be our year,” and all that. Yet here was the team manager (the team manager!) pissing on those dreams before our first game. McCulloch should’ve been saying, “Top 6? Nah, mate, we’ll be top 3 this season. Just wait and see.” Instead, our season was over before it had begun. Or, it was until the board saw sense, found some loose change down the back of the sofa and sent the diddy packing. I wonder what he’s thinking now.
The last 14 months have been the best of times for Kilmarnock supporters. Even in defeat, we competed. There was a thrilling midweek game against Hibs where we applauded our team off the pitch, despite shipping three goals. This proved to be the turning point in our fortunes. There was an incredible run of games this time last year where we dispensed of The Rangers, Celtic and Dundee in three of the best matches I’ve ever seen. One nil down to Rangers, Boyd scored a quick one-two and turned the final score in our favour. Youssouf Mulumbu, a player who’d shone in Clarke’s West Brom side slotted the winner in the Celtic game and inevitably earned himself a move to the champions in the process. Best of all was the Dundee game, a match we were winning then losing and, thanks to an anti-footballing Dundee team and some shoddy refereeing, found ourselves a man down as well as a goal down. As the game wore on, the character of the ten-man team came to the fore and, backed by a noisy, partisan and aggrieved home support, an equaliser was dug out before a thrilling winner was scored at the death. As the games, weeks and months rolled by, the team kept on winning from unwinnable positions, picked up points in the most difficult of away fixtures and gave us our best season in many a year. It was fantastic.
And it continues to be so. We’re top of the league. The words ‘Leicester City’ have started popping up in relation to our achievements and the potential this brings, whispered at first but now just that wee bit louder. No team out-with the ugly sisters has won the top league in Scotland since Paul Hardcastle’s ni-ni-ni-19 was top of the charts when, in May 1985, Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen reigned supreme. Of course, at least one of the two slighted Glasgow giants went straight out the following season and spent far more than they could afford on players in a vulgar display of money over merit in a bid to wrestle the title back from the daring Dandy Dons, an arrogant and self-entitled manoeuvre which we in Scotland are sick of by now.
Much of Kilmarnock’s fate in the coming months depends on how they survive the January transfer window. A winning team features winning players and it wouldn’t be the first time one of the big boys from just up the M77 has chapped our door waving offensively woeful figures under the noses of impressionable young players and their agents. More worryingly, a winning manager such as Clarke will have made chairmen up and down the country sit up and take notice. Should any of their charges have a wobble and their coathook becomes a bit shooglier than normal, Steve Clarke must be one of the names in the frame. So we’re dreamers, yes, yet we’re also realists. It’s a nail-biting time and it can all change in an instant. The two teams immediately behind us have games in hand and it’s quite possible we’ll have slipped to ‘only 3rd’ by the close of the weekend, by which time, if you’re only just getting around to reading this article, this blog will read like virtual chip paper.
Here’s Dizzy Dizzy by Can, a track as thrilling, unpredictable and meandering as one of those Greg Stewart runs that leaves baffled defenders toe-tied in his wake.
Can – Dizzy Dizzy