Things turned sour long before a ball was kicked in anger. The surprise sacking of Kenny Shiels was met with almost unanimous derision from the home support, though a minority were appeased when Allan Johnston was named as the replacement. After all, he’d been a well liked Kilmarnock player during the latter part of his career and had just guided Queen of the South to the Second Division crown with a massive points total, as well as defeating Premiership new boys Partick Thistle in the Challenge Cup Final. However, Johnston eroded away that good feeling over the remaining summer weeks, making ill-advised comments in interviews that undermined the work of the previous regime. It was a mistake from Johnston who clearly hadn’t interpreted how well liked Shiels had been among the Rugby Park support. Unfortunately errors in judgement would become somewhat of a speciality for the new boss throughout the season.
The beginning to the campaign was an unmitigated disaster. Kilmarnock lost six of their first nine and had to wait until week ten to get a first victory, scoring a 2-0 win over an equally poor Ross County side – during that time they also made an undignified exit to Hamilton in the League Cup. Having cast aside just about everyone under the age of 25 (unless they were on loan from Celtic), Johnston made a u-turn by re-introducing the promising Killie youngsters of Chris Johnston and Rory McKenzie while also making regular starters of Craig Slater and Lee Ashcroft. With Kris Boyd scoring regularly throughout, results picked up and going into the season’s final quarter it looked just as likely that Kilmarnock would make challenge for a top six place as it did for them going down.
That fanciful dream soon died and they quickly plummeted back down into the mire. A 5-0 defeat at Hearts on the penultimate weekend of the season had them instilled as favourites to slip into the relegation play-off. Then, when all seemed lost, they pulled out back-to-back victories over St Mirren and Hibs to retain their place for another year.
The most interesting acquisition came before any new players had signed on. Gary Locke, having been the mastermind of the aforementioned 5-0 slaughtering, joined Kilmarnock as Johnston’s assistant. It’s not a bad move per se, it’s just strange that Johnston would pick a deputy who’s such an obvious fit as his replacement after Locke was harshly ousted from Hearts soon after the season’s completion.
On the park things look a bit better now that Alexei Eremenko has signed on for another year. His return midway through last season was underwhelming, but Kilmarnock fans are optimistic after the midfielder demonstrated some of his old class in those two victories at the tail end of the campaign.
He’ll need to be something resembling the old fan favourite because, without Kris Boyd, it hadn’t been looking good for the Ayshire side. Paul Cairney adds something different on the wing, Jamie Hamill is an asset when properly motivated and Mark Connolly looks to have put the “one of the worst ever…” comments behind him to carve out a respectable career in England before returning north. Lee Miller, the direct replacement for Boyd, should bring others into play with the same proficiency as his predecessor, and Josh Magennis could be a real wildcard coming off the bench. This is all well and good but does it offset the loss of a man who struck over 20 goals from open play last term and held together an attacking gameplan which consisted of just lumping the ball towards him? It didn’t, but perhaps getting Eremenko to tie it all together may just have tipped the scales back in Kilmarnock’s favour.
We’ve just discussed him at length but let’s go a little further. Alexei Eremenko struggled in his return last term because Johnston played him too far forward. The manager had heard about this terrific No.10 and immediately inserted him into the team playing just off Boyd. The problem was that Johnston did not have a true understanding of the midfielder’s game. He doesn’t play from the classic No.10 position – the ‘hole’ if you will – instead he makes it one of his many stops on his drift around the park, looking to impact the play whenever he can – as long as he doesn’t have to run too much.
Finally Johnston began to understand, and while he didn’t quite give him the free role Eremenko enjoyed under Paatelainen in the Finn’s first spell, he at least dropped him back a little and allowed him to take ball from defenders, work with the full-backs as they advanced up the park and generally opened up the pitch to utilise that terrific vision of his. If the same agreement can be reached this term then Kilmarnock should be fine.
Only Ronny Deila has a worse reputation than Allan Johnston at the moment, and that’s only because of the intensified hysteria that comes with any disastrous result incurred by any one of the Old Firm. The trouble with Johnston is, unlike Deila, he’s got nobody to blame but himself.
He’s had a full year, and in that time he said the wrong things, made some terrible signings, picked the wrong personnel and stuck with an unimaginative tactical outlook. And yet he’s still in a job. Not many managers get second chances such as this one and it’s about time Johnston found some of that old magic (geddit?) he sprinkled on Queen of the South – which sounds like a euphemism when describing a porn film. His transfer policy approach this year would certainly indicate he’s got a better idea of what his team needs, instead of just overloading the squad with second rate crap.
We had them in the relegation playoff getting beat by Hearts over two-legs and going down prior to Eremenko’s resigning. Should he have the same negligible impact as last season then we may well regret not sticking with our first prediction, but in a crowded bottom half of the table that extra little bit of class just might be enough to lift Kilmarnock above some of the also-rans. Our final place may seem high, but expect teams 7 through 12 to be separated by a handful of points.
Finish: 8th Place