Kilmarnock signed a number of players known within Scottish football but began their season with a 4-0 defeat at home to a rampant Dundee. Craig Cairns looks at whether this is a sign of things to come or if the squad needs time to gel.
Allan Johnston returned to one of the clubs he turned out for as a tricky winger with much promise after winning the Second Division championship and Challenge Cup double, as well as the PFA Scotland Manager of the Year award with Queen of the South. Johnston stretched his budget to the maximum, signing up a few knowns and a few unknowns. After no wins in their first two, Killie won six of their next eight league matches.
Shortly after this, a bonus row ensued and Johnston rubbished any suggestion it would affect his team on the park. Whether it did or not, a run of two wins and two draws in 13 matches followed and saw him sacked and replaced by his assistant Gary Locke. Locke, initially appointed on an interim basis, had an immediate impact, going unbeaten for his first six – though only winning two – before evoking memories of Hibernian the previous season when they nosedived towards the play-off position. Seven consecutive defeats gave us a much more interesting relegation battle but, towards the end, they did enough to escape with a 4-1 victory away to Partick Thistle.
Solid or uninventive? Locke appears to have signed exclusively from the ex-Rangers and Hearts markets, so far adding Kris Boyd, Stevie Smith, Lee McCulloch, Jamie MacDonald, Scott Robinson and Dale Carrick. Of these, Boyd brings the most promise, after two successful spells with the club previously. He and Carrick may well form a decent partnership this season.
The addition of Kallum Higginbotham could also prove significant. He will be expected to become one of the main playmakers in the side, if not the man who most of the attacks are directed through, replacing Alexei Ermenko. Higginbotham will be key from set-piece deliveries as well – another area where Eremenko thrived. Locke’s side scored 43% of their 21 league goals under him from set-pieces: three from corners, four from indirect free kicks, two from direct free kicks.
Just where Higginbotham will be used, though, remains to be seen. He was used behind the striker in Kilmarnock’s opening day disaster at home to Dundee but has played the majority of his football in a wide role in recent years. This will depend upon whether or not Locke starts matches with Boyd as the lone striker or else as part of a duo with Carrick.
As well as these, the young, highly-rated centre-back Stuart Findlay has joined on loan from Celtic, though may have been permanently scarred by his crushing debut on Saturday.
With all these arrivals, you wonder how much opportunity will be granted to two of their top performers from last season. The awkward Tope Obadeyi managed four goals and three assists under Locke – finishing the club’s top goalscorer in the league with nine – while Terrace favourite Josh Magennis scored four and assisted three.
Locke may just have signed well enough to take his side in the right direction, though question marks still remain over his ability as a manger. His only previous experience in management before succeeding Johnston was taking a young Hearts side down into the Championship. His hands were tied, however, as the club started with three players over the age of 21 as well as with a 15 point deduction and transfer embargo. Locke flirted with relegation again last season, despite their relatively comfortable position when he was appointed full-time.
Something he will need to address is the amount of points lost from winning positions last season. Locke’s side have squandered 14 points after taking the lead, winning only twice in the seven matches they have gone ahead.
As with many of the clubs outside Celtic and Aberdeen, the upcoming season could go either way for Kilmarnock, though early indications suggest they’ll struggle. Locke may just come up with a system that allows these experienced Premiership players to flourish. Just as likely, however, is for their opponents to know exactly what they are up against each week, such is the familiarity of their signings, making it a long season for the Rugby Park club.
Scoring goals doesn’t appear to be a problem for Kilmarnock. Even during their run of seven matches without a win, Locke’s team scored in every single match. The addition of Boyd, Higginbotham, and Carrick should further enhance this area, meaning Kilmarnock’s defence could be the key to any success this season.
It certainly requires improving, as evidenced by their opening day horror show. Mark Connolly, missing for parts of last season due to injury, has been handed the captaincy – even though still only 23-years-old – after Manuel Pascali left the club. The worst player Derek McInnes has ever coached will be required to lead a relatively young backline this season.
To see just how crucial Connolly is to Kilmarnock’s defence, you only have to look at their win percentage with and without him last season. Of their 41 matches in all competitions, Connolly played in 29. Of those, Kilmarnock won 11 and lost nine. Conversely, Kilmarnock played 12 matches without Connolly last season, winning just once and losing nine. This means that Kilmarnock’s win percentage without Connolly last season was 38%, without him they won just 8.3% of their matches. That’s 1.3 points-per-game with him, just 0.33 without him.
Four Old Pals that Locke Could Sign Next
1. Marius Zaliukas
Already rumoured to on Locke’s radar after Rangers brought in a new central defensive partnership, suggesting he is not favoured by their new manager. Saturday’s performance has already raised questions about their defence this season and, with Zaliukas having previously been at Hearts too, he would be the ultimate Locke signing.
2. Ian Black
As would Ian Black, having also played for both Rangers and Hearts. The hot-headed central midfielder may have been on trial at Berwick Rangers, though no one would be surprised if Locke brought him in to link up with Jamie Hamill and Scott Robinson. He’d certainly make some money from betting on draws in Locke’s side.
3. Rudi Skacel
Locke tried to bring Skacel back to Tynecastle for a third spell when he was still in charge, but was blocked due to the transfer embargo on the club at the time. Maybe Killie’s number 15 shirt is available for him…
4. Billy Brown
Locke has, allegedly, already tried and failed to bring Billy Brown to the club as his assistant. Even still, he is included on the list to give us an excuse to show this video again:
For Killie to get their act together and survive in this league to fight another day. Seems far fetched now, but then so does the notion of them repeating Saturday’s performance for 38 games. It would undoubtedly make them the worst team in Scottish Premier League/Ship history.