Lee McCulloch: A safe bet or a gamble?

May 18, 2017

McCullochWith league status confirmed there is a big decision ahead of the Kilmarnock board. Lee McCulloch became manager on an interim basis after an eventful spell in charge from Lee Clark and has done what was required of him in terms of avoiding the drop. As the dust settles, there’s still a split opinion among the Killie fans about whether he should be given the job permanently.

Let’s start with the positives. McCulloch can be rightly proud of a job well done. His Killie side is a patchwork of young players and questionable signings that is severely lacking in various positions. To cobble together a coherent, organised squad is an achievement in itself. To guide that side through the bottom six dogfight is even better.

Most noticeable has been the organisation. This Killie side is hard to beat and, even for teams like Aberdeen and Rangers, difficult to score against. McCulloch found a system that worked and stuck with it to good effect. He also kept faith with the young players at the club, giving us the bizarre accolade of being the 28th youngest squad in Europe.

Players have developed and improved in his short tenure. Jordan Jones has shown flashes of talent all season but consistently struggled to find an end product. In a more settled team, he has become a potent weapon, scoring goals and providing the creative spark so sorely lacking in that squad.

If you add all that together with a vocally happy squad you might reasonably ask why there is any hesitation from Killie fans? Michael Stewart and Steven Thompson couldn’t think of a single reason not to appoint McCulloch when pressed on Sportscene. Where do the concerns come from?

In-game management

This is the big one and it is best summed up in two words – Miles Addison. With Killie leading at home to Aberdeen, McCulloch broke up the centre back pairing of Gary Dicker and Kristoffer Ajer to slot in big Miles. Two calamitous mistakes later and Killie had lost the game. Addison, incidentally, hasn’t featured since.

Picking one bad decision may seem unfair, but it speaks to a wider trend. McCulloch has been very reluctant to make substitutions in games and they have often been ineffective. Against a Dundee side that were bossing the midfield, McCulloch removed Killie’s only defensive-minded midfielder. What followed was a struggle to keep the ball at all rather than a push for an equaliser.

In a home defeat to Motherwell and a disappointing home draw with Inverness there was a rabbit in the headlights feel as McCulloch watched on. On both occasions the game was getting away from the team and something, perhaps anything, needed to change to get a reaction.

That part of management clearly comes with experience, but the question of whether a team in Killie’s position in an even more competitive division next season can afford the time required.

How well have Killie played?

It sounds harsh to say, but I’d dispute the commonly held belief that McCulloch has done a “great” job. I think a better summation is that he has done fine. The results during his tenure have been the minimum you would expect from a competent manager of that set of players.

Dig a bit deeper behind some of the results and doubts linger. A 2-0 away win at Hamilton looks fantastic. But the reality was there was very little between the teams and two set piece goals made the difference. Killie were utterly dreadful in defeat to Dundee and should have been beaten by Partick Thistle at Rugby Park.

An inflexibility in approach has been another point of contention. McCulloch has doggedly stuck with Kris Boyd in the lone striker role. Boyd’s commitment and effort is beyond doubt. Sadly it now seems that running and movement are beyond Boyd. That’s not necessarily fatal to him being effective, but the Killie team has been setup to play balls in behind rather than play to Boyd’s strengths. With his hand forced by injury, Conor Sammon took that role against Inverness and Killie looked a different team.

Whether McCulloch can get the best out of a squad over a longer period of time remains in doubt.

The re-build

After Lee Clark’s ‘interesting’ approach to transfers and his culling of the first team last summer there is a massive re-building job required. As an absolute minimum, Killie need a goalkeeper, a right back, a centre back, two midfielders and two strikers. And that’s just for the first eleven.

The silver lining with Clark’s duds is that they were almost all on loan or short-term contracts. That means there is a wage budget there to build a squad. Getting that number of signings right is a big job for any manager. It’s an even bigger ask of a manager who has never signed a player before.

Killie have done well recently from managers coming in with contacts and players already in contemplation. Signings like Souleymane Coulibaly and Alexei Eremenko spring to mind. If there’s a more attractive candidate out there with a proven eye for a player that must be something worth exploring.

Gary Locke

The two words linger in the background of all of this like a bad smell. Almost everything currently being said about McCulloch was said of Locke before his appointment. Then, too, they spoke of the mood among the players, of a good run towards survival in the league, of an exciting young coach.

And then, too, a section of the Killie faithful questioned just how good that run had actually been. They questioned Locke in the transfer market and they questioned his tactical ability. Sadly they were proved right.

The essence of all these concerns is that an appointment like McCulloch is a gamble. The question for Killie is whether the club can afford to take that gamble.

A top flight job is always attractive and there have been impressive and interesting names in the frame for the job in the recent past. Lifelong fan Gary Holt has some experience and would be embraced by the fans. The experience and knowledge of someone like Jim Duffy might be another way to go.

McCulloch will be backed if he gets the job and no-one will be too disappointed. Only time will tell whether it’s a risky gamble or an inspired appointment.

Written by Alastair Mitchell

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