Why Lee McCulloch was the wrong man at the wrong time

October 3, 2017

Full-time on Saturday, September 30 and yet another defeat meant that Killie hadn’t won in the league after eight games. With fixtures against Rangers, Celtic and Hibs on the horizon the fans are genuinely beginning to forget what a win feels like. The boos ringing around Rugby Park were so angry that an extra line of G4S was deployed around the home fans. It’s little wonder that Lee McCulloch has gone.

To make sense of all this you have to start with last season. The apparently agreed media line was that McCulloch did a great job towards the end of the season. That he hadn’t been appointed sooner was a source of frustration to the pundits. In reality, McCulloch did fine, no better and no worse. A scorecard would read par. Hamilton and Inverness were far poorer sides and Killie only really needed to play at something close to their potential to stay up. McCulloch gave us that and no more.

Dig deeper and it gets even more interesting. The key game in keeping Killie out of trouble was a bottom six trip to New Douglas Park and a two-nil win which, on paper, looks fantastic. On closer inspection, Killie were fortunate to come away with the win. Accies had more shots and the better chances. There was nothing particularly impressive in the display. A solid, battling win was not to be sniffed at, but neither was it a sign that he squad was playing good football and on the up.

A home win against a pathetic Inverness side barely counts. What did count were the games against the remaining sides. Killie lost all three. More than that, they lost all three in exactly the same manner: play not too bad, opposition manager changes system, McCulloch does nothing, Killie lose the game. It was a pattern obvious in May and one which continued to thrive into the new season.

As a football fan, it’s fantastic to see a young Scottish manager given the chance to make a name for himself in the Premiership. The Killie support wanted McCulloch to succeed. He had shown some potential and, to an extent, I could understand the clamour for him to be given the job full-time. But for me it was always the wrong manager at the wrong time.

The context in which McCulloch took the job was massively important and largely ignored in the media analysis at the time. With a huge turnover of players, there was going to be a lot to do in the transfer market. More than that, the quality of the league was about to improve with Hibs replacing Inverness and squads improving all round. With everything taken together, that’s an enormous challenge for a rookie manager.

Lee Clark’s novel approach to the transfer market had left the club in a very strange position. The signings were largely terrible and Killie fans could enjoy, one by one, crossing off the faces of the eleven players signed in one day last season. Jordan Jones and Souleymane Coulibaly were the exceptions, but the fact remained that a huge rebuild was on the cards.

For a new manager who had never previously signed a player in his life, a rebuild of that size was huge ask. McCulloch thankfully avoided the Clark approach, but he singularly failed in the most important signing required for the team. It was apparent for all of last season that Killie were lacking in the midfield. At least one man was needed in the centre of the park, and almost certainly another as backup. Along came Alan Power, deemed so bad that young players out of position have been chosen in his place. It’s fair to mention that the injured Gary Dicker will make a difference, but the he needs someone beside him and the squad needs options. Teams up and down the Premiership were able to bring in strong midfielders whereas Killie have been left wanting.

There were positives in the signings. Lee Erwin has made a positive impact on the team, Stephen O’Donnell is proven at this level and Stuart Findlay on loan is a settling force in the defence. But Isma-wrestling-clanger-merchant Kirk Broadfoot has been woeful, Alex Samizadeh has barely featured, Eamonn Brophy has barely featured, Chris Burke has been poor, Cammy Bell makes no sense warming the bench on wages that could have been put to better use. Recent sightings of Alan Power have been reported but I refuse to believe them.

Beyond squad building, McCulloch is a fledgling manager in an improving league. Time and again he has either got it wrong or been out-thought by opposing managers. There is no better example than the cup game against Ayr. In the wake of McCulloch’s departure, I was disappointed to see hear Michael Stewart talk about the negativity of the Killie fans making the job impossible for McCulloch. Anyone travelling with the Killie fans to Somerset Park would have found a town energised by a new season, supporters groups going above and beyond to get tickets to fans and a noisy atmosphere. The optimism was punctured by a tactically inept performance which played into Ayr’s hands and ended in impotent embarrassment. It was nowhere near good enough.

Fans are often accused of not understanding the game, but McCulloch has been honest in the press about getting team selections wrong, about the team not starting games well and about the performances not being good enough. Gordon Greer added his voice to the criticism after an away day at Motherwell that is one of the bleakest football experiences of my life. Greer spoke about the lack of effort in the team and there were reports that he asked to speak to the players outwith the presence of the management team at half-time at Pittodrie. A similar huddle on the pitch against County saw Greer try to encourage the team again, noticeably away from McCulloch.

To get specific, throwing away a two-goal lead at home to Hamilton was a real masterclass in managerial ineptitude. A smart change by Martin Canning got Accies back into the game and put them on the front foot. McCulloch seemed frozen on the touchline and watched the team get deeper and deeper, inviting pressure. No change came. Eamonn Brophy, on the bench, would have given an out-ball, would have given Accies something to think about. No change came. The Killie players grew obviously knackered. No change came. Instead, the inevitable equaliser arrived, not only dropping points but delivering a real kick to the confidence of the squad.

McCulloch got a lot of credit for earning a draw at Aberdeen. But it’s worth remembering that the team which started the game was all wrong and Killie were getting hammered. It was only an enforced change that made the difference. That ensured a three-man midfield that was perfect for soaking up the pressure and launching counter-attacks. Neil McCann must have been laughing up his sleeve when McCulloch stuck with that same formation in a home game against Dundee which was a completely different challenge, and one which the squad was not adapted for in the slightest.

And then came the County game. Anyone who finds themselves musing on whether McCulloch should have been given more time should be forced, Clockwork Orange style, to watch that game back. Killie were embarrassing. The game played out like a Premiership team patiently taking apart a poor Championship side, neither bothering nor needing to move through the gears. There was no semblance of system, of motivation in the squad, or of any positives to take forward.

A team like Killie will always lose games, but there is losing games and there is losing games. As a lifelong Killie fan I’d consider myself something of a connoisseur of defeats, and Killie have been losing in the worst possible manner. They haven’t been unlucky, they haven’t been adjusting to a new system, they haven’t been the victim of bad decisions. It’s just not good enough. There is nothing there.

There is little animosity towards McCulloch. It hasn’t worked and that’s that. But the importance of a good appointment in his place cannot be overstated. The board have gone with three managers of relative inexperience in recent years. It is surely time for someone with a proven track record and some experience in the game. The usual list of potentials has appeared and fills me with dread. But a smart choice of manager could lift the club and get the fans back on board. There is potential at Kilmarnock and a fan-base hungry for success. Where we go from here could define the club for many years to come.

Written by Alastair Mitchell @Mitch_Al


  1. Bartholomew Barker - October 3, 2017 at 11:48 am

    Thanks for the in depth report. Let’s hope the next manager can do enough to keep them up.


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