The enduring image of Lee Clark will be his jubilant run along the touchline after Killie’s playoff thrashing of Falkirk at Rugby Park. To score four goals in a pressure game with Gary Locke’s leftovers is a bit like winning a grand prix on a go-kart with a picture of Josh Magennis stuck to the front. The performance was commanding, the manager entertaining and all was well.
It’s possible to look at where Clark leaves the club and feel the same way. He departs with the side reasonably placed in the league and having sold a signing for a quick million. Why then is the response from Killie fans so subdued that I’ve genuinely forgotten he’s left on several occasions?
The starting point is the summer and a day of shocking brutality. Having seen what Locke left him, Clark swung the axe and barely left anyone standing. Just imagine the Texas Chain Saw Massacre but with Tope Obadayi and Kallum Higginbotham instead of some American teenagers. Few fans objected much to the players leaving, but the fact Clark would have to build a whole new team was a concern.
We needn’t have worried, for that new team arrived. As one. Presumably on the same minibus. The mass press conference, with incorrectly spelled names at each seat, was genuinely embarrassing. A video where they all introduced themselves was little better. Then they played at Clyde and we really started to worry.
It’s been apparent from day one that half of these guys weren’t good enough. Clark admitted as much and said our disastrous League Cup run helped to realise he’d made a mistake. But from there he adapted. A semi-coherent Killie side morphed into one that could hold its own against bigger sides and have the odd eye-catching result.
Clark’s Killie team were setup to pass the ball. He showed faith in youth and made Joey Barton-slaying left back Greg Taylor a mainstay of the squad. Despite the billion signings, the core of the team was fairly solid with some flair from Jordan Jones and some flips from Souleymane Coulibaly.
It says something about the last few years as a Killie fan that seeing a team pass the ball more than twice and score from time to time is groundbreaking, life affirming stuff. We’ve even, for brief moments, come blinking into the bright sunshine of the top six, unaware of what to do there, feeling out of place and quickly shooting ourselves in the foot before descending back to where we know best.
Despite that, there has always been an underlying unease with Clark and his approach at the club. No player better sums up his signing policy than Corey Anderson. Clark brought Anderson in on loan and he came to the club highly rated. Despite a few good performances, and clear technical ability, it was obvious that he didn’t have the experience to perform at this level.
Corey Anderson, of course, is entirely fictional. But the fact that you almost certainly believed Clark had signed him is the point. Too many players, too little quality. Charmingly, at an early fixture at Hamilton, an older fan in front of me had handwritten all the player names and numbers on a piece of paper and was helpfully shouting out who was who.
Attracting players to Killie is a difficult job. It follows that players who haven’t played a lot of football, or who see themselves at bigger clubs long term, are probably our only options. There is a definite benefit to being able to give players a chance and then bin them immediately when it’s clear they aren’t up to it. I wonder how many fans are secretly jealous they can’t open up the trapdoor below players who’ve been signed by their teams on two or three year deals.
But the difficulties are stark. There can be no team cohesion when the team changes so often. It’s difficult, as a fan, to really take to a player when you couldn’t pick him out in a police line-up. For every Coulibaly there’s a Ryan Exeter. For every Jordan Jones a Declan Partridge. At this stage, even I’m not sure whether I’ve made-up those players or not…
And yet, and yet… Clark’s Killie team were a marked improvement on previous seasons. A win ratio below Locke’s reflects a more difficult league and doesn’t tell the whole story. The inconsistency, unfortunately, was the only constant. This is a squad capable of playing an impressive pressing game and limiting Celtic to only a few chances at Rugby Park and equally getting comprehensively bodied by Aberdeen on the same ground. We can beat St Johnstone but can’t get past Hamilton.
Whether or not a more defined Kilmarnock side would have eventually emerged under Clark is now one of the great imponderable questions. We will never know whether Barney Tiergarten, Sean Longstaff, Carmen Deans and Ricky Waitrose* would eventually come on to a game and propel us to a top six finish. (*One of them is real – fairly sure it’s Tiergarten.)
Clark leaves with a shrug and a general muttering of good wishes. He’s done alright. It says much about the confused, broken lives we live as Killie fans that the following sentence – “I am cautiously optimistic about Lee McCulloch as manager” – doesn’t seem completely mental. On the Killie badge it says ‘Confidemus’ – we trust. We must now place our trust in an unfancied manager stepping up and steering us away from the playoffs with a cobbled together squad.
I’ve just had the strangest sense of déjà vu.
Written by Alastair Mitchell