I remember sitting in the Frank Beattie Stand at Rugby Park as Kilmarnock succumbed to a woeful 4-0 defeat against Ross County back in August 2015, leaving Ayrshire’s most successful side sitting bottom of the table five games in and destined for yet another season fighting relegation. The players looked disinterested, the fans had almost accepted such a dismal performance as the norm and Gary Locke seemed every bit as out of place in the dugout as one would now expect. I walked out of the ground that day and along Dundonald Road feeling totally deflated and disillusioned with my local team.
Fast forward almost four years to 19 May 2019 and, ahead of Kilmarnock’s final-day European showdown with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers, that had all changed. Following the miraculous work of local hero Steve Clarke, the Ayrshire side were now just ninety minutes and three points away from securing European football for the first time since 2001.
That it was in Kilmarnock’s own hands going into this game to secure a third-placed finish for the first time since 1966 was testament to the remarkable work that the 55-year old has done since taking over from Lee McCulloch in October 2017. Clarke’s time in charge has also seen the club break its record points total in successive seasons, finishing the 2017/18 campaign with 59 points and then bettering that with a staggering 67 points this time around. As a result, the mainstream Scottish media appear to have run out of superlatives to describe the turnaround that Clarke has instigated at the Rugby Park side.
A dream start
The build-up to the game on Sunday had however been somewhat marred by an article published by the Scottish Sun late on Friday evening fuelling speculation that Clarke would soon be announced as the new Scotland manager. That speculation, coupled with Clarke’s two-game touchline ban for his comments regarding referee Steven MacLean following a recent 1-0 loss at home to Aberdeen, could arguably have unsettled the Ayrshire side heading into a crucial final day of the season. That was not, however, to be the case.
As kick-off approached to what would ultimately be Steve Clarke’s final game in charge of Killie, the two teams emerged from the infamously narrow tunnel at Rugby Park to a cacophonous reception. The sizeable Kilmarnock support had answered the manager and the board’s call to arms following the admirable decision to cut the allocation for the away fans to just one stand (rather than the two that had become the norm whenever Rangers or Celtic came to town). The East Stand and the Frank Beattie Stand were packed. The reclaimed Moffat Stand, quite rightfully housing Kilmarnock fans, was also the most populated it had been all season. For the first time in a long time, a home tie at Rugby Park against one of the Old Firm felt like exactly that – a home tie with genuine home advantage.
Referee Willie Collum sounded his whistle to start the game with Kilmarnock in blue and white shooting to our left and Rangers in orange shooting to our right.
The away side had a glorious chance to take the lead in the opening stages. After Daniel Candeias charged down Stuart Findlay’s attempted clearance, the ball broke kindly to the enigmatic Alfredo Morelos who raced through on goal. His angled drive was well blocked by Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, deputising for impressive loanee Daniel Bachman who had been ruled out of the game with an ankle injury. The rebound sat up for Candeias but he could only guide his thundered half-volley against the bar.
Moments later, the home side were ahead. Finnish international Glen Kamara was dispossessed in his own half by the diminutive Youssouf Mulumbu. Mulumbu exchanged passes with Rory Mackenzie before clipping a delightful ball through to Chris Burke. The 35-year-old former Scotland international beat the offside trap before slotting home from a tight angle past the advancing Wes Foderingham to give his side an early lead. An assured defensive display ensured that Kilmarnock would go in at the break a goal to the good.
A momentary setback
A cruel couple of minutes midway through the second-half dealt a major blow to the home side’s European hopes. News filtered through that Aberdeen had taken the lead against Paul Heckingbottom’s Hibs in the capital, meaning that Kilmarnock would need to hold on to their own lead to guarantee third place. As news came through of that goal, the home side were however on the attack and, but for a timely interception from Joe Worral, Chris Burke would have been through on goal with a chance to give Kilmarnock some breathing space. But football can be, and often is, a cruel game. From that interception, Rangers broke forward with pace. The ball was neatly worked out to Ryan Jack who teed up the potent Alfredo Morelos to rifle the ball past MacDonald from all of twelve yards and haul the away side back level in the 66th minute.
A dream finish
Kilmarnock responded to that goal by bringing on former Everton forward Conor McAleny and Liverpool loanee Liam Millar. When Millar’s back post effort following McAleny’s cross was correctly ruled out for offside with only a few minutes remaining, it seemed as if Kilmarnock would have to settle for fourth place and hope that Celtic would prevail over Hearts in the upcoming Scottish Cup final. There would however be one last chance.
With 87 minutes on the clock, Kilmarnock’s Player of the Year, Alan Power, lofted a delicate ball through to Stephen O’Donnell in a dangerous position. Croatian full-back Borna Barišić was caught the wrong side of the Scotland international and bundled him over just inside the box. Collum had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and awarding a penalty to the home side.
Fans, myself included, could barely watch as Eamonn Brophy placed the ball on the penalty spot, the weight of Rugby Park on his shoulders. And yet, Brophy himself seemed like composure personified as he awaited Collum’s signal. Substitute goalkeeper Andrew Firth guessed the right way but could not give enough on the ball as the coolest man in Ayrshire slotted home expertly to give the home side a crucial lead in the dying minutes of the game. There was unadulterated jubilation in three out of four stands as fans of all ages wildly celebrated what would turn out be the match-winning goal.
Despite six minutes of additional time, Kilmarnock held on to secure all three points, a third-placed finish and the prize of European football next season. A memorable chorus of the club’s adopted anthem, the timeless Paper Roses, broke out around the ground as Collum sounded the full time whistle. After the players and coaching staff alike had completed their customary end-of-season lap of the pitch, Steve Clarke delivered an emotional and defiant speech before his adoring crowd. That speech, which would ultimately foreshadow his departure the following day, represented a fitting end to a quite magical chapter in Kilmarnock’s history.
Full-time: Kilmarnock 2 – 1 Rangers
Man of the Match: Alan Power
A departing hero
Following Kilmarnock has never been, and never will be, easy. However, to fully appreciate the good times it is perhaps necessary to first endure the bad times: a demoralising 5-1 defeat in the 2007 League Cup Final against Hibs; a shambolic 6-3 defeat at home to Inverness in 2011; a 3-0 reverse in 2012 against a Dunfermline side rooted to the bottom of the table; a nerve-shredding relegation play-off victory against Falkirk; and that depressing 4-0 loss at home to Ross County.
Those years in the doldrums have however made the last twenty months or so all the more enjoyable. As the Rugby Park faithful proclaimed from the terraces on a weekly basis this season, the club had found a true leader in Steve Clarke. During his time in the dugout, Clarke has given each and every Kilmarnock fan memories to last a lifetime: a glorious last-minute equaliser from Chris Burke against his former side at Ibrox at the beginning of Clarke’s spell in charge; a heroic 3-2 comeback against Dundee in February 2018; a short but sweet spell at the top of the league in December 2018 following a midweek win over Livingston; a frantic late winner from Canadian starlet Liam Millar against St Mirren on a rain-soaked night in Paisley; multiple victories over both Rangers and Celtic; and a brace of victories against Hearts at the imposing Tynecastle this season thanks to stunning strikes from defenders Ross Millen and Stuart Findlay. The list goes on.
While writing this post, it was however confirmed that Clarke has indeed left his post at Rugby Park, having signed a three-year deal to take on the unenviable task of turning around the fortunes of the Scottish national side. Coincidentally, Clarke is the second Kilmarnock manager in the space of less than ten years to leave the club to manage a national side, after Mixu Paatelainen departed in 2011 to become manager of Finland.
Clarke will quite rightly leave with the unequivocal best wishes of the entire Kilmarnock support. He has instilled a renewed sense of belief and ensured that he will go down as one of the most respected names in this club’s 150-year history. If Clarke can perform similar miracles with the national side, I have no doubt that the Tartan Army will be heading to a long-awaited major tournament in the not too distant future.
A team effort
Clarke was of course only one – admittedly pivotal – cog in this quite wondrous wheel. While the Saltcoats-born manager deserves every bit of praise that goes his way, so too should credit be given to his infallible assistant Alex Dyer. Dyer has endeared himself to the Kilmarnock faithful with his infectious smile and his unquestionable knowledge of the game. Beyond the dugout, chairman Billy Bowie has arguably served as the catalyst for the club’s success in recent years, pushing the boat out to recruit Clarke after years of languishing at the wrong end of the league table. Bowie’s enthusiasm and determination to give the local and wider community a club to be proud of once again has not gone unnoticed. At the end of Sunday’s historical win, the fans showed their appreciation for the Ayrshire businessman with a fully-merited chorus of “There’s only one Billy Bowie”.
Crucially, the board, consisting of the industrious Bowie, the level-headed Cathy Jamieson and the dynamic Phyliss McLeish, has succeeded in redeveloping a genuinely healthy and trusting relationship with the support. That encouraging connection with the support and the community as a whole has been aided further by the exemplary work of former player Paul di Giacamo at the helm of the Kilmarnock Community Sports Trust. Most likely as a result of the tireless efforts of di Giacamo’s team, the Moffat Stand is no longer an unpopulated graveyard reserved solely for advertisements and larger-than-life flags. Rather, the stand behind the goal is now once again housing enthusiastic young fans, representing the core of the fanbase of tomorrow, turning up religiously to cheer on their new-found heroes.
We’re on our way
Quite simply, every player, every coach, every member of staff and indeed every supporter has played some sort of role in Killie’s astonishing revival. Prior to Clarke’s arrival, Kilmarnock had the look of a doomed side. There was a dearth of optimism, attendances were dwindling year-on-year and there was a palpable disconnect between the club and the supporters. That is categorically no longer the case. Quite to the contrary, the outlook at Rugby Park is now utterly resplendent. This proud and persistent fanbase finally has its beloved club back. Most importantly, when one game finishes I find myself itching for the next one to come along be it home or away. That’s exactly how it should be.
On a final note, as far as I’m aware, Carlsberg don’t yet do ending a nigh-on twenty year hiatus from European football, but if they did, they would probably have a certain Eamonn Brophy cooly firing home a last-minute penalty in front of a symbolically rejuvenated Moffat Stand to send the Rugby Park faithful scrambling for their passports. The Killie boys are well and truly on our way. Drink it in.