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Kilmarnock: The rise of Steve Clarke's table-toppers

Steve Clarke has lifted the gloom from Rugby Park to create a formidable Killie side.

Top: Steve Clarke has Kilmarnock top of the Premiership.
Top: Steve Clarke has Kilmarnock top of the Premiership. SNS

The table made happy reading for Kilmarnock followers over breakfast this morning as their name could be seen adorning top spot.

For the first time in five decades the Ayrshire outfit lead the way in the top flight with more than ten games done and dusted.

Far from being a peculiar case of overnight success, however, their spot on the lofty perch is the culmination of 14 months hard work behind the scenes.

The brains behind the turnaround has been Steve Clarke, who has lifted the gloom which previously hung over Rugby Park before his unveiling.

It came as a surprise to many when a manager with a CV boasting the names of some of the English game's biggest clubs rocked up to at a club in danger of falling through the Premiership trap door.

Kilmarnock looked destined for the drop having picked up three points from eight matches as a series of mediocre campaigns looked to have finally taken their toll.

But Clarke would perform a remarkable rescue act, rejuvenating his team and sending them on an upward curve which now sees Killie looking down from the summit.

How has it happened? Here we run the rule over Killie's stunning rise:

Powers of persuasion

Goals: Kris Boyd's predatory instincts were key as Clarke got Killie firing.
Goals: Kris Boyd's predatory instincts were key as Clarke got Killie firing. SNS

With his side staring at the prospect of falling through the Premiership trap door, Clarke immediately set about his task by drilling the players hard on Rugby Park's artificial surface.

Killie's new boss was confident his sessions would be lapped up straight away by his new charges, having led sessions with the stars of Liverpool and Chelsea in the past.

But key to any manager's success is getting the club's talisman on board and Kris Boyd decided to throw a spanner in the works before Clarke had even got his feet under his new desk.

Immediately after his first day's training, Clarke received a knock on his new office door from Kris Boyd, who told his new gaffer he was planning to call it a day.

"He came in to see me in all his gear, plonked himself down in the chair in front of me and said, 'that's it gaffer, I'm quitting'," said Clarke.

"I said, 'Kris I've just walked in the door, you can't quit'.

"The first conversation we had was not a particularly good one and it was after my very first training session. My first sessions are usually pretty good and enjoyable so the guys think, 'this guy is alright'.

"But he obviously wasn't 100 per cent resolute because I managed to persuade him to give me time.

"I was confident I could get the best out of him."

That confidence was proven in good faith as Boyd quickly rediscovered his shooting boots to lead the line impressively for Clarke over the months that followed.

The 35-year-old's 18 strikes across the campaign were key to Killie's revival.

A touch of class

Celebration: Mulumbu scored the winner as Kilmarnock beat champions Celtic.
Celebration: Mulumbu scored the winner as Kilmarnock beat champions Celtic. SNS

Clarke was thrown in at the deep end but signs of immediate improvement were there for all to see as Killie earned draws at Ibrox and Celtic Park.

It wasn't until December, however, that the Killie bandwagon really began to roll.

The strugglers picked up 14 points across the month and showed their belief had been restored by coming from behind to beat Rangers 2-1 thanks to a late Boyd double.

Sorting out a ramshackle defence and keeping his goal machine happy were just two parts of the puzzle Clarke solved over that period. With the transfer window slammed shut until January, for the Killie boss it was a case of scouring the market for free agents to help bolster his hand.

Clarke's extensive experience coaching down south ensured his contacts book was a burgeoning one, though, and it didn't take his new employers long to reap the benefits.

A Premier League calibre midfield enforcer in the form of Youssouf Mulumbu was welcomed in the door at Rugby Park and the ex-West Brom star didn't take long to make his presence felt.

Mulumbu's touch of class quickly became apparent once the Congolose international was up to speed, with the 31-year-old repaying his manager's faith with a string of stand-out displays.

Rugby Park record-breakers

Having reaped reward from a fruitful festive period, Clarke's focus would switch from avoiding the drop to battling for a top six spot.

Victory over champions Celtic in February confirmed December's form was no flash in the pan and was the platform for another eye-catching run of results.

By balancing the know-how of experienced pros such as Jamie MacDonald, Gordon Greer, Kirk Broadfoot, Chris Burke and Boyd with the youthful energy of Stephen O'Donnell, Greg Taylor, Eammon Brophy and dangerous winger Jordan Jones, Clarke had found a formula for success.

'I did set them 60 so they have come up short!'
Steve Clarke on Killie's record points total.

After beating the Hoops, Killie only suffered defeat once in the league, ensuring their top-six ambitions were comfortably met.

The Ayrshire outfit ended the season fifth in the top flight thanks to a points total of 59 - a new club record - while Clarke picked up the Premiership's top boss award.

"I'm not crazy on stats but it is another little notch for us," Clarke said.

"It is nice for this group of players to get that recognition from a very difficult start to the season. They have managed to put together a great run.

"They have managed to end up with 59 points. I did set them 60 so they have come up short!"

Building on solid foundations

Star: Greg Stewart is thriving on loan at Kilmarnock.
Star: Greg Stewart is thriving on loan at Kilmarnock. SNS

The summer months brought not just rumours regarding players but the future of Kilmarnock's manager after a stirring spell in charge of the club.

Vacancies at Ibrox and Hampden were soon filled, however, leaving Clarke to focus on continuing his renovation work in Ayrshire.

Unable to find a like-for-like replacement for star performer Mulumbu, the Killie boss returned to the tactics board to find a new solution.

Alan Power and Gary Dicker have become the heartbeat of the team, with the pair providing a base for the mercurial Jones and Brophy to excel.

Another astute move came at the top end as Clarke moved to lessen the dependency on 35-year-old Boyd for goals.

The arrival of Greg Stewart after an inauspicious spell at Aberdeen didn't convince all a solution had been found, but the Birmingham loanee has silenced his critics in style to become Killie's new talisman.

What next?

https://stv.tv/sport/football/1433507-clarke-nobody-at-kilmarnock-is-getting-carried-away/ | default

Kilmarnock lead the top flight for the first time after ten games or more since the final day of the 1964/65 season.

That campaign is in the history books at Rugby Park, as Killie went on to win the league for the first time.

Clarke has been quick to downplay expectations of his charges repeating that particular feat, insisting nobody at the club is getting "carried away" despite their lofty position.

While it's too early to promote the surprise leaders at title-challengers, Kilmarnock have proven themselves capable of maintaining form in the long run.

Over the last 38 games, only Double Treble winners Celtic have a healthier points haul to their name - and that is by just three points.

The festive period provided the springboard for Killie to push themselves away from the drop this time last year.

This time around, a spot of Christmas cheer could well see Kilmarnock leading the way come 2019.

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