As is often the case in Scottish football, the eye was drawn to what Celtic and Rangers were up to on Wednesday night. At Ibrox was the game of the evening, with Rangers hosting Aberdeen. But Celtic’s match away to Motherwell also warranted attention, with Brendan Rodgers’ side surely keen to overhaul Rangers at the top of the Scottish Premiership. By the end of the night, though, another storyline had caught the imagination.
The stars aligned for Kilmarnock, with Aberdeen’s win over Rangers and Celtic’s draw to Motherwell allowing them to go top of the table with a comfortable 2-0 home win over Livingston. With Christmas fast approaching, it’s the Rugby Park outfit who, against all odds and reasonable expectations, sit atop the Scottish Premiership.
Of course, this rise is down to much more than just one round of fixtures played on Wednesday night. Killie have followed an upward trajectory for some time, with their only defeat in the last 11 games coming against Aberdeen. In their last four matches, the Ayrshire side have beaten Hearts (away from home), Hibernian and Livingston, drawing away to St Johnstone, all whilst keeping a clean sheet in each outing.
Steve Clarke won Manager of the Year in Scotland last season despite Rodgers clinching a second successive Treble with Celtic. That illustrated just how successful Jose Mourinho’s former assistant had been since pitching up at Rugby Park, taking a team tipped for the drop into the top half of the table.
That was just the precursor for something even more spectacular, though. On Sunday, Rodgers picked up his seventh straight domestic trophy as Celtic manager, but what Clarke has achieved at Kilmarnock, is just as impressive. He might not have any silverware to show for his success, but taking everything into account, applying the necessary context, Clarke deserves the same level of acclaim.
Last season, Kilmarnock were tough to beat. Clarke’s reputation as an organiser came to the fore, ensuring not many were given an easy ride against the Ayrshire outfit. Since then, though, Clarke has added another dimension to his team. While Killie’s one fault last season was their tendency to draw games too frequently, this season they have more of a cutting edge, illustrated by their run of seven wins from their last 11 games.
The addition of Greg Stewart on loan from Birmingham City has helped in this regard. The 28-year-old has rediscovered the sort of form that saw him earn a move down south from Dundee a couple seasons ago, netting seven times in just 11 appearances. Eamonn Brophy is another who has helped Kilmarnock become match-winners rather than just match-not-losers.
Kilmarnock haven’t spent a lot of money. Clarke’s standing in the game has, in one or two cases, allowed them to sign players that ordinarily would have been out of their reach – see Youssouf Mulumbu last season. The club’s budget remains one of the smallest in the Scottish top flight and yet they sit, for the time being at least, at the top of the table.
Conventional wisdom strongly suggests that Killie can’t possibly keep up this pace. Celtic and Rangers are expected, at some point, to pull away from the rest of the pack. But four months into the season and there’s still no sign of that happening.
Saturday’s trip to Celtic Park will provide another indication of where Kilmarnock are as a team right now. No manager has given Rodgers as much bother as Clarke since making the move to Glasgow two-and-a-half years ago and the two former Chelsea employees could get in each others’ way once again this weekend.
After that trip to Celtic Park, though, Killie have a run of fixtures (Dundee, Hamilton, Motherwell and St Mirren) that could see them stretch their legs. They might be top of the table, but Clarke’s team may not have hit their ceiling yet.