Kilmarnock full-back Ross Millen (left) is congratulated by team-mates
ON January 5, one of Scottish football’s oldest senior clubs will celebrate its 150th bir t hday. Kilmarnock have made few better decisions since 1869 than employing Steve Clarke as their manager.
It’s worth recalling that when he arrived at Rugby Park 13 months ago, an ageing and ailing team were bottom of the Premiership without a win. This morning they sit third in the league, two points off leaders Hearts who they beat at Tynecastle, the first team to do so this season.
“Stevie Clarke is here to stop 10 in a row,” sang the Killie supporters who also cockily claimed their team would win the league. Okay, so they probably won’t, but what times these are for this Ayrshire institution that went through some hard times not so long ago.
“We should have more points and we should be higher up the league,” said Clarke with a poker face. “I am probably a little bit disappointed with our points tally to be honest.
“But it is nice at this stage of the season to be so far away from the bottom two and if we can pick up a lot more points over the next eight matches then maybe, if we do it properly between now and the winter break, we can think about mounting a serious challenge for the top six again.
“For a club like Kilmarnock that is always the priority. We have to get away from the bottom, then we have to try to cement a top-six place. After that it is for the supporters to dream. Not for us.”
Kilmarnock’s winner came on 73 minutes from right-back Ross Millen – marking his Premiership debut with his first goal for a club he joined from Queen’s Park in the summer.
It was a lovely moment for him and the goal was typical Kilmarnock in that it was very much a team effort.
Greg Taylor did well down the left wing. He combined well with Mikael Ndjoli, the ball was squared to Chris Burke on the edge of the box who looked as if he would shoot himself before slipping the ball to Millen whose shot was well struck but should have been saved by Zdenek Zlamal.
The 24-year-old was only playing because Stephen O’Donnell has injured his hamstring – meaning he won’t make the Scotland games.
“You have to be patient when you are under-study right-back to the Scotland international,” said Clarke. “Ross has been very patient waiting for his chance but he took it. He defended well and got forward to get us the all-important goal.”
Hearts had their moments as well. They should have scored. Indeed, there was more than enough quality on the Tynecastle pitch, and enough chances, for this game to produce more than one goal. But that’s four games in which Craig Levein has not seen a goal scored by his team.
They are missing too many players, it’s that simple. But the Hearts manager at least expects Christophe Berra to be back in December and Steven Naismith to return before the winter break.
“I think it would be easier to score goals if we had the players out in the team – everybody knows that,” said Levein. “At the same time, we need people to step up and at times like this … put the ball in the back of the net.
“We’re missing people with strength of character, who’ve done things in the past, dealt with certain situations and know how to deal with them. Our solutions just now are generally younger players who haven’t had the experience and they’re not battle hardened and ready to cope.”
Kilmarnock should have taken the lead after 90 seconds when Ndjoli’s back-heel flick in midfield found Aaron Tshibola. He in turn passed to Burke who had a ridiculous amount of space in which to bear down on Zlamal.
Burke had time and a lot of the goal to aim at but still found the Hearts goalkeeper’s legs. It was more a bad miss than a good save.
Peter Hairing was a whisker away from a Hearts goal on 11 minutes, his half-volley skimmed the post and, later in the half, Craig Wighton put a shot into the Killie side-netting.
Ndjoli impressed for the visitors and showed great pace and skill to take the ball on the halfway line, get past a few challenges before putting a shot just wide.
And, before the break, Arnaud