Kilmarnock vs Celtic: Steve Clarke's Rugby Park revolution
Watch Kilmarnock vs Celtic, live on Sky Sports Football, from 3.30pm on Sunday
Last Updated: 17/02/19 5:51pm
Kilmarnock boss Steve Clarke and captain Kris Boyd targeted a top-six finish when the Scottish Premiership season began, but a Rugby Park revolution has led the club to dream of higher returns.
Clarke, whose brother Paul played over 350 games for the club, spoke about aiming for stability when he took over in October 2017, but his Killie side went further last year, picking up more league points than any other side in 2018.
Kilmarnock vs Celtic
February 17, 2019, 3:15pm
That stat is skewed by Celtic having played fewer games in the calendar year, but Killie will not fear the champions when they visit Rugby Park on Sunday, live on Sky Sports Football.
Clarke, who achieved West Brom's highest Premier League finish of eighth in 2013 and led Reading to an FA Cup semi-final two years later, felt he did not receive the credit his managerial work in England deserved and has gone about proving a point at Rugby Park.
The 55-year-old has instilled a work ethic and solidity to Kilmarnock, who were bottom when he took over. The turnaround - they are now level on points with third-placed Aberdeen, who occupy the final European spot - has been as impressive as Brendan Rodgers' dominance at Celtic.
When appointed, Clarke said: "I would put Kilmarnock in the top six clubs. That's where we'll aim to be, although we know maybe it's going to be a long road."
Turns out, the road has not been that long at all.
Club captain and Sky Sports pundit Boyd - who was Scottish Premiership top scorer under Clarke last season - outlines where the changes have come.
Having worked under Jose Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit, and managed in the Premier League, Clarke was a coup for Kilmarnock. He had not, however, worked in Scotland since 1987 when he left St Mirren to play for Chelsea, winning the FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners' Cup.
"Some managers with big CVs can come in and don't fit the club," Boyd explains. "But as soon as the manager came in, people knew this was a proper football coach.
"He is very hands-on. Everything is thought through. He takes all the training and that's why he had the response he has had from the players.
"He's the one putting over the ideas, the tactics, the gameplan. It's not coming from someone who is a good talker, but who can't deliver. He takes sessions, knows his job inside-out and is crystal clear on what we need to do going into every match."
The results were instant. Killie won their first match after Clarke's appointment, having lost six of the previous nine. They then won 15 of the next 30 Premiership matches and finished fifth.
The squad have bought into Clarke's methods. They are organised, hard to beat and work in unison - and word has obviously got out. Centre-back Alex Bruce, loaned on deadline day from Wigan, spoke specifically about being coached by Clarke as a reason for moving north.
Instilling a mindset
Clarke has worked on the mindset of the Kilmarnock squad and made Rugby Park - and its artificial surface - a fortress. A recent 2-1 defeat to Hearts was only the second time this season Killie had conceded more than once at home.
'The manager has collectively got the club and town back together. Everyone is fighting as one.'
Kris Boyd on Steve Clarke's effect on Kilmarnock
The team defends from the front, with a hard-working midfield of Gary Dicker and Alan Power (added to recently by the returning Youssouf Mulumbu) and sprinkled with attacking youth, such as Eamonn Brophy and Rangers-bound Jordan Jones. Boyd says Clarke is constantly challenging his side to win their immediate battles.
"He always sets targets," Boyd says. "Points per month, little runs. He is always throwing down challenges. And we see it as an opportunity to win a battle. That has helped us massively.
"He's one for 'you can't affect the past, you can affect the future'. That has benefited us. We are always looking towards the next week."
Utilising loan market
Looking to the future has been essential for Clarke with a budget that means he must use loans to bolster his side, in stark contrast to others near the top of the Premiership.
Before the recent 2-1 victory over Rangers, Clarke said of his opponents' new star striker: "If the £35,000 per week that has been bandied about for Jermain Defoe is right, then to put that into context, that's my budget for my entire squad for a week."
Not only is the highly rated forward Jones leaving for Ibrox in the summer, but Gregg Stewart returned to parent club Birmingham over the festive break only to re-join Aberdeen. So how helpful is the loan market?
"A lot of people may moan about it," Boyd says. "But if you use it correctly and get in good players then it can be a success. That has been the case.
"Losing Gregg was a major blow, but the manager has re-grouped and not dwelt on it. The recruitment has been very good. The manager has done his homework on the players.
"Everybody who has come in and bought into the group ethos. That's so important."
For Kilmarnock, challenging clubs with larger followings and financial backing, togetherness has been a key attribute Clarke has fostered.
Mixing hungry, young and in-demand players - such as Jones - with experienced pros such as Boyd has been a balancing act that has brought out the best in everyone.
I’ve said it before and will say it again I couldn’t be more grateful to @KilmarnockFC for their support and backing the last 3 years. Without them I couldn’t of achieved this dream. I have give everything for the club and will continue to do so. Thankyou⚽️❤️— Jordan Jones (@JJordanjones11) January 5, 2019
"Jordan represents everything about our squad," Boyd says. "He works very hard and I'm delighted he's got his move - it's fairy tale stuff. But if he came in and acted the big man, not only the manager but the players wouldn't be long in telling him that it was his dedication that got him the move.
"As for me, this is the first time I have not played most weeks. It has been the most testing time of my career. Not playing annoys me every day, but the day you lose that is the day to finish.
"That's why the squad has the success it has. Everybody is on edge. If you don't perform when given the chance, you're going to find yourself out of the team."
'There is no hiding place anymore'
Clarke has changed perceptions of and expectations at Kilmarnock. When appointed, he said of the club: "It's up to us to put a smile back on everybody's face and try to get them back in supporting this great club."
He came in offering stability and a promise to return pride to the Ayrshire club, but supporters can now expect more than a top-six finish.
Killie's record vs Old Firm under Clarke
Boyd says the players know the pressure has increased, but rather than be cowed by it, they have embraced it.
"It's plain and simple: fans will come back if you win games. We're seeing that now," Boyd says. "The manager has collectively got the club and town back together. Everyone is fighting as one.
"There is no hiding place for players anymore. There are now 1,500-2,000 Killie fans on the road. That comes from getting results, but the whole town has been galvanised by the team.
"When the fans turn up, pay their money, and sing all game, the players feel they have a responsibility to go and get results to repay them.
"It's going to be difficult to topple Celtic, but there isn't much between us and the rest. So if we keep our performances up, European football could be back at Rugby Park."
The ground will be packed on Sunday, but rather than turning up to watch the champions, the locals will be coming to see the champions challenged.
Watch Kilmarnock vs Celtic live on Sky Sports Football on Sunday from 3.30pm