Juggernaut FC – or Kilmarnock as they are more commonly known – are enjoying their most prosperous period in years under Steve Clarke.
Saturday’s victory at Hamilton was their sixth successive Premiership win and their 11th league fixture without defeat. Clarke’s astonishing revamp shows no sign of stopping with the Ayrshire club now fifth, four points behind fourth-placed Hibs, and hungrily targeting that top four.
The upsurge at Rugby Park mirrors the rejuvenation of Jamie MacDonald’s career there. This time last year, the former Hearts goalkeeper feared he was on his way out of Kilmarnock. He didn’t play between December and May as on-loan Englishman Freddie Woodman commanded the No.1 position. MacDonald intimated to senior staff last summer that he would rather move on than hang around on the substitutes’ bench.
Now he is the undisputed first choice with a new contract safely tucked away in the club office filing cabinet. His future is secure until 2020 under a manager who has worked miracles on a threadbare budget since replacing Lee McCulloch last October. MacDonald recalled the upward trajectory inside 12 months.
“I had a year left on my contract last summer but I had indicated that, if I wasn’t going to be part of the team, I’d rather go somewhere else,” explained the 32-year-old. “I came back fit and ready for pre-season and started the season well. I kept my place even though the club brought in Cammy Bell.
“The run the team has been on has allowed the club to come to me with a new contract in January, which is a lot earlier in the season than usual. Normally it can be this time of year before you know what’s happening. A number of others have already signed up so Kilmarnock are planning for the future. It’s difficult to do that if you’re sitting tenth in the league at this point.
“I’m more than happy to stay. I’ve enjoyed my time at Kilmarnock and it’s a great club with a lot of potential. The run we’re on shows that because the fans are coming back. We are getting bigger crowds at home, we had more than 2000 fans with us at Hamilton at the weekend, and the previous week we took 1600 to Partick Thistle.”
Seeing the away end at Hamilton’s Superseal Stadium bulging at the seams is perfect evidence of the Clarke effect.
Relegation fights became routine for MacDonald after he joined Kilmarnock three years ago. This is a refreshing, if somewhat unexpected, change. “I had a good season in my first year here. I was playing every week and I got the club’s player of the year but we were in the relegation play-off. It was a tough place to be,” he recalled.
“We faced the prospect of going down and that was the same last season, even though we improved a bit. We were still one of the teams in the relegation mix and I was out of the team as well, so it’s a big turnaround. We only had three points from our first eight games this season and you’re thinking: ‘Here we go again.’ We were looking at another relegation battle again.
“Our aim at the beginning of the season was to break into the top six. After eight games, our aim in all honesty was to avoid relegation. Then the manager came in and the form since then has been unbelievable. Nine of our 11 games unbeaten have been wins and that propelled us right into the top six. The last time I had a run like this was at Hearts. It was the year we got close to Celtic but I was in and out of the team with Marian Kello.”
The question of what sorcery Clarke is working leaves the goalkeeper stumped. MacDonald finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly why the 54-year-old former Scotland defender has had such a mesmerising effect on the club he supported as a child. He explained how the former Chelsea coach works, his character and his demands. None of it sounds complicated or different. Perhaps that is the secret.
“That’s the common question everybody asks. It’s hard to answer. There’s no magic wand, he isn’t doing ridiculous stuff that you’ve never seen before. He’s just very meticulous and knows what he wants from us,” said MacDonald.
“He sets up training based on how we’re going to play at the weekend. That lets the players know what they’re doing and we’re well-drilled. It’s nothing overly fancy. We have a good team bond and that’s important. Everybody buys into the way of playing and even the boys who aren’t playing are still relatively happy I would say. I think the gaffer does that sort of thing very well. He keeps players motivated and content.
“He’s a very honest person, which is all you want as a football player. I know from my past experiences that’s when I felt let down, when people weren’t honest with you.
“We’re all men and we can all accept somebody’s opinion if they’re honest. If somebody tells you something and then does something else, that’s when you start getting problems.”
Clarke and his assistant, Alex Dyer, penned three-year contracts upon taking charge at Rugby Park. They are now hot property as a management team after guiding Kilmarnock from the bottom of the league to fifth place. Vultures are already circling Scotland’s south west but MacDonald is hopeful his manager won’t be lured away come the end of this astonishing campaign.
“If you’re a player or manager who is doing well, that kind of interest can be inevitable. Hopefully he stays.
“Everybody has enjoyed what has happened but it would be naive to think nobody is looking at what he’s done at Kilmarnock.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody does come in but we hope he stays. We want him to come back and improve us again next year and beyond that. We want to try and build for the future here and hopefully he can be a big part of that.”