KENNY SHIELS has turned psychological warfare into something of an art since becoming Kilmarnock manager last year but Stuart McCall has no intention of getting involved in any mind games with his opposite number this afternoon.
"I'm not bright enough," laughed the Motherwell manager with typical self-deprecation.
McCall has no need to do anything too fancy in any case. Motherwell are enjoying a rich vein of form and will move above Rangers and into second place in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League – for a day at least – should they avoid defeat at Rugby Park this afternoon. Given McCall's target last summer was just to finish in the top six, this has been a season that has so far surpassed all expectations.
Loading article content
"It was going to be nip and tuck just to get in the top six so to be where we are now, and in a position to move into second even it it's just for a short period, is beyond our wildest thoughts," he admitted. "I'm still aware of teams below us but the players have got us in a very strong position so we have to build on that. Our form is good; in our last seven league games we've won five, drawn with St Mirren and lost narrowly at Celtic. So we're in good shape."
McCall, however, recalled a late-season collapse from his time at Bradford City as he warned against premature congratulation. "There was a time at Bradford when we got into February or March and we'd been in the top three all season," he said. "We'd had a lot of pats on the back for our performances and suddenly we started to slide down the table. Players who had been doing well lost confidence and we ended up finishing outside the play-offs by a couple of points. Hopefully that won't happen to us but we'll accept any plaudits come the end of the season if or when the job's done."
Then there is the Old Firm angle. Celtic can only win the league at Ibrox tomorrow should Motherwell fail to take all three points this afternoon, creating the unusual scenario of Rangers fans willing McCall's side to prosper at Rugby Park even though it will mean them going above Ally McCoist's side in the table.
"As tough a game as it will be for Rangers, I'm sure they'd rather [deny Celtic the title] off their own steam," McCall added. "We're just going to focus on what we have to do which is get as many points as we can to finish as high up the table as possible."
Kilmarnock will parade the Scottish Communities League Cup won last weekend before holding a minute's silence in memory of Liam Kelly's father, Jack, who died in the immediate aftermath of that Hampden success. "It will be quite an emotional day," said McCall. "Realistically it will be tough for Kilmarnock to make the top six but we've got everything to play for still. Hopefully our desire can get us the three points."
The varying emotions of last weekend are still felt acutely around Rugby Park. Among them is a sense of disppointment at Celtic's decision to remain in the dressing room as Kilmarnock lifted the cup, with Lee Johnson believing the Parkhead side showed a lack of respect and breached cup final etiquette in doing so. There are differring opinions upon what, if anything, is expected of a beaten finallist in such circumstances but the midfielder has been in the opposite position when losing the Championship play-off final with Bristol City against Hull City back in 2008 and he for one feels it was poor form.
"I was pretty disappointed they didn't watch us lift the trophy," said Johnson. "Personally I thought that was poor. It's not a major issue but I just felt it's something I would never do if you're a player and you get beat in the cup final. I played the play-off final with Bristol City. It's the biggest financial game in football. We lost it but still hung around to applaud Hull. I was devastated. I was crying my eyes out.
"That was a life-changing game if we had gone up. The club would have won £100m, the players would have trebled our contracts. Our families would have been secure forever but it didn't work out that way. Things like that just stoke up the next game and make you think about winning again."
Johnson, the son of former Latvia coach and current Yeovil Town manager Gary, signed a two-and-a-half year deal when he joined on a free transfer from Bristol in February and feels his side's cup win is indicative of a levelling off in the Scottish game. "In the past teams were beaten mentally before they played the game," he said. "That's the one thing you'll never get with me. I won't be beaten before the game starts. I've got a belief that Scottish football is coming closer together. It's going to be tight over the next couple of years. I don't think two teams will run away with it the way they have in the past.
"Every time a team like us beats a giant like Celtic it stokes the fire. It helps everyone else believe that on any given day they can turn them over."
The Englishman, who was on the books at Hearts when they won the Scottish Cup in 2006, and won the FA Trophy at Yeovil, hopes the feelgood factor at Kilmarnock will feed into their meeting with Motherwell. In addition to parading the trophy, the Rugby Park side have also dropped the gate prices. "I've been milking it for the last few days. I won a lot on the spin . . . then won nothing for five years. You've got to enjoy it as the bad times ain't too far round the corner."