The guts of a team has left and supporters have threatened to stay away in protest over aspects of how the club is run. When they announced a new manager, though, a throng of people turned up to witness it.
It was a news conference with no real news, of course. The confirmation of Kenny Shiels as their permanent manager – on a one-year contract – was no revelation at all, nor the fact that his assistant will be Jimmy Nicholl. It has been known for some time that the pair of them would be in charge next season. At least the chairman, Michael Johnston, was able to show off new signing Paul Heffernan and then raise some eyebrows by mentioning some of the names he might have chosen instead of Shiels. There were more than 30 applicants to fill the position vacant since Mixu Paatelainen resigned in March, and some of them had real pedigree.
The former Mexico manager Hugo Sanchez was interested. So was Antonio Alvarez, who took Sevilla into the Champions League. Or they might have had Rafa Benitez’s Spanish assistant at Liverpool, Pako Ayestaran. “Some of them were very attractive on paper but the world in which they have lived would be vastly different from the one we have here,” said Johnston.
“There were plenty of names in the hat, but how would some of them have adjusted to working at a club of this size with the resources we have, a small backroom staff and no money for transfer fees? I don’t know how guys who have worked in Primera Liga would adjust to that.”
The notion of Sanchez in the Rugby Park dug-out would have seemed absurd. Kilmarnock are a Clydesdale Bank Premier League club with £9m of debt, senior players leaving and plenty of unhappy fans who want Johnston out. It’s the place for a Shiels, not a Sanchez. Shiels may not have won any of his eight games as caretaker manager at the end of the season but he has been popular and impressive around Rugby Park since arriving as Paatelainen’s assistant last summer.
He was enormously influential as Paatelainen built a flowing and attractive passing game and brought far more out of their existing players. But Paatelainen’s gone and so have Conor Sammon, Ben Gordon, Alexei Eremenko, Craig Bryson, Mehdi Taouil, Jamie Hamill and Frazer Wright. No Premier League club has taken as many hits this year.
What can Shiels do about it? The Northern Irishman is a deep-thinker and has spent plenty of time contemplating a response. “In all positions people say ‘can you have as good a team as last year?’ They use the example of Eremenko and we used the benefits of having him on loan from a massive club like Metalist Kharkiv. But I can see us being stronger.
“We might replace Eremenko with a player who has got strengths that he didn’t have. We might get a different benefit. But we have to remember the old adage that the group is the most important thing, not the qualities that an individual will bring to the group.”
Shiels is likeable and earnest. The way he sees it, his main asset is the ability to develop and improve players, such as the Manchester United pair Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson when he had them as manager of Northern Ireland’s youth teams. The obvious problem is that the many of the players he would like to sign now are surely out of Kilmarnock’s price range.
“Money comes into it in a big way, but if I target a player it is first of all about what they can bring,” he said. “The other night I targeted three players from the Spanish championship who fitted the ‘DNA’ that I want but didn’t fit the budget.”
Johnston was a chirpy, contented figure in the room, belying the fact he has taken so much stick in recent days. The Kilmarnock FC Supporters’ Association issued have called for him to hand over control of the club. “They believe all football clubs should be community assets operated through supporters’ trusts,” he said. “Unfortunately that sort of ownership model doesn’t work for a club with the level of debt and the property portfolio we have.
“I’ve had talks with people in the past but once they look at the figures and the complications they say ‘good luck, carry on with what you’re doing’.”
What he did yesterday was agree a three-year deal for Irish striker Heffernan. Johnston described him as a Doncaster “legend” and a “fox in the box”. He’s also scored for Notts County and Sheffield Wednesday. Midfielder Danny Racchi has also signed and – more significantly – goalkeeper Cammy Bell is about to commit to a new two-year extension.
Cameroon defender Patrick Ada and Dundee’s Gary Harkins are also “pretty close” to joining, said Johnston. He seemed pleased to show that people were coming to Kilmarnock, as well as going.
interview No big surprises as management team are officially unveiled at Rugby Park