After last season it’s hard to see how Killie could improve on their performance. A team who avoided relegation on the last day of the previous season went into the 10/11 season with the guts of the same squad from the previous year, a manager who had fared poorly in the SPL previously, plus a few additions. No addition was more prominent than Alexei Eremenko; the Finn stamped his quality all over the SPL and was intrinsic to the unique brand of ‘sexy’ football they bought to the SPL. The attractive, pass and move attacking play with the fullbacks overlapping a tight midfield feeding a revitalised Conor Sammon in attack saw Killie get results and do so with style.
January saw 15+ goals Sammon poached by Wigan and soon after Mixu was homeward bound to manage his national team. Even with the talismanic Player of the Year nominee Eremenko pulling the strings beside the ever improving Bryson, Killie could not quite match their early season form. Kenny Shiels led the side to a top half finish – their first since 2007.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Patrick Ada – Crewe Alexandria____________Momo Sissoko – Udinese (Loan expired)
Danny Buijs – ADO Den Haag______________Craig Bryson – Derby County
Gary Harkins – Dundee FC________________Jamie Hamill – Hearts
Zdeněk Kroča – Luton Town_______________Rui Miguel –
Paul Heffernan – Sheffield Wed_____________Mehdi Taouil – Hearts
Rory McKeown – Ipswich Town_____________Alexei Eremenko – Metalist (loan expired)
Danny Raachi – York City_________________Benjamin Laurent – Released
_____________________________________Willy Aubemayang – Released
_____________________________________Frazer Wright – St Johnstone
Who’s who in 11/12?
Kenny Shiels brought in his countryman, the experienced Jimmy Nichol, as his assistant for the season ahead. With SEVEN first team players, including the team captain Craig Bryson, vacating the club the Northern Irish duo had the majority of a team to reconstruct if they had any hope of kicking off from where they left off last season.
With many fans questioning the ability of Shiels as a manager and a talent scout following the success of Mixu last season, Kenny has worked hard to dispel these qualms with a few eye catching signings.
Gary Harkins, bagged on a free from Dundee has immediately caught the eye with his pre-season performances. A well taken goal against Linfield followed by a belter against Ross County has captured the imagination. The man, who’s been christened ‘Zizou’ after Zinedine Zidane by his teammates, on no small part due to his bald spot, has big shoes to fill in the midfield. Although the general consensus in the First Division is that Dundee will be a much weakened side without him and the rest of the clubs are glad to see the back of him. Harkins clearly has pedigree and it is surprising he’s not bagged a move to the SPL sooner. If he fills his potential he could prove the bargain of the season.
Another exciting capture is Danny Buijs. A product of the famed Ajax academy, the birthplace of ‘Total Football’ with 250 Dutch Eredivisie performances between Feyenoord and ADO Den Haag the pedigree of the Dutchman is clear. An aggressive fullback/defensive midfielder with a sweet set piece he has been signed to fill in the gap left by Bryson according to the Gaffer. Buijs has put pen to paper on a one year deal at Rugby Park and clearly is putting himself in the shop window for bigger sides. As long as he gives 100% in the stripes, the Rugby Park faithful will be pleased with his contribution whether it’s a 1 year deal or a 10 year deal.
New centre halves Patrick Ada and Zdeněk Kroča add to Kenny’s team of all nations as they hail from Cameroon and the Czech Republic respectively. Both players came from lower leagues in England and fans of both sides were sad to see them go. With the first choice central defence of Sissoko and Wright left for pastures new the new signings will form a reshaped defence. Kroča has met Killie before….scoring for Luton against the Ayrshire men last pre-season. Both Ada and Kroča seem to fit into the Killie mentality well- ball playing defenders who can spot a pass with confidence.
The hardest boots of all to fill will be those of Conor Sammon. Goals are vital, and a top half side needs a stiker bagging himself 15 goals a season to compete. Rui Miguel and William Gros tried to fill the void last season to varying degrees of success. With Miguel back in his native Portugal this left Killie with a striker shortage. Paul Heffernan was officially Shiels’ first signing of the new season and the Irishman came from Sheffield Wednesday with decent reports from the Owls fans. Whether or not he’ll bag the goals remains to be seen. Ben Hutchison has signed a short term deal after his release from Celtic. The Englishman showed much promise with Middlesbrough and a keen goal scoring ability with Celtic reserves. He never replicated this whilst on loan at Lincoln City or Dundee and found first team chances thin on the ground at Parkhead. Shiels brought him to Rugby Park and the Killie faithful are going to need some convincing with this signing. Clearly though, the lad has shown potential and if Shiels was part of the magic that turned Sammon into a goal machine maybe he can get the best out of Hutchinson too.
Another Northern Irishman came to Kilmarnock in the shape of young full back Rory McKeown. The left back comes in to a position that proves a problem for Killie. Garry Hay made the position his own after years of loyal service. He was displaced last year by Chelsea loanee Ben Gordon who shone brightly in a squad full of unexpected stars. After he went back down south in January, ‘Hooky’ struggled to fit into the new Kilmarnock system. McKeown comes in to the season on the back of some impressive pre-season performances. Whether he’ll be first choice at left back remains to be seen as Shiels still seems keen to strengthen that position further having had Mitchell Pique on trial and now Austrian Tomas Piersmayer.
Another major boost to the side is the returning James Dayton.
He showed some delightful ability before a horrendous cruciate injury saw him miss basically the whole season. The right winger has showed the form that he started with last year in pre-season and the right winger could be vital to any success Killie hope to have. He converted a wonderful goal against Preston in pre-season scoring straight from the kick off after very team member had a touch. If he can replicate that for real then defences will have a handful. Despite having played only a handful of games he’s already becoming a fans favourite and will hopefully stay injury free. Dayton is a direct wide man with no fear to run at defences and cause full backs a headache. Killie have lacked any real penetration on the wings in recent seasons and the return of Dayton will take some pressure off the full backs who were doing most of the supply for the front men last year.
With high profile midfielders, Bryson and Eremenko in the side last year and Harkins and Buijs being brought in this year, one man is fast becoming an unsung hero. The work rate provided in the middle of the park from Liam Kelly was vital to the side last year and will be more important this year. Kelly has come on leaps and bounds and has the potential to be even better than Bryson. As a tackler, passer and goal scorer Kelly shows great ability at all three and his work is often overshadowed by the more flamboyant players. He often picked passes that showed intelligence above and beyond his years last season that could only be rivalled by those of the Finn he played alongside. Kelly takes the number 8 shirt this year but he has already sealed his place in the first team. It’ll be a big season for the midfielder as he has the chance to step into his own now beside Gary Harkins in the midfield engine room.
Where now for Killie?
At the start of last season every Killie fan would have been happy if they steered clear of relegation. After flirting with European places and a top six spot I have the feeling scraping clear of the bottom won’t be enough for the Killie support this year.
In fact some would still be disappointed if they don’t better last year’s performance.
Breaching the top four does not seem likely for Killie – although with Dundee United having lost some key players and having an early start to the season they may not be guaranteed to be up there either. Hearts have made some interesting signings, although Hamill and Taouil worked with Jefferies at Rugby Park and now join him in Gorgie, despite Jefferies playing them both significantly out of position so whether he’ll get the best out of them remains to be seen. Hibernian and Aberdeen have made some interesting additions to their sides and will be keen to break into the top six after poor performances last term, despite this they still have a lot of dead wood in their sides which may hinder their progress.
Motherwell has the same nucleus of the squad that sealed them top 6 and a Scottish Cup final place last term. Having lost the goals of John Sutton they signed Michael Higdon to fill the void. The aging Keith Lasley and Steven Craigan add experience to a youthful squad and they could look good to build on their 6th place finish.
So….where does this leave Killie. Well, as much as I would be happy with any position above 9th, which is most likely just enough to avoid a relegation battle, Killie could do much better than this and secure another top six finish. They have an ambitious squad and have made some ambitious signings. The tactical know how of Shiels juxtaposed with the experience, determination and knowledge of Jimmy Nichol will be enough to drive the squad on. With Manuel Pascali taking the armband from Craig Bryson nobody can doubt the credential of the Italian to fill the role. Conservatively, however my prediction is an 8th place finish for Kilmarnock this season.
Will Killie better last year’s performance? Probably not. But they’ll have a damn good stab at it and it’ll be a typical blue and white rollercoaster ride along the way.