2019/20 Premiership preview - Kilmarnock
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: SEVENTH
LAST SEASON: 3rd, 67pts
NOTABLE INS: Mohamed El Makrini (Roda JC), Laurentiu Branescu (Juventus, loan)
NOTABLE OUTS: Daniel Higgins (Cove Rangers), Jordan Jones (Rangers), Daniel Bachmann (Watford, end of loan), Conor McAleny (Fleetwood Town, end of loan), Liam Millar (Liverpool, end of loan), Youssouf Mulumbu (Celtic, end of loan), Mikael Ndjoli (Bournemouth, end of loan), Aaron Tshibola (Aston Villa, end of loan), Kris Boyd (retired), Scott Boyd (retired), Will Graham
LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out):
Steve Clarke, man. Sure, Jesus turned water into wine, but could he have guided Kilmarnock to third in the league? Dunno about that. I'm sure I wasn't the only neutral rooting for Killie last season. They weren't always pleasing on the eye but I've not seen a better organized team in Scotland. And whoever Clarke sent out onto the pitch would have jumped in front of a bullet if it meant getting a result. He was so damn magnificent that he was able to frequently (and publicly) criticize the SFA and still get the national team job.
And so, midway through June, the club appointed Angelo Alessio as Clarke's successor.
I was instantly on board with the move. Appointing another name from the ranks of Scottish football, a la Allan Johnston, Gary Locke, Lee McCulloch et al would have inevitably meant regression back to where they were before the Clarke era. Taking a punt on Alessio obviously came with risk - his previous management posts were in Italy's lower divisions and he has never worked in Scotland before - but like his predecessor his coaching CV is impressive - he assisted Antonio Conte at Juventus, Chelsea and with Italy's national team. If Killie were to have any hope of kicking on, it would be by pulling off a high risk, high reward move like this.
Then along came Connah's Quay Nomads. What's that noise that sounds like something going down a drain? Why, that's most of the goodwill and benefit-of-the-doubt the fans had given Alessio being flushed away.
A (very, very) generous person would point out that the new man has had only a few weeks and made only two additions to a squad that lost a lot of players at the end of last season. Most however would point to the fact that the Welsh side needed a penalty shootout to see off League Two Edinburgh City at home in last year's Challenge Cup. All, I think, are worried that the reason no-one had really heard of Alessio is because he is actually just Gary Locke standing on Lee McCulloch's shoulders, surrounded by a ridiculously large overcoat and putting on an outrageous accent.
And a couple of weeks later there have been no further additions to the squad. Alessio has said himself he needs at least another centre-back, two wingers and a striker. In truth he probably needs even more than that.
As we said, 'high risk'. If the ceiling is a repeat of third place (a thought that now seems optimistic to the point of delusional), how low is the floor? Certainly bottom six, though the spine of the team is surely far too strong to prevent disaster. Assuming Kirk Broadfoot has enough left in the tank, a back four of him, Stuart Findlay, Stephen O'Donnell and Greg Taylor is stout and talented. The latter three may have been called up for Scotland by their former boss, but they all earned it on merit rather than favouritism.
Taylor has flown under the radar a bit because left-back is a real (the only?) position of strength for the country, but he has played more than 100 league games and is still just 21. Findlay made a real breakthrough last season, and O'Donnell is one of the best right-backs in the country. The return of Alex Bruce provides centre-back cover, and Taylor's backup Calum Waters is highly thought of at Rugby Park. But more depth is essential now Scott Boyd has retired.
Alessio can also hang his hat on central midfield duo Gary Dicker and Alan Power, both of whom blossomed under Clarke. Veteran Dutchman Mo El Makrini is probably more of a squad player. The problem, as the manager has identified, is out wide where 35 year old Chris Burke remains the best option. Dom Thomas found his level on loan at Dumbarton last year and Adam Frizzell's development has stalled. Greg Kiltie is best as a number ten, but needs a manager to give him a run of games to show what he can do. Of the club's youngsters, the powerful Innes Cameron is probably the best bet to succeed. He doesn't turn 19 till August though and it may be a bit too soon for him.
And if you think the wing options look poor then take a peek at the attackers - or attacker, singular. The only striker on the books currently is Eamonn Brophy. Brophy was a hit under Clarke partly because of his workrate and willingness to do the defensive work. He did lead the club with 12 goals last season, but he can be really streaky and his 'shoot first, think later' policy really needs to be binned if he is to push on. At the moment he has no competition to push him.
And at the other end of the pitch, Jamie MacDonald faces the possiblity of yet another season where he starts as first choice and finishes on the bench. It's safe to assume Laurentiu Branescu has been signed on loan to play, though he will do well to emulate the efforts of Daniel Bachmann last season.
So a lot now depends on who Killie procure between now and August. The hope is that Alessio can use his contacts to find some gems, and that the players respond positively to another tactical manager. The fear is that Connah's Quay is a sign of what's to come, and that within a few months the dreaded 'safe pair of hands' will be required to dig them out of a hole.
THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Laurentiu Branescu, Jamie MacDonald, Devlin Mackay
Defenders: Kirk Broadfoot, Alex Bruce, Stuart Findlay, Ross Millen, Stephen O'Donnell, Greg Taylor, Calum Waters, Iain Wilson
Midfielders: Chris Burke, Innes Cameron, Gary Dicker, Mohamed El Makrini, Adam Frizzell, Greg Kiltie, Rory McKenzie, Alan Power, Dom Thomas
Forwards: Eamonn Brophy
THE BEST XI?
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.
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