PREDICTED LEAGUE FINISH: ELEVENTH
LAST SEASON: 11th, 36pts
NOTABLE INS: Jamie Cobain (Newcastle United), Souleymane Coulibaly (Peterborough United), Jordan Jones (Middlesbrough), Callum McFadzean (Sheffield United), Martin Smith (Sunderland), Joshua Webb (Aston Villa), Flo Bojaj (Huddersfield Town, loan), Will Boyle (Huddersfield Town, loan), Jonathan Burn (Middlesbrough, loan), Oliver Davies (Swansea City, loan), Mark Waddington (Stoke City, loan)
NOTABLE OUTS: Craig Slater (Colchester United, £150k), Lee Ashcroft (Dunfermline Athletic), Dale Carrick (Livingston), Mark Connolly (Crawley Town), Chris Johnston (Raith Rovers), Kallum Higginbotham (Dunfermline Athletic), Kevin McHattie (Raith Rovers), Tope Obadeyi (Dundee United), Mark O'Hara (Dundee), David Syme (Partick Thistle), Stuart Findlay (Celtic, end of loan), Lee Hodson (Milton Keynes Dons, end of loan), Lee McCulloch (reitred), Conor Brennan, Julien Faubert, Alex Henshall, Aaron Splaine, Darryl Westlake
LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): MacDonald,
Confidemus, 'we trust' may be Kilmarnock's motto, but one gets the feeling that Lee Clark didn't trust the squad he inherited from Gary Locke in February.
Having kept the club up by the skin of their teeth, the Englishman has rung the changes, and then some. Only seven senior players precede Clark's appointment, and one of those - Conrad Balatoni - has been denied a squad number and even deleted from the club's website in an attempt to force him to leave. Jamie MacDonald, Steven Smith, Gary Dicker (signed just days before Clark's arrival), Rory McKenzie, Kris Boyd and Josh Magennis are the only survivors; seventeen players have left Rugby Park this summer.
A number of those were still under contract, but Clark didn't fancy them. The most curious exit was that of under-21 international Mark O'Hara, a highly rated prospect for a number of years and a regular last term. He was allowed to leave for Dundee on a free transfer. He did want to hold on to another academy product, Craig Slater, but the midfielder turned down a new deal in favour of a move to Colchester.
Ever since the entertaining days of Kenny Shiels, Killie have fancied themselves as a team who give youth a chance. Clark will also rely on young players this season...but he's signed most of them from English clubs. Of eleven new arrivals, seven are under 21, and the oldest is 22. There has been some criticism of this new signing policy, but the decision to go in a drastically different direction is understandable. Their last four league finishes have been ninth, ninth, tenth and eleventh, with just a solitary top six finish in nine years. The playoff win over Falkirk at the end of May felt like the last of their nine lives had been used up.
There will, inevitably, be some short-term difficulties, with so many new faces to be integrated - in this case, the names on the backs of the shirts will probably aid the players more than the spectators - and with a bit of experimenting likely to be needed to find the strongest starting lineup. Clark hasn't done himself any favours with the fans by using the League Cup group stage as pre-season; they rode their luck against two League Two sides (Clyde missed a penalty at 0-0 and Berwick were 2-0 up with sixteen minutes left) and were comprehensively defeated at home by Morton and held to a draw by Albion Rovers. Those performances may indicate a lack of fitness and preparation, but the worry is that the players are simply a bit crap.
Souleymane Coulibaly looks the best bet of the new arrivals. The Ivory Coast forward was on Spurs' books only a few years back, and has scored three League Cup goals already, including an audacious backheel against Clyde which he followed up with about three different celebrations. He looks like a guy who will make use of good service. Josh Magennis, fresh from a Euro 2016 confidence boost, looks likely to be his partner in crime; the Ulsterman got into double figures for the first time last season and looks to have at last added a bit of direction and thought to his outstanding athleticism.
Clark also brought in Kosovan forward Flo Bojaj on loan from his old club Huddersfield, which gives him an alternative off the bench and leaves one wondering where Kris Boyd stands in all of this. 33 this month, he certainly looked leaner and hungrier last year but it didn't translate into many goals. One of the higher earners, there have been rumours that his third spell at Rugby Park could end imminently. This would leave the squad even shorter on experience.
As for midfield and defence, it's not at all clear who Clark will pick, at least initially - though Jamie MacDonald, the club's best player last season, will surely still be first choice in goal. Miles Addison impressed after signing in April and retaining the big centre-back was a real coup. Steven Smith has been handed the captaincy, so surely he'll be in the team either at left-back or left midfield. Dicker will surely occupy one central midfield slot, and Clark must find an advanced midfield role for Greg Kiltie, who is the best academy product left at the club. It would be nice to see him give Greg Taylor, who broke into the team at left-back at the end of last season, a run too.
Two loanees, Will Boyle and Jonathan Burn, will compete to start alongside Addison; ex-England youth international Joshua Webb and ex-Newcastle youngster Jamie Cobain will fight for the right-back slot; Mark Waddington (loaned from Stoke) or Jordan Jones (a more natural winger signed from Middlesbrough) can start on the right flank, while Martin Smith is a central midfielder from Sunderland and Callum McFadzean, a Scotland under-21 international, has some experience playing on the left hand side in the English lower leagues. Are these guys any good? Honestly, I've no idea. I'm not sure Kilmarnock fans know yet either. If Clark's recruitment is poor, then this will be a disaster.
The flipside is that this sort of signing policy has worked before - Terry Butcher's Caley Thistle being a prime example. Clark has thrown lots of darts at the board, but if even just three or four stick, he's probably fine. But the stakes are high (yes, I know I'm mixing metaphors). Kilmarnock's financial issues are well known, so much so that relegation could actually be the end of the world. No pressure, lads...
THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1995 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Oliver Davies, Jamie MacDonald
Defenders: Miles Addison, Conrad Balatoni, Will Boyle, Jonathan Burn, Lewis Clark, Jamie Cobain, Steven Smith, Greg Taylor, Joshua Webb
Midfielders: Gary Dicker, Adam Frizzell, Dean Hawkshaw, Jordan Jones, Greg Kiltie, Callum McFadzean, Rory McKenzie, Scott McLean, Martin Smith, Mark Waddington
Forwards: Flo Bojaj, Kris Boyd, Souleymane Coulibaly, Josh Magennis
THE BEST XI?
Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.