Matthew Lindsay: Can the Premiership’s unlikely leaders Kilmarnock hold on to miracle worker Steve Clarke?

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THE Ladbrokes Premiership match at Celtic Park tomorrow afternoon will determine whether Kilmarnock can, even just for a short spell, stay in first place in the table.

But whether the Rugby Park club can hold onto the man responsible for their lofty and unexpected position in the league, their miracle-working manager Steve Clarke, will remain highly uncertain regardless of the result in the East End of Glasgow.

The revival the Ayrshire club have enjoyed since Clarke was appointed in October last year has been one of the great stories in Scottish football in recent times.

To recap, he took them from bottom place in the Premiership to fifth in his debut season, beating Celtic once and Rangers twice in the process, and was named the Scottish Football Writers’ Association Manager of the Year.

This term his team have picked up where they have left off. Their 2-0 win over Livingston at home on Wednesday evening saw them leapfrog both the Ibrox and Parkhead clubs. They have the best Premiership record in 2018.

It is a remarkable achievement considering that Youssouf Mulumbu, the Congolese midfielder who was so important to their dramatic upturn in fortunes after joining on a free transfer in November, moved on in the summer and signed for Celtic.

There will, however, be a downside to the success Kilmarnock have enjoyed. Turning an outfit threatened by relegation into one being mentioned as potential Scottish title contenders on a limited budget will not have gone unnoticed by far larger and richer clubs both north and south of the border. It is inevitable one of them will attempt to lure him away.

There are certainly reasons for Clarke to stay where he is if they do. He was badly bruised by his experiences at both West Brom, where he was sacked the season after leading them to their highest league finish in over 30 years, and Reading, where political infighting behind the scenes made is job impossible. He appreciates the positive working environment he currently has and will not move on readily.

He is, too, a childhood Kilmarnock fan and has a strong emotional bond to both the club and an area where many members of his family still live. He enjoys fishing, playing golf and going to the races in his time off. There are few better places to do all three. A droll and self-effacing individual, the pace of life suits his personality perfectly.

But a man who has coached at Chelsea, Newcastle United, West Ham United, Liverpool and Aston Villa in the past must have ambitions to work at a higher level again. He will understand there are limitations to what he can do. If the right offer came in he could well be tempted.

The 55-year-old’s wife, too, has remained in the south of England to help raise his grandson since he returned to his homeland. He has admitted in the past he has found being apart from her and his children for extended periods difficult at times. Moving nearer to them, then, would be a definite attraction.

So Kilmarnock supporters should savour the moment. Clarke has made them well-organised, hard to break down and difficult to beat. Only Celtic have a better defensive record in the Premiership in the 2018/19 campaign. Up front, though, they also pose a serious threat. Greg Stewart and Eamonn Brophy have forged a potent partnership and are, with seven and six goals to their names respectively, among the top five scorers in the league.

The transformation Stewart in particular has undergone since coming under Clarke’s watchful eye has been staggering. He was unable to scale the heights he had at Dundee when he moved to Aberdeen on loan from Birmingham City last season. He was on target just three times. He has just scored four in his last four starts.

Beating a Celtic side smarting after dropping points against Motherwell at Parkhead tomorrow and remaining ahead of them and Rangers will not be easy. But Clarke’s record against Brendan Rodgers’s men is impressive. His charges have won two and drawn two of their four meetings. As we have witnessed in the past 14 months, anything is possible. It promises to be a fascinating contest in what has already been a fantastic season.