Shiels and Nicholl Have Their Work Cut out at Kilmarnock

Craig CairnsContributor IJune 17, 2011

KILMARNOCK, SCOTLAND - MAY 15:  Steven Naismith of Rangers scores during the Clydesdale Bank Premier League match between Kilmarnock  and Rangers at Rugby Park on May 15, 2011 in Kilmarnock, Scotland.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

While browsing the comings and goings of the early part of the current transfer window, one club stood out: Kilmarnock.  Since the departure of Mixu Paatelainen, the Ayrshie club’s form has dipped severely, and many key players have moved on.  Add to this the lack of funds to replace these departures and the mini-revolt from a section of the club’s supporters, and it appears that newly-appointed manager Kenny Shiels and his assistant Jimmy Nicholl already have their work cut out for them.

Shiels took over as caretaker-manager towards the end of the most recent SPL campaign and failed to win any of the eight subsequent matches.  Four draws and four defeats is far from respectable although it would be harsh to judge him solely on this bare statistic.  Instead, it should be considered within the context that the majority of these fixtures were post-split and that the side had little to play for going into these matches.

Worryingly for Shiels, however, is that his first set of the fixtures for the new season resembles that of the top six minus the Old Firm.  Kilmarnock will open up their new season with matches against Dundee United, Motherwell, Hibernian and Hearts, all of which are sides that will be expecting to find themselves in the top six next April.  Come the end of the transfer window, Shiels will of course expect to have a squad in place that is able to challenge these sides and retain their place within the top half of the division.

When questioned at his official unveiling on Wednesday about some of the recent departures, more specifically Alexei Eremenko, Shiels had this to say: “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.”

Sure, one man does not make a team, but we’re talking about Player of the Year nominee Alexei Eremenko here.  The Finnish international was a huge part of Kilmarnock’s success last season and was often at the heart of the sublime passing moves that caused a few pundits and managers to, rather cringingly, label them the Barcelona of the SPL.

Eremenko was what made them tick.

As mentioned, their relative success last season was not just down to one player but ask those in the know to name who else stood out and the likes of Conor Sammon, Craig Bryson and Ben Gordon are likely to be mentioned.  In January, Sammon was sold to Wigan and Gordon’s returned to Chelsea, whereas Bryson recently decided to leave Rugby Park and ply his trade in the championship with Derby County.

Other notable players have also left the club.  Mohamed Sissoko’s loan has ended, and he has returned to Udinese, Frazer Wright has opted to join St. Johnstone and Mehdi Taouil and Jamie Hamill have been reunited with Jim Jefferies and co. at Tynecastle.

Taken collectively, this means that Kilmarnock will be without a large amount of experience, goals, industry, aggression, flair and technical ability that their side possessed last season.  Most worryingly, if Shiels is to be believed regarding his commitment to adhering to the methods of his predecessor, he will be without a number of players that are confident and comfortable in possession.  That is, players who helped implement a style that led to hyperbolic comparisons and their goal of the season contender against Inverness Caley Thistle in April (which was actually my goal of the season and can be seen here 3.30 in).

Kilmarnock still have a number of decent players on their books, a few very promising young ones at that, but replacing those who have left with similar quality, given the budget available, is a tall order.  Shiels often refers to bringing in players with the correct DNA that fits his football style, but he will have to work miracles to find the correct organisms that will replace the goals of Sammon, the link-up play and assists of Eremenko and the engine of Bryson.

And the names of the new recruits so far hardly inspire.  Paul Hefferen and Danny Racchi have joined from Sheffield Wednesday and York City respectively and Dundee striker Gary Harkins and former Crewe player Patrick Ada are believed to be close to agreeing deals.

Now obviously, my ignorance could come back to bite me here—admittedly, I had never heard of Eremenko when he signed just under a year ago—and others, most notably Jim Gannon in his short time at Motherwell, have shown that a knowledge of the English lower leagues can form the basis of an effective signing policy north of the border.

Despite this, it seems that most of the clubs that finished in the bottom six last season are making eye-catching signings.  Hibernian have added Garry O’Conner and a much-needed experienced and dominant centre-half in Sean O’Hanlon; St. Mirren have pulled off a massive coup in bringing Steven Thompson (with a ‘p’!) to the club—a player that was scoring goals in the English Premiership little over a year ago—and St. Johnstone seem to be making the right types of signings—replacements for Danny Grainger and Michael Duberry and a much-needed striker, even if they’ll likely need to add another before the end of August.

Other than that, Aberdeen and Inverness have been relatively quiet on the signing front, but I expect the Dons to add more quality, and Inverness displayed last season that they are a side to be reckoned with.

Some of the above is, of course, speculation and conjecture and there are many other variables that will come into play throughout the course of the season.  Nonetheless, I feel that due to the departures and arrivals at Rugby Park so far this summer, if the new management team attempt to employ the effective, yet risky strategies of Paatelainen’s reign, then I wouldn’t be surprised if Kilmarnock’s form reverted back to that which almost saw them relegated to the First Division little over a year ago.