On May 19th 2019, Kilmarnock finished off a historic season beating Rangers 2-1 at home and beating third places rivals Aberdeen to that elusive automatic European qualification spot. Flash forward to January 2020 and Kilmarnock look to be in dismay following the dismissal of Italian manager Angelo Alessio and his philosophy of football. What happened?
For starters, succeeding Steve Clarke would never be easy. He revolutionised his hometown not only bringing performances on field but also filling the stands and making Kilmarnock into a club we hadn’t seen for many seasons. The club were constantly battling relegation with some astounding relegation survivals including being one game away from relegation to Falkirk who had won the first leg of the final playoff 1-0. Seemingly, the fortunes of both those clubs changed that day.
Alessio came in as an outsider to the game with little experience with the brutality of not only Scottish style of play but also the style of fans. Kilmarnock fans may have been holding the bar relatively low still however it was always going to be hard to build on the success of Steve Clarke. Alessio had previous experience that Kilmarnock could only dream of in a manager, with Alessio boasting his Serie A, Coppa Italia & Premier League triumphs alongside world class manager Antonio Conte. Alessio looked like the man to bring a new exciting direction to Kilmarnock.
That direction turned out to be Wales as Kilmarnock ventured into Europe after so many years to face Connahs Quay Nomads of the Welsh Premier League in the First Qualifying Round of the Europa League. Connahs Quay are a side built for upsets with star man Bakare upfront topping off a major physical presence of this brutal Connahs side. The Welsh outfits were no newbies to the Scottish game either, with the club regularly competing in the Scottish Challenge Cup against sides from the 2nd to 4th tier of the Scottish game. Just the season before had Connahs Quay made it to the final, only to be edged out by Premiership newcomers Ross County.
After an exciting 2-1 victory with late goals for Kilmarnock in Wales, it looked like a start to an exuberant season despite a lacklustre start. The general opinion was that once this game was over, the competition properly begins. Partizan Belgrade awaited and the fans had quite literally booked their places in Belgrade. What happened next was the defining moment of the Alessio era, Kilmarnock were beaten 2-0 at home and therefore eliminated from the Europa League at the first hurdle.
The club came crashing down. The press had a field day. Alessio’s side were beaten already. I wouldn’t be quick to blame Kilmarnock for a bad performance, but don’t get me wrong, it was disgraceful. However, it was predictable. Kilmarnock wasn’t a side particularly infamous for playing free-flowing attacking football with the most quality attackers in the league and they were in for a game against a side who had a clear plan of sitting back and hustling Kilmarnock off the ball through strength.
This game however was a wake up call and what followed was a season that was quite predictable. While Alessio had taken Steve Clarke’s team and kept the same dynamics which made them successful he also added new utilities such as El Makrini and Niko Hämäläinen. The signings looked good and the team picked up some good results to find themselves challenging for a top 6 finish, maybe even Europe again.
What followed was an absolute shock departure from Alessio which left the fans puzzled as to why. The signings had been good, the football was bringing results and he had been condemned to only a few months in charge of the club. There was reports of infighting through the team and that they had turned on the manager. Some thought that he was pushing them too hard for their standards which is believable considering his background at a much higher pace of football. Nobody could quite put their finger on how this happened and why.
Kilmarnock now find themselves struggling to maintain a top 6 push with embarrassing losses to a toothless St. Mirren, 3-0 against Livingston and 1-0 against Ross County. It’s not looking good at all for Kilmarnock just a year after the ecstasy of the Clarke era. What comes next is anyone’s guess, however the Kilmarnock team has quality and that can still be seen in glimpses. Kilmarnock needs to regroup and prepare for a strong finish to this season as the squad is more than capable of it.