Killie Magazine insider: Kenny Shiels on how to compete against the city clubs

This month, we’re giving you a peak inside the October edition of the Killie Magazine as cup-winning manager Kenny Shiels shares his views on ‘how to compete against the big city clubs’. For more in-depth interviews – including U18s captain David Watson on his ambitions for the future and Kilmarnock Women’s captain Laura McLaughlin’s insight into matchday preparation – you can pick up a copy of the magazine in the Killie Superstore or purchase online.

When Kenny Shiels stepped up from his assistant role in 2011, Kilmarnock were in fact appointing an experienced manager who had a track record in achieving success with provincial teams. Here, the 2012 League Cup winner looks at two key elements of taking on city clubs, with psychology of approach and tactical setup of equal and intrinsic value.

For some, the prospect of a game in Glasgow is not one to be relished. The ever-widening gap in financial clout has produced the same two winners of the top league in Scotland since 1985. Killie’s northern Irish manager had a refreshing take on these games, one which led to several memorable moments in the country’s two largest cities.

“When I look at the Old Firm now, more so over the last seven or eight years, and even back then, nobody wants to have a go at them. When I say nobody, that’s unfair, because the likes of Livingston give it a blast. I would like managers to come in and try to play the game the right way first. And obviously managers will say it’s all about winning. It’s not all about winning; it’s all about improving and trying to get the players to play in a way in which they feel good about the game itself.

“You can’t just have one segment of sport; you’ve got to have the love of the game as well. If we go and win a match where we go percentage and we try to fight off long balls – and it’s so horrible to watch – you’re depriving the supporters of entertainment. People forget that football is an entertainment environment. They pay money, they buy a season ticket, they go and watch it, and it’s dire. They’re in the top six, but it’s dire. My loyalty lies to the shape of the game and I’m sure I proved that at Kilmarnock, that how we played was significant to how I wanted us to play, and my teams today are the same.

“If you look back, during that period of about 14 months, we won away to Celtic, twice, in Glasgow, 2-0 and 1-0, and we didn’t concede. We won home and away to Rangers in that period – that was two more clean sheets. We won away to Aberdeen 2-0 and away to Hearts twice, both to nil.

“The organisation of that sounds as if we were defensive but we played with the ball and we pushed people high up the pitch. We opened up the spaces and you saw that in our performances. And most of those matches were away from home.

“But when we were at home, everybody wanted Michael (Johnston) out. So the atmosphere of the arena, an 18,000-seater stadium with 4,000 in it and half of them are shouting to get Michael out, it didn’t lend itself to a positive environment. I regret that, and I couldn’t say it at the time. But that’s one of the things I regretted the most. I’m not saying the supporters didn’t support us but there was still that feeling from them that this has to be changed. Our home form wasn’t good in my last season, and I accept that. But we had the best away form outside the Old Firm.

“I read on Facebook, some guy chirped in: “Anybody could win a wee League Cup, he was just a lucky manager.” But you can’t be a lucky manager if you can organise a team that knows how to play with attacking football and also have a solid base and foundation to not concede. To go to Rangers at Ibrox and dominate the ball – we tried to dominate the ball first and foremost and we achieved that.

“We scored a goal against Hearts – from our goalkeeper, everybody in the team touched the ball. But it was never highlighted. Had Rangers or Celtic done it, it would have been very much highlighted. It was one of the most fantastic goals that I saw in the Scottish Prem. It’s what you manufacture and how you apply yourself that is very important as well.”

Following a dramatic upturn in fortunes under Mixu Paatelainen, ably assisted by Kenny Shiels, the end of season 2010/11 led to significant changes, with none bigger than the manager accepting the role of Finland national team boss.

Following a testing trial run of eight winless games, it was the trusted Shiels who was offered the chance to step up on a permanent basis. Personnel restructure was the high priority task.

“The players who left were the ones coming out of contract and – because we’d done really well – they were moving to pastures new and getting more money. You can’t blame them for that. I brought in my new players, and we moved up, I feel, in terms of what we were. We brought in players of good calibre – Paul Heffernan; my own son, Dean Shiels – on a wage that was suitable for Kilmarnock.

“I knew what my budget was, and I worked really hard on bringing in players. We had a stable team and they fitted into my way of playing. You never get it one hundred percent right, but I felt we got it pretty much spot on in terms of developmentalising that team into the next season and how everybody sat with it. The likes of the players who had been around the club a long time – Garry Hay, James Fowler, and Cammy Bell – it was good for us to have that foundation. That was brilliant.”

“I felt as if I had that characteristic that would make players think about themselves, and think about the team, and try to work harder to get results.”

A defining feature of Kenny Shiels’ tenure was his boldness and bravery and the 2012 League Cup Final was the moment that mattered. A huge challenge faced Killie, Neil Lennon’s Celtic the favourites to lift yet more silverware.

“I can remember my talk to the players: we’ll go to Hampden, and we’ll deprive them of the ball. Which we tried to do. The stats were very marginal in terms of who had most of the ball. They weren’t used to that.

“In the first couple of minutes, big Dudu (Sissoko) made a mistake where he passed it along the 18-yard line. Gary Hooper had a free run-in and Cammy saved it. But that was the start. My encouragement to them was to keep building it through the units because what happens is subconsciously teams playing in a cup final against Celtic want the ball in the other half of the pitch. But what they didn’t know about the game we were playing was that our methodology was to keep the ball, to open up spaces in their half of the pitch, rather than hump the ball up the pitch and defend the next part. So we kept it through the units.

“If you remember the goal we scored, my left-back was involved in the build-up, high up the pitch, and Johnno, Lee Johnson, was a deep midfielder who’d come on as sub, and he crossed the ball. His instructions were to not be afraid to get high as Fowler could come in from right-back and Garry could come in and lock in there and give him security. So Johnno went forward and he crossed it to the other sub, and he scored.

“If you could put it into a picture, where if you kick the ball up the pitch and defend the next bit, it’s not a logical way of playing. But people are so afraid of playing against the Old Firm. And their two centre backs were not used to playing against two in Scottish football. Because you now had Heffernan and Dieter Van Tornhout. They were now matched up. We put them into an uncomfortable position, and it worked.

“Before the game, I spoke to the players about if we stay inside the game and we bring on an extra striker in the last 20 minutes. Low and behold, that actually happened. We brought him on in 73 and he scored in 83. Everything just worked into place for us. Sometimes in management, you get it right like that.”

What if, though? What if the goal hadn’t come. Was there a Plan B?

“There’s three differentials in a game: what to do when you’re winning; what you do when you’re losing; and what to do when you’re drawing. Going into the latter stages of the Cup Final, we had to prepare for that, and you could see it was done like clockwork. Everything was falling into place for us and now we were 1-0 up with seven or eight minutes to go.

“We drop off the game to close the spaces, to start playing how the other teams play against the Old Firm. It was only an eight-minute match. But you’re talking about planning: you can plan as a manager, but you have to plan for every eventuality. If we’re outside the game and we’re 2-0 down, and you throw players up the pitch, you’re in a no-win situation. You’re already behind and they’ve got their confidence up. But they couldn’t believe it: this was the first team, in my era anyway, a team took the game to Celtic at Parkhead or at Hampden Park.”

Be it Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Aberdeen, Kenny Shiels instilled genuine belief in the Kilmarnock team, peaking on that special, emotional day 10 years ago.

You can listen to the full interview with Kenny Shiels on the Killie Histories podcast.