After a managerial career that had previously led the 44 year-old to Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City and Blackpool, Lee Clark took over the reins at Rugby Park, following the sacking of Lee McCulloch on the 15th February 2016. At the time, Killie were a strong bet for relegation, struggling in tenth position in the Scottish Premiership standings and facing a battle to maintain their top-flight status. So much so that Kilmarnock had to face the two-legged play-off against Falkirk to keep their position in the top tier.
After a 1-0 reversal at the Falkirk Stadium, Clark galvanised his side to a comprehensive 4-0 home win to survive the dreaded drop. Exactly twelve months to the day that Clark joined Killie, he left Rugby Park for English League One side Bury. Kilmarnock stood in sixth place at the time Clark departed – which on the surface could be deemed as some improvement since the former Newcastle, Sunderland and Fulham midfielder took charge – but the East Ayrshire outfit were only two points clear in the league standings from the tenth position Clark started from.
So why would Clark leave one struggling team for another? Surely a team that is only a few places away from European qualification can be deemed a more prestigious job than one in the third tier of English football?! Here we will look in more detail to see if Clark has actually moved forwards or back in his managerial career.
In terms of comparison between the two clubs, Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park venue holds a capacity of over 18,000, while Bury’s Gigg Lane stadium contains less than 12,000. Killie have an average attendance of around 5,300 fans through the turnstiles in comparison to Bury, who muster around 4,000 per home outing. Kilmarnock’s 1-1 draw with newly promoted Rangers back in August gave Rugby Park its highest attendance of the season of 11,800, in relation to Bury – who took on local rivals Bolton at Gigg Lane to a crowd of just over 8,000 supporters last October.
There is no doubt that Kilmarnock are the bigger club due to stadium size, and getting supporters through the gates to see their heroes take the field in the recent past, so purely on that basis, it is a managerial step down for Clark.
What Clark does know though is what it takes to succeed in League One football. During his maiden managerial voyage at Huddersfield Town, Clark oversaw the Terriers to a 43-game unbeaten league run from partway through the 2010-11 season into the following year. Despite that incredible unbeaten sequence, Clark was unable to get the Yorkshire club out of League One and was subsequently sacked in February 2012 despite a win percentage of 48.9%. Clark will be hoping to bring that knowledge of his time at Huddersfield to try and lift his new club away from a relegation dogfight.
Since his departure from Rugby Park, Clark has suggested in certain media quotes that “he has his mojo back” after his twelve month stint in Scottish football, and that he has also suggested that his tenure at Kilmarnock has proven to the football world that “he can manage”. Clark has been – to use one of his Geordie terms – ‘canny’ in his assessment of his time with Killie, and while he is speaking the truth about the differential of league position by claiming “the players at Kilmarnock got me this move, they produced the results to get from bottom of the table to the top six”, the reality is that only a couple of bad results will plummet Killie back to the situation Clark began from.
The financial rewards that the higher echelons of English football can offer is ultimately in stark contrast to those in Scotland, and Clark has taken a gamble by joining Bury to try and get the Shakers away from their current relegation battle and possibly challenge for Championship status somewhere down the line. He does know the league and what it takes to win games at that level, but to compare his new club from his old team – it is a step down in terms of size. Time will tell if Clark has made the right choice.