Kilmarnock: Angelo Alessio has to restore confidence & replace key players
It hardly seems that long since Steve Clarke stood on the pitch at Rugby Park bellowing to the Kilmarnock fans after his side beat Rangers to finish in the top three of Scotland's top division for the first time since 1966.
But, in the intervening 73 days, the manager has left, players have followed, Angelo Alessio has been appointed as head coach and the Ayrshire club have been humiliated at home in the Europa League by a part-time Welsh team.
Kilmarnock have not yet begun their domestic season and already the pressure is on Alessio after the defeat by Connah's Quay Nomads. Antonio Conte's former assistant with Juventus, Italy and Chelsea faces a daunting task, but what are the main challenges facing him?
Restore confidence in his ability
Alessio, obviously hampered by his lack of English, appeared unstirred in the immediate aftermath of the defeat by Connah's Quay. He called the 2-0 home defeat - which overturned a 2-1 first-leg win and prematurely ended the club's first European campaign in 18 years - "disappointing". He railed against the physicality of the Welsh side. He said he was "sorry".
It was left to captain Gary Dicker, quickly becoming Alessio's media spokesman by proxy, to put the result fully into context. The midfielder described it as a "disgrace", "embarrassing", "not good enough", the Ayrshire club's worst-ever result. Certainly not the way they wanted to celebrate their 150th anniversary after their highest league finish since 1966.
- Killie players all in it together - Dicker
- Connah's Quay humble Kilmarnock
- 'We were too savvy for them'
- 'It's a disgrace; our worst ever result'
Now, after an unscheduled break in the fixture list that should have been filled with a tie against Partizan Belgrade, Kilmarnock are looking toward tentatively to their season opener on Sunday - a repeat of that final-day showdown last term with Rangers. It is not the game they would have wanted.
A trip to Hamilton is followed by a League Cup last-16 tie at home to the very same Accies, then the visit of Aberdeen and a meeting with St Johnstone in Perth in the month of August. But already there are rumours of disquiet behind the scenes.
Former Kilmarnock goalkeeper Cammy Bell suggested that, despite Alessio's top-level experience under Conte, appointing the 54-year-old Scottish football novice was "a massive risk". But, while there was always likely to be a drop off after the success of Clarke's 20-month tenure, surely few expected such a swift fall?
Replace last term's key men
As if Clarke's departure was not damaging enough, Kilmarnock also lost a rake of key performers over the summer. Jordan Jones completed his move to Rangers; the Boyds - Kris and Scott - retired; and the loan spells of Youssouf Mulumbu, Daniel Bachmann, Mikael Ndjoli, Liam Millar, Aaron Tshibola, and Conor McAleny all ended.
In their place, only former Roda midfielder Mohamed El Makrini and goalkeeper Laurentiu Branescu, on loan from Juventus and as yet unused, have arrived.
Northern Ireland winger Jones might only have scored four times last season, but he was a significant player in how the Rugby Park side attacked. He averaged 10.55 dribbles per 90 minutes last term - more than any other player. Similarly, Jones attempted 51 shots - second only to striker Eamonn Brophy - and was third in the squad for total crosses.
Another issue that Alessio will have to quickly amend is Kilmarnock's overall lack of goals. Even last term, the Ayrshire side's 50 goals in 38 Premiership games was only the fifth best in the division.
And, during the tie with Connah's Quay, his lack of options was laid bare, with last season's top scorer, Brophy, the only out-and-out striker in the team. The second and fourth most potent forwards from that triumphant campaign - Greg Stewart and Jones - have both wound up at Ibrox and Kris Boyd's retirement deprives Alessio of another relatively reliable - if ageing - goal source.
Revitalise ageing squad
Even last season, Kilmarnock's squad was the oldest in the top flight, with an average age of 27 years and two months, having gone from one end of the extreme to the other under Clarke.
Granted, the two Boyds calling time on their career in their mid 30s brings that down, but Alessio still has a pool of players lacking a little in youthful vigour.
Winger Chris Burke turns 36 in December, centre-half Kirk Broadfoot is 35 in August and midfielder Dicker will be 33 before the league season kicks off. Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald and midfielder Alan Power are also over 30.
All five are crucial players, but they not only need younger legs around them but also younger alternatives over the course of a gruelling campaign.