The Kilmarnock squad celebrate after securing Europa League qualification by defeating Rangers on Sunday. Ian Rutherford
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Irish midfielder on a high after captaining his club to their best season in 53 years

Gary Dicker helped Kilmarnock to achieve a top-three finish in Scotland for the first time since 1966.

A MEMORABLE CAMPAIGN for Kilmarnock deserved a fitting climax. The final page of the script made pleasant reading for captain Gary Dicker.

“It was a crazy way to end to the season,” the Dublin-born midfielder tells The42. “Finishing the job by beating Rangers made it even sweeter, to be honest.”

Going into Sunday’s game at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock knew they would need to at least match Aberdeen’s result at Hibernian to secure third place in the Scottish Premiership, something the club last achieved in 1966.

A top-three finish would also guarantee a place in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League next season. For a club who haven’t played European football in 18 years, it was a significant occasion.

With two minutes of normal time remaining, it appeared as though Kilmarnock were about to come up short. As Aberdeen held a 2-1 lead in Edinburgh, Killie and Rangers were level at 1-1 after Alfredo Morelos had cancelled out Chris Burke’s early opener. 

But there was still time for one more twist.

After Stephen O’Donnell was pulled down in the box by Borna Barisic, Eamonn Brophy beat Wes Foderingham from the penalty spot in the 89th minute to cap Kilmarnock’s best season in over half a century. 

“The situation was in our own hands so it was a good position to be in,” says Dicker, who’s accompanied in midfield by fellow Dubliner Alan Power. “We didn’t even know the score in the Aberdeen game. We just focused on doing our own job and it was an unbelievable feeling to do it.”

Kilmarnock v Rangers - Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership - Rugby Park Gary Dicker celebrates with Chris Burke. Ian Rutherford Ian Rutherford

Dicker’s first season as a Kilmarnock player culminated with the club requiring a play-off against Falkirk to avoid relegation from the Scottish Premiership. Just three years later, the outlook is much brighter in East Ayrshire. According to Dicker, Steve Clarke’s appointment as manager in October 2017 was a key turning point.

“Over the last two seasons since the gaffer came in, we’ve been on an unbelievable run,” he says. “The consistency for a team with a budget as small as ours has been really strong.

“Getting into Europe is an unbelievable achievement for this club. For Celtic and Rangers it’s all about winning the league, but for us to be the best of the rest is just as good as winning the league when you consider our budget.”

A telling contribution to Kilmarnock’s success has been made by their skipper, whose effective midfield anchoring hasn’t gone unnoticed. Dicker was named in BT Sport’s Scottish Premiership Team of the Season, as selected by presenter Darrell Currie and former Celtic striker Chris Sutton. 

“I’d like to think I’ve done well since I joined the club,” Dicker says. “I’m playing in a position where you probably don’t stand out as much for the normal fan, and there’s a hell of a lot of good players in my position in Scotland, some of them on big, big wages.

“It’s a nice touch to get recognition like that from an ex-pro [Sutton]. Anyone in our team could have been in the team, to be honest. It has been a real squad effort here.”

Dicker has been plying his trade in the UK since swapping UCD for Stockport County in 2007. He then had four full seasons at Brighton & Hove Albion, two of which were spent in the Championship. Stints with Rochdale, Crawley Town and Carlisle United preceded his move to Scotland in 2016.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 22.37.35 BT Sport BT Sport

“For me, it’s no coincidence that I’ve played my best football under managers who understand the game and understand different players’ qualities,” explains the 32-year-old, who won a League One title at Brighton in 2011.

“You can end up scratching around and playing a certain way under certain managers, where it’s literally a case of ‘go out there, we should beat them’. Where I’ve been successful before was at Stockport under Jim Gannon, at Brighton under Gus Poyet, and there were a few bits in between with certain managers at certain clubs.

“It’s no disrespect to anyone, but when there’s a structure, the team has a way of playing and the manager can see my qualities as a player, it helps me an awful lot. I think I’ve played my best football under the better managers, so it can’t be a coincidence.

“I’m definitely enjoying my football again. When I left Brighton it was a bit tough for a while, because you’re used to playing a certain way under a certain manager, and things are done professionally. But you can end up floating about and maybe drifting out of the game a bit. But it goes a long way when you have a manager who knows what he’s doing.” 

He adds: “The possibility of playing in Europe definitely isn’t something I would have thought of throughout my career. Obviously it’s a lot harder to do it in England because you’ve realistically got to be in the Premier League.

“It’s probably something that didn’t enter my head until I came up to Scotland. Then you start wondering if you can sneak into Europe by getting into a cup final or something like that. But at the start of last season we set out to try and better what we did last year, when we finished fifth. We’ve ended up in third this year so we’ve gone in the right direction.

“Europe specifically wasn’t spoken about until we got towards the end of the season and it became a strong possibility. Getting into Europe is massive for the club. It can bring in a lot of money and it’s got the town on its feet again. It’s something to look forward to. Everyone is buzzing.”

Kilmarnock v Rangers - William Hill Scottish Cup - Fifth Round - Rugby Park Dicker: 'It goes a long way when you have a manager who knows what he's doing.' Jeff Holmes Jeff Holmes

Kilmarnock will have to embark on their first European campaign since 2001 under the guidance of a new manager. Their success has come at a cost, after Steve Clarke was headhunted by the Scottish FA to take over as national team boss.

“I’m obviously delighted for the gaffer,” Dicker says. “We were lucky as a group of players and as a club to get someone like him in the door. He’s done an unbelievable job for us and he’s now managing his country, which is up there among the best honours you can have as a coach or a manager. I have no doubt that he’ll do well there.”

As for his own prospects at international level, Dicker is pragmatic about the likelihood of a call-up from Mick McCarthy.

“It’s something that’s in your mind when you’re younger, but as soon as you hit 30 it probably changes,” says the ex-Ireland U21 international.

“I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t happen, to be honest with you. Obviously they’ve got a strong squad now. There are a lot of players who aren’t in the squad too.

“If you keep doing well, you’d never know. It’s not something I’ve given much thought to lately. It would obviously be a massive honour, but I’m about to play in Europe for the first time at the age of 32, so I’m happy enough with that.” 

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