GARY Dicker has been with Kilmarnock all the way on this remarkable journey from the bottom of the Ladbrokes Premiership to the top. The Irishman, though, nearly never even got on at the first stop.

It is difficult to imagine this Kilmarnock side without Dicker in it given how significant a figure the captain has become. Wednesday night’s victory over Livingston, the result that carried Kilmarnock to the summit of Scottish football, was his 100th appearance for the club.

Dicker has been at Rugby Park since February 2016 but the sacking of former manager Gary Locke just as he was about to move north from Carlisle almost deterred him from going at all. With Kilmarnock preparing to travel to Celtic tomorrow as the in-form team in the country, there is unsurprisingly a sense of relief that he decided to see it through.

“I actually turned down the chance to sign on the Friday before we played Hamilton,” he recalled. “I had just had another kid with my missus. We were playing Hamilton on the Sunday and I just said: “Let’s wait and see how this goes”.

“We lost to Hamilton and I turned round to her and said: “I’m not sure about this”. The manager got sacked after that game and I thought the move was definitely off.

“But then I just changed my mind basically, and I drove up the road and signed. I took a bit of a gamble, but I just got a feeling to come. And I’ve loved it because we’ve improved steadily year after year since then.”

Kilmarnock were second-bottom when Dicker arrived and by the time the next manager, Lee McCulloch, departed last October they had fallen to the bottom rung of the ladder. Then Clarke came in and, slowly but surely, transformed Kilmarnock’s fortunes.

Dicker was hardly turning cartwheels at the news that his team had gone top of the league, but instead there was a quiet sense of satisfaction that this was simply a manifestation of a year of gradual improvement.

“The turnaround is unbelievable,” added the Dubliner. “But I don’t think anyone is getting carried away. People are probably waiting for us to blow up a bit. But we’ll keep going and just do what we’ve been doing.

“It was doom and gloom for too long at this club. The gaffer has come in and everything has changed – both on and off the pitch. He’s a perfectionist but we’ve got a lot of boys in the dressing room who also have that mentality.

“That makes your job easier as one of the more experienced players. The standards are set at the top and, if you’re not doing it, then you’ll be told about it by three or four before it even gets to the manager. If it does get to him, then he’ll certainly let them know about it.”

Clarke is not a naturally garrulous person but when he speaks he chooses his words carefully to ensure maximum impact.

“At the start of the season he put up two dates – one was the first league game and the other one was in November,” explained Dicker.

“Everyone was looking at it. He said: “That’s how long it took us to win a home game last season. That’s embarrassing”. So it’s just little things like that he does, puts little bits and bobs in your head. And we then went out and won our first game at home.

“He doesn’t rant or rave or keep talking for the sake of talking. Even after a game, he doesn’t say much. We’ll come in, he’ll say a couple of things, then it’ll be: “Okay, see you tomorrow”.

‘That’s where other managers maybe get caught out, they’ll say things to players in the heat of the moment. But he’s experienced and will maybe say his piece about a game over the space of a few days.

‘With us on the pitch, there’s a calmness to what we do. That comes from the gaffer and Alex Dyer [his assistant].”

That calmness will be required tomorrow at Celtic Park. But Dicker did not seem fazed by the prospect of taking on a side who have yet to beat Kilmarnock since Clarke came in.

“It’ll be a huge game – it always is. But the pressure is probably on them because they’re playing at home. We’ll have our gameplan and way of setting up. It’s then up to us how we play.”