Saturday, 18 March 2017


"Who Won The Scottish League In 1965?"

To the tune of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' that was the song which reverberated around the Rugby Park terracings for many years. Very few supporters of provincial Scottish football clubs (by which I mean from outwith the four big cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee) can boast that their club has won all three major trophies in their lifetime. You have to be a Motherwell fan aged 85 or over or a Kilmarnock supporter at least 52 years old to make such a claim - and add anything between three-six years on to that to actually remember the triumphs.

As a Killie fan of - shall we say a certain vintage - I'm one of the select few. Yet even though I can vividly recall all three great victories I was only present at one of them - and that not until I was 56 years old. That was the 2012 League Cup, when Killie beat Celtic 1-0 in the final, five years ago to the day. So, while other Kilmarnock supporters cite winning the league in 1965 or the Scottish Cup in 1997 as their greatest experience as a Killie fan, it's winning the least important of the three majors which is the most fondly remembered by me.

I was nine years old when Kilmarnock won the title in 1965. My father worked Saturdays till 3pm so couldn't take my brother and myself to Edinburgh on April 24th that year when, after finishing runners-up four times in the previous five seasons, the championship trophy was finally won. Older cousins and uncles offered to take us to the match at Tynecastle against Hearts but when hearing the crowd was expected to be close to 40,000 my mother dug her heels in and refused permission.

So it was that on that memorable Saturday afternoon, we gathered by the radio (no instant goal updates in those days - half-time scores and full-time results only were broadcast on TV). Only the second half of a match was allowed to go out live over the airwaves back then and we weren't even allowed the pleasure of uninterrupted listening. Another big difference between now and then was that cup finals didn't enjoy the luxury of a day dedicated to the occasion. Our crucial title decider had to share airtime with the Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Dunfermline Athletic.

The match situation was simple. If teams finished the season level on points the title was decided on goal average (goals scored divided by goals conceded) not goal difference. Killie needed to win by two clear goals to claim the prize. Anything else then Hearts would have won their third title in eight seasons.

It was only when the second half started that we knew Killie had bagged the two goals needed. The second half seemed to be interminable. And with the radio switching back and forth between Tynecastle and the cup final at Hampden there was a nagging fear that Hearts would score while we were listening to the Glasgow commentary.

On and on it went, then with the 90 minutes almost up back the commentary went to Glasgow. Billy McNeill had scored a late winner for Celtic. We had no idea what was happening in Edinburgh. Was the match over? Had we held on? Back again to Tynecastle. Four minutes injury time. Four minutes! An unheard of amount in 1965. Then suddenly Hearts were through. The usually lethal Alan Gordon shot. The dream was dying. Then, rookie keeper Bobby Ferguson, in only his ninth league appearance, flung himself at the ball and tipped it away for a corner.

I swear. If Ferguson had cut his fingernails that morning Hearts would have been champions.

The corner was cleared, the whistle blew, the pitch was invaded by thousands of ecstatic Kilmarnock fans. Champions of Scotland by four-hundredths of a goal! The players were chaired from the pitch, champagne was quaffed (by the players that is. Supporters celebrated with a liquid more famously associated with Kilmarnock and which bears red and black labels) and in our house there was singing and dancing usually only seen at Hogmanay.

My father handed me a ten-shilling note (50p) - two weeks pocket money - and my brother and I headed up the village main street to buy some celebratory fish and chips and to await the arrival of the Evening Times and Evening Citizen heralding our glorious triumph.

When the papers arrived we eagerly bought one of each only to be waylaid by a chip-munching (this was a small village, 'Nicky's' served as newsagent, chippie and café rolled into one) school janitor. Tightfisted, he wouldn't buy a paper himself (I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd been eating someone else's chips either) but demanded "Gie's that paper a minute, I want to see the results." My brother and I complied, watched him scan the front page, and waited to hear him praise the glorious Ayrshire Killie. Instead all we could hear was him muttering under his breath "bastards won." It was only when he turned to us and said dismissively "I see youse won n'aw" that we realised this dyed-in-the-wool Rangers fan's first instinct (and when I say 'dyed' I mean dyed bright orange) was to look for the Celtic score. He considered himself quite the football expert, on account of being in charge of the school team, his qualifications for this being he was the only male in the school aged over twelve and under sixty.

We returned home only to find our inflexible mother forbidding us from going into town (we lived four miles away from Kilmarnock) to join the celebrations. But forty-eight hours later we had our chance. The Ayrshire Cup Final was played at Rugby Park on April 26th. The clan assembled at the village bus stop (actually I do our village down, we had TWO bus stops), my brother, myself and assorted cousins, the five minutes wait for a bus seemed like an hour, the fifteen minutes journey to Rugby Park more like a day, and the half-hour inside the ground before kick-off an eternity.

Then the team emerged and I saw something that was only happening for the third time in Scottish football history, that no other provincial fan had seen since 1932 and none has seen ever since - the sight of the silver, gleaming Scottish League Championship trophy being paraded around the ground.

"There'll Be Johnnie Walker's Whisky in the Cup"

Usquebae may no longer be associated with Kilmarnock but in 1997 those words could be sung meaningfully to the tune of "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain" This was the second great Kilmarnock victory I never witnessed in person - and this time for sadder reasons than still being in short trousers.

I'd never seen a Scottish Cup Final in my lifetime. Still haven't - though oddly enough I've seen three finals at Wembley, two FA Cup and one FA Vase. Killie HAD played in two losing finals in my lifetime but both were before I'd even started school. My memories of the Scottish Cup before 1997 were far from glorious.

There had been several near misses. In 1964 my mother gave me permission to be taken by a neighbour to the semi-final v Dundee at Ibrox. I contracted mumps, missed the game and Dundee won 4-0. The next semi-final was in 1970. Played at the shambling wreck of a ground that was St Johnstone's then home, Muirton Park, the match against Aberdeen was an awful affair. On the supporters train to the match, sat next to two guys so blootered that when the train came to a brief halt near Perth station waiting for a platform, one of them turned to the other and inquired where we were. His pal looked out of the window, saw a sign and replied: "Some place called De War."

Quite how he never recognised Dewar's distillery I don't know. Him and his pal had consumed enough of their product to intoxicate not just the compartment but the whole train and anyone within a two-mile radius of the station too.

28,500 fans packed into a rotting dump of a ground that should never have been allowed to hold half that number. Some fans sat on turnstile roofs that afforded a view of one of the penalty boxes, others shinnied up floodlight pylons to get a better idea of the action. Still more were squeezed shoulder to shoulder and enveloped by the atmosphere so common in Scottish football at that time. By which I mean steaming drunk guys puking on whatever and whoever was in front of them and a hail of pish-filled beer cans sailing over your head.

I mean, they sailed over your head if you were one of the lucky ones.

It was a match typical of the times. A scrappy affair, best forgotten, especially if your team loses 1-0 and the most memorable action of the day is the half-time wrestling between supporters and constabulary. No segregation either in the ground or at the railway station meant a series of running battles between rival sets of supporters.

"Congestion" was a mild way of putting it

The Monday after the match saw many court appearances, not just in Perth. In Glasgow four fans were jailed after the other semi-final, between Celtic and Dundee

Two years later Killie were back in the semis. This time the opponents were Celtic, at that time, one of the top sides in European football and all but unstoppable in Scotland. Still, there were times they COULD be beaten and Partick Thistle had proven it earlier that season with a spectacular 4-1 win in the League Cup Final. Killie put on a fine performance and at 1-1 had real chances to win but eventually were beaten 3-1. That was no disgrace against a team that a week later lost to Inter Milan in the semi-finals of the European Cup on penalty kicks.

But it was still an awful occasion. As the match programme shows, the SFA in what is laughingly termed their wisdom, moved their semis from Saturday afternoons to midweek, which affected the attendance. They layout of Hampden in those days was that the 'Celtic' end was uncovered so that when rain threatened they either got wet or moved. As they'd never dream of standing in the covered 'Rangers' end that meant inhabiting the covered section of terracing opposite the main stand. Where we were. Celts supporters occupied the high ground and when Killie equalised a hail of bricks, stones and beer cans rained down upon our heads. Included in the barrage were copious quantities of two unusual items - 'penny chews' (sweets) and coins. Yes, coins. Actual money thrown away.

I'm normally the first to defend football fans when they are accused of lacking intelligence. But not when I'm on my hands and knees gathering up 50p pieces.

There were no more semi-finals for 22 years - an inordinate length of time for a club like Kilmarnock. But the 1994 occasion promised to be special. Back in the top flight after ten years absence, Killie were undergoing a renaissance and not even the prospect of a fearsome Rangers strike force (they had Ally McCoist, Mark Hateley, Gordon Durie and Duncan Ferguson all on the pitch at the same time in the second half, backed up by Alexei Mikhailichenko) could dent our confidence.

This was the first time I'd ever taken in a match from the Hampden press box - high above the main stand, requiring great stamina to climb up to, with a capacity of 132. I spoke to the Kilmarnock Standard reporter Alex Milligan saying I was worried any 'neutrality' would vanish should Killie score. Alex smiled and nodded past me saying "do you think he's going to keep quiet if THEY score?" I turned round to see the Sunday Post's Doug Baillie, a man with a penchant for military alliteration - Rangers were 'Greig's Grenadiers' and Celtic 'McNeill's Marauders' for example, but who was never noted for restraint where Rangers were concerned.

Alex was right. Never had that old disparaging English press accusation levelled at Scottish journalists at Wembley - 'fans with typewriters'  - been more accurate as Doug kicked every ball -. and every man, just as he had done - let's say occasionally - during his playing days.

Killie had the better of it but it finished 0-0. I couldn't make the replay and listened to the radio as Rangers won controversially (when was it ever different) 2-1.

Three years later the great moment finally arrived. I couldn't make the semi-final and the London & SE Killie supporters branch was somewhat depleted in numbers (anyone who could having gone to the game). Half a dozen of us watched on the big screen in a huge lounge in a London pub kindly set aside for our exclusive use. The game - against Dundee United - was a thoroughly forgettable affair. I did attend the replay and I was sat right behind the goal at Easter Road when I saw Jim McIntyre score to put Killie through. At last I had seen Kilmarnock win a Scottish Cup semi-final. I wish I hadn't.

The only reason I was at Easter Road that night was that my mother had died suddenly. This isn't the place to go into details of personal grief so suffice to say that I attended the replay two days after my mother's funeral with my father's encouragement and wearing my Uncle's 'Tynecastle Tie,' the club tie he had worn when watching Killie win the league all those years ago. It was a strange, eerie feeling leaving Easter Road that night.

Killie were in their first final for 37 years and I didn't get to see it. Family tragedy struck on my wife's side and I spent Cup Final day in the same pub as the semi with only the pub manager and a postman who couldn't get time off for company. The three of us erupted as Paul Wright scored the goal which beat Falkirk 1-0 and brought the Scottish Cup to Rugby Park for the first time since 1929.

Cover boy Jim McIntyre's goal put Killie into the final

I may not have seen the final but I did get my hands on the Scottish Cup - the week before it was handed back to the SFA for the 1998 final. 1997 was the last time clubs got the actual cup to keep for a year. From 1998 onwards the genuine article was handed over to the winners then taken away for safekeeping and a replica handed over for a year. I'd held the FA Cup in my hands, the English League Cup too. I'd even got my mitts on the Five Nations trophy but this was different. This was the real thing. This was OURS.

I did wonder if I'd ever get to see my team actually win anything of significance in the flesh. The thought struck me that my dad was forty-one and his father was in his seventies when Killie won the league. I was forty-one and my dad in his seventies when we won the Scottish Cup. It dawned on me that my son will be forty-one in 2026 and I - if still around - will be seventy.

A long wait lay in store.

"With tender looks that I mistook for love." I thought I had a chance to break the trophy 'jinx' and hear the Killie anthem 'Paper Roses' blasted out in celebration in 2001. Killie had reached the League Cup Final after an absence of 38 seasons. I can't remember the first one in my lifetime, in 1960-61, but do recall the controversy in October 1962 when Frank Beattie equalised against Hearts only for the goal to be ruled out for handball by referee 'Tiny' Wharton, a man incapable of keeping up with play for long and who used to officiate from the centre circle. Kilmarnock fans never forgave Wharton for that decision and his subsequent appearances at Rugby Park were met with derision and booing for the entire ninety minutes.

In the press box again - but this time in the new one, embedded into the main stand, comfier seats, more leg room and TV monitor. I'd already broken neutrality when Craig Dargo scored a wondrous goal in the semi-final win over St Mirren but never had the opportunity to do so in the final. This was Martin O'Neill's first final as Celtic manager and he had put a handy team together. The first half was even though, Killie giving as good as they got, until a few minutes from the break when Ian Durrant had to go off injured. With him went Kilmarnock's realistic hopes of victory. The second half was one way traffic. Even after Chris Sutton's sending off Killie were never really in with a shout. It ended 3-0 to Celtic. Actually, that's wrong. The final score that day should have read LARSSON 3 KILMARNOCK 0 for the Swede was the real difference between the teams. He scored all three, including one which started with him receiving the ball almost on the halfway line.

For me, I'd finally got to see Killie in a final and it had been a disappointment even if I recognised this had always been the most likely outcome.

Craig Dargo, scorer of a wonderful semi-final goal and Henrik Larsson who did likewise in the final and added two more for measure.

Six years later Killie were back in the final and surely this time it would be different? For a start the opponents were Hibs, a good team certainly, but not in the same class as O'Neill's Celtic or the Rangers side of 1994, let alone Jock Stein's class of 1972. Confident this would be the day, I opted out of the press box in order to join my mates in the crowd. Or thought I had. The three I was meant to be sitting with didn't arrive till 2.55pm and roaring drunk. Well, two of them were. The third had been refused admission (not for any violence, simply inability to stand on his own two feet) and commandeered a taxi to take him thirty miles back to Ayrshire to try and catch the second half on TV.

The match was an utter nightmare in more ways than one. Despite it being mid-March it was played in a blizzard and on the pitch Killie were snowed under by an avalanche of Hibs goals. At 3-0 down we scored a consolation. It prompted great celebrations. Hibs fans must have thought we were mad. But Killie supporters had every right to cheer. This was the first goal scored (well, allowed to stand) in five League Cup Finals. 

Hibs went on to score two more to complete a 5-1 humiliation. The second final I had seen in person was worse than the first. 2001 could have been rationalised - O'Neill, Celtic, Larsson, Durrant's injury - but this was different. Even defeat could have been understood. But 5-1? I left Hampden with a deflated feeling it might indeed be 2026 before I saw Killie win anything - at the earliest.

Stevie Naismith (Killie) and Scott Brown (Hibs) Two players who had the ability to lead Scotland out of their 21st Century rut but who never quite managed it.

The League Cup semi-finals in 2012 brought together Killie and Ayr United. How could I possibly miss a match which looked tastier than a boxful of Killie pies? Easily. I was living in Spain at the time and it wasn't easy travelling back and forth. When asked by a cousin if I'd be there I breezily replied, no I was saving up for the final.

Where Ayr United are concerned that might have been tempting fate. I watched the game on a dodgy Iranian feed on an eleven-inch Macbook. Ayr gave a masterclass in bus parking but Killie eventually wore them down, ending up slaughtering them 1-0.

So to Hampden again. The League Cup Final again. And Celtic again. My third League Cup Final. Killie's sixth. No team had played in as many finals without winning it. But hope springs eternal. This wasn't the Celtic of Jock Stein and Jimmy Johnstone that had barred the way in 1972. It wasn't the Celtic of Martin O'Neill and Henrik Larsson that had won so comprehensively in 2001. This was the Celtic of Neil Lennon and Anthony Stokes, formidable but not by any stretch of the imagination to be ranked with those teams of days gone by.

This was to be a weekend to savour. A Sunday final meant the opportunity to take in Troon's junior match v Annbank the day before. A 5-0 home win was viewed as a portent of the following day. The clan gathered again, uncles, cousins, in-laws. It didn't snow. Everyone turned up safe and sound inside the ground (if not all could be said to be 100% sober). Killie had a chance. Not a great one but a chance and that was all we asked for, that the players gave their all and at the very least we made Celtic sweat. 15,000 Kilmarnock supporters roared in unison as the teams prepared to take the field.

Kick-off minutes away as the banner is taken out to the pitch

The only sweating in the early stages came from Killie supporters as defender Momo Sissoko played a 'bombscare' square pass which Celtic's Gary Hooper latched onto only for Killie keeper Cammy Bell to react quickly to and pull off a terrific save when a goal seemed certain.

Bell was in inspiring form and he needed to be as Celtic, as expected, had the bulk of the play, forcing him into several fine stops. The game progressed predictably with Celtic pushing forward and Killie looking to counter on the break. Bell was magnificent. On a different day or with a different keeper the game might have been settled within the opening hour.

But Killie were still in it. Dean Shiels, James Fowler and Paul Heffernan all made attempts on goal. As the clock ticked down towards the ninety fans began to wonder if we could hold on, take the match to extra time. Maybe with a bit of good fortune survive the extra half hour and go to penalties where at least both teams would be closer to equal.

Such were the thoughts of Kilmarnock supporters with six nail-biting minutes remaining when defender Ben Gordon broke down the wing and found Lee Johnson with his pass. Johnson crossed into the box and there was the unheralded Belgian substitute Dieter Van Tornhout rising gloriously above all to head firmly into the net. 

Pandemonium in the stands. Killie had scored for only the second time in six League Cup Finals. More to the point, in 534 minutes of playing time in all those finals Killie were, for the first time ever, in front. The remaining minutes were always going to drag by slowly at 0-0. Now they seemed to stretch into eternity as Celtic pressed forward looking for the equaliser. Wave after wave bore down on Cammy Bell and the Killie defence - a defence which by now consisted of every single player, at times all squeezed inside the eighteen-yard box.

Ninety minutes eventually arrived only for Killie fans to groan and Celtic's to cheer as four additional minutes were indicated. We all knew what was coming next. This was against one of the Old Firm. They were losing. Minutes away from defeat. In their time-dishonoured tradition there was only one rabbit left to pull from the hat - the inevitable penalty appeal. Lo and behold just as we discussed the timing of it, there was Michael Nelson challenging Anthony Stokes and there was Stokes, flat on his arse, arm outstretched, eyes fixed on referee Willie Collum.

We inhaled. We didn't exhale. We feared the worst. Then roared one almighty roar almost as loud as the one that had greeted the goal as Collum shook his head, reached into his pocket and put Stokes' name into the book.

Still it went on endlessly on. Then, just as we felt it would never end, Collum blew. It was over. At the sixth time of asking Killie had won the League Cup. The set was complete. Killie had now won every major trophy in Scotland and having failed to see the others in my lifetime, at long last, I had seen my team win one of the game's big prizes.

Now there was no Celtic song over the tannoy, and precious few Celtic fans in the ground either. Dignity in defeat is not a trait often displayed by the Old Firm. While others would have waited to applaud the victors as they received their medals and the trophy, as we had done in 2001 and again in 2007, as Falkirk's supporters had done when Killie won the Scottish Cup, Celtic's dejected legions melted away from Hampden.

Now it was Killie's day. Now it was our fans who cheered our heroes as they received silverware. Now it was 'Paper Roses' which echoed around Scotland's national stadium. As Ayrshire's (and Scotland's) great Bard had once proclaimed, now was the day and now was the hour.

Now was the middle-aged fat-faced ugly mug above able to shout and sing and dance like the boy he felt he'd become again.
Now was the time to return to Rugby Park, to a hastily-arranged homecoming. Victory parades were rarely the order of the day in Kilmarnock. For only the fifth time in the club's history the team was returning home with one of the game's great honours. And, as the league had been won at Tynecastle and the 1997 Scottish Cup at Ibrox, now it was that Kilmarnock FC arrived home from Hampden Park with silverware in their possession for the first time in 83 years. It was in 1929 that the same road had last been travelled, when Killie came back with the Scottish Cup, when my father and his brothers had set out from Dundonald to greet the conquering heroes, only to be turned back by police at Gatehead. 

My father was six years old then. He never got another chance. He saw defeat after defeat at Hampden, he was working the day of the Tynecastle triumph, he saw the 1997 Ibrox match in a club in East Lothian with my brother. He died three years before this game. 

The last photo ever taken of my father, two weeks before his death, was taken appropriately enough at Rugby Park. I don't know who the gentleman is on the left but my dad is on the right. In the middle is the tireless Tommy Adams, Killie through and through, and at that time the club's commercial manager.

Without my dad taking me to Rugby Park in the early 1960s I don't know if I'd have been sat there fifty years later cheering myself hoarse as the injured club captain Manuel Pascali held the League Cup high as he hobbled around the ground on his crutches to the acclaim of the thousands present. For who can say which of life's innumerable pathways we may have taken had not one incident, one occasion, one little chance happening intervened? 

I am not a religious person. I hold out no great hope for an afterlife. But if there is one then I know this to be true: that on that Sunday evening of March 18th 2012,  as I stood, one of thousands bellowing out 'Paper Roses,' that the man on the right of this photo rose up out of his wheelchair, stood beside me and joined in.

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