There’s a framed signed football shirt hanging on my office wall. It’s a rather fetching black Adidas top, sponsored by an online betting firm. It’s signed by what turned out to be one of the least successful squads in the history of Ayr United Football Club, but it’s a treasured memento from one of my favourite seasons. To explain why, I need to go back a few decades.
I’ve been following Ayr United since I was five. I say ‘following’ because officially not all that time has been spent ‘supporting’ them. And I’ve subjected my two children to the same thing since they were old enough to notice, despite them being brought up 80 miles from Ayr, in Edinburgh.
I saw my first Ayr game as a five year old. I think the opposition was East Fife. They certainly wore gold and black stripes, or so it seemed from the back of the cowshed. But it was foggy and my memory is foggier still. Whoever the opposition, I had officially been introduced to football.
Despite growing up in Glasgow’s Tollcross within a brisk walk of Celtic Park, my dad had supported Rangers all his life. He didn’t drive so Saturday visits to Ibrox were out of the question. Instead we became regular visitors to our nearest football ground, Somerset Park in Ayr.
But in the mind of a young boy the local team is never enough, and peer pressure meant that I had to make a choice. It was the choice faced by most young boys growing up in the west of Scotland: Rangers or Celtic. Because of my dad, I chose Rangers. To make matters worse, the Rangers I chose were not the nine-in-a-row vintage. My Rangers didn’t win all that much apart from the small matter of a European Cup Winner’s Cup.
Somehow, I managed to square my misplaced allegiance to Rangers with my weekly visits to Somerset Park.
I can see now that there was something special about watching Ayr United, or even Ayr United reserves, but at the time it was just something I did. On occasional Saturdays when I visited my grandparents, I would be taken to Celtic Park to watch the side that would become the Lisbon Lions. We even attended the 1967 Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Aberdeen at which the crowd numbered an incredible 126,102, with Willie Wallace scoring both goals in a 2-0 win. In the mind of a young football fan, my dad and I were definitely the ‘two’.
By the time I acknowledged the truth that I wasn’t really a Rangers fan, I had been to Celtic Park many times and Ibrox only once. Not surprisingly, the opposition that day was Ayr United.
There was, for a while, a personal connection. My brother-in-law played for Ayr. I was ten when my sister came home one night and casually mentioned she was working with an Ayr United player. It took a while to sink in. She knew a real, living, breathing, part-time footballer. Previously I hadn’t imagined that footballers, even Ayr players, had everyday lives. That night I looked out a recent programme and she pointed him out. The picture on the front couldn’t have been more than five inches wide with twenty-odd players in the line-up, but I was able to give a full description. I was able to tell her his name: Billy Walker; his position: left midfield; and how good he was, classic left-half, slight of build, great passer of the ball and with bandy legs that John Wayne would have been proud of.
Not long after that he came round to the house in his white Mini with miniature Adidas football boots hanging from the rear-view mirror. It was one of the most thrilling nights of my young life and I took to him immediately. He was the big brother I had never had. He soon became part of the family. So much so that on the night that Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon he sat up with my mum to watch it. She told me she would wake me up when it happened but she never did and I would never let her forget the fact.
My conversion to being an official Ayr United supporter was a long process. I see now that Ayr had been nagging away at my loyalties for years. This was a time when Ayr were as often in the old First Division as the Second. They were in the original Premier Division and stayed there for the first three seasons. I can still clearly remember the evening when a win against Motherwell secured their place in the league for a second year, finishing above Aberdeen and Dundee United. There were tears in my eyes. There would be many more to come.
This was a time of Ally MacLeod, Dixie Ingram, Quentin ‘Cutty’ Young and Johnny Doyle. Ayr regularly beat the Old Firm and reached cup semi-finals. Unfortunately they never managed to do both at the same time.
I travelled to Hampden one wet Wednesday night in 1973 as the only Rangers supporter on the Prestwick Cricket Club bus. My dad was a non-playing member who enjoyed the cheap beer as much as the cricket. I remember the scarf I wore was made of blue silk. It was a Scottish Cup semi-final and Rangers won 2-0. Three seasons earlier Ayr had taken Celtic to a replay in the League Cup semi-final. Ayr were winning 3-2 with minutes to go, then Celtic equalised. I was there on October 8, 1969, for the replay. It was a day after my twelfth birthday so I presume it was a late present. Ayr lost 2-1. The great Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson was carried off with a dislocated shoulder and I cried. Again.
If Ayr had won that game, they would have played St Johnstone in the final and Europe would have been but a victory away. Instead, Ayr played Clyde at Shawfield on the same day. Agonisingly, going to Clyde’s ground involved driving past Hampden Park.
So what made me face up to the reality and ditch Rangers for good? On reflection the answer is easy. On October 11, 1975, Ayr played Rangers at Somerset Park. Three days earlier I had celebrated my 18th birthday. I stood in the enclosure with a Celtic-supporting friend. He was shouting for Ayr while I did my best for Rangers. The final score was 3-0 to Ayr. My heart wasn’t in it. Rangers won the treble that year and I felt nothing. At last, some of the confusions of adolescence had begun to resolve themselves. I was an Ayr United supporter and I was finally proud to admit it.
Was it worth it? In some ways from a purely footballing sense the answer is yes. Despite being a part-time club we were competing with teams that were winning European trophies. We were playing exciting football. We had a reserve team who won the First Division with crowds of many thousands. I know because I was there most weeks; in those days the reserve fixture list was the same as the first team’s.
I was at Somerset Park on September 13, 1969, when a crowd of 25,225 somehow squeezed into the ground for the visit of Rangers. Squeezed in so much in fact that fans spilled over the wall and had to be accommodated on the perimeter running track.
Ayr players were going on to greater things. Dick Malone to the Cup-winning Sunderland team, the late Davie Stewart to Leeds United where he played in a European Cup final, Cutty Young to Coventry and then Rangers (I followed Coventry for a few years because of him) and Dixie Ingram to Nottingham Forest. Johnny Doyle became the first Ayr player in more than 40 years to win a full cap. We were in the first Premier League. But three years later we were relegated and it has been a gradual decline ever since.
There have been periods of hope. The early 1980s saw another League Cup semi-final appearance, against Dundee, with Stevie Nicol and Robert Conner forming a hugely talented full-back pairing that threatened to replace Danny McGrain and Sandy Jardine in the Scotland team.
This was also a period of clever dealings in the transfer market. In 1979, Joe Filippi, our honest but raw fullback went to Celtic in return for Brian McLaughlin and £100,000. He turned out to be one of the greatest ever players to wear the black and white. A few weeks after he signed, he scored the winner in a league game against Celtic. The writing was on the wall for the great Jock Stein.
Then there was Ally MacLeod: the main reason I spell my name the way I do. He was in charge during the vintage period of the late 1960s and early 1970s where he instilled a belief in his teams that they could beat anyone. He was manager during the time when my brother-in-law played for Ayr and he still won’t hear a bad word said about Ally. We rescued him from the pain of Argentina and he took us to the Second Division championship in 1988. That team had in John Sludden a genuinely deadly striker with zero pace, and Henry Templeton, who was given the MacLeod kiss-of-death when Ally hailed him as Scotland’s answer to Peter Beardsley. Henry was in that great Scottish tradition, the diminutive winger. He was known by some as ‘Kneecaps’, due to the lack of any bare thigh between his shorts and his socks. And this was a time when shorts were short. He was a joy to watch.
That season of record goals, points and wins was crowned when we beat Alloa at Recreation Park to ensure promotion. A pitch invasion ensued. It was a precious moment of euphoria and I found myself with the rest of the crowd, running impulsively across the turf. I managed to track down Sludden and get his signature. “There you go, son,” the youthful Sludden said. He was 23. I was 32. But I was very happy.
This was also the period in the club’s history that most Scottish football supporters remind you of when you mention you are an Ayr United fan. We had our ‘what if’ moment. A Scottish businessman who grew up supporting Ayr offered to buy the club, claiming he would have the then Second Division champions playing in Europe within five years. The shareholders rejected the bid probably because Ally MacLeod threatened to resign if it was successful. His name was David Murray. He soon bought Rangers instead. Though now, having seen what happened at Ibrox in recent times, we can look back on it as a near miss. (If you believe that you’ll believe anything.)
It’s hard to say why Ayr still mean everything to me. I’ve spent many more years of my life in Edinburgh than Ayrshire, but neither Hearts nor Hibs do anything for me. I’ve tried both teams but there’s simply nothing there. The fact that I grew up in Prestwick isn’t enough. The fact that I was able to share it with my dad is really the reason my connection to the club continues. He never did admit to being an Ayr fan himself, continuing with the illusion that he was a Rangers supporter, but he would still go with me to the games until he reached the stage where he was physically unable. Then I would phone in a quick report after the game. Even after he passed away I still found myself looking for my phone to give him a quick call.
For me the importance of family to football is vital. It’s the glue that holds it all together. I’ve been taking my son and daughter to games since they were toddlers, the way my dad did with me. They’ve both been to some of the less glamorous grounds in the lower divisions as I tried to convince them that supporting a team that wins every week is not always the best way to appreciate football. Some may call it a football education, others might see it as brainwashing.
They did witness some success, though, as we all watched Ayr win the Second Division in 1997 at Berwick Rangers, but in those days my daughter preferred shouting at the players to get them to wave to her to actually watching the game.
By the early 2000s Ayr looked like they were heading back to the top tier. With investment from owner Bill Barr they were building teams that were on their day capable of beating anyone. The attitude had returned. The confidence of MacLeod’s teams. And they showed this repeatedly in the cup competitions with a succession of wins against Premier League teams including Dundee United, Motherwell, Hibernian and, on a regular basis, our local rivals Kilmarnock. A 3-0 win against Killie was topped off with a glorious Panenka from Andy Walker, who in that moment became an Ayr United legend.
And in 2002 we were in the League Cup semi-final again. This time it was against Hibernian rather than Rangers or Celtic and an Eddie Annand penalty won the match to take Ayr to their first-ever national cup final. Again I cried but what was more significant was that my now Hibs-supporting son was having his own moment of realisation. That season, like many more before, he’d seen Ayr many more times than he’d seen Hibs. He knew all of the Ayr players and very few of the Hibernian ones. And when Hibs missed an early chance he realised who he really wanted to win. He was an Ayr United fan.
We lost the final against a Rangers team featuring Tore André Flo, Stefan Klos, Arthur Numan and Claudio Caniggia and a week later lost a Scottish Cup semi-final to Celtic with goals from Henrik Larsson and an Alan Thompson double, but in both games we competed well.
We never managed to reach the Premier League again but maybe the players never quite believed we could as Somerset Road wasn’t deemed suitable for the top division at that time. Bill Barr also owned a construction company that was erecting new football grounds all over Scotland and beyond, though he never managed to get local planning permission to build a new ground for Ayr. We still reside in our old-fashioned ground, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Things went from bad to worse after that and by 2014 we were back in the third tier trying to match teams such as Stenhousemuir, Forfar and Brechin. That didn’t curb my enthusiasm or my love of the club and what makes it even better now is sharing the pain with my son and daughter who have both become avid fans. Brainwashing? Maybe. But what also helped was another personal connection with the club.
My daughter, who is a sports science graduate, had never been all that sporty. Despite my best efforts to show her the delights of being an Ayr supporter (when she was very young we convinced her Ryan Giggs played for us) and being taken to a few games at Old Trafford (the last one she spent reading a comic), she had never shown that much interest in football. But during her university studies she started to demonstrate a great interest and enthusiasm for sport science, which meant she started following football again. Which obviously meant I could start dragging her along to Ayr games, this time more willingly. The conversations became as much about the risk factors of soft tissue injuries and sprint technique as it did the football itself.
And then she saw that the Ayr United Football Academy was looking for some sport science support. She was excited to get involved. I was thrilled. She would be working with future Ayr United stars! And of course this made for an even greater connection with the club for her. Before long she found herself helping the club physio and working with the first team. Actual Ayr United players.
The 2014-15 season had started well after reaching the play-offs the previous year. We were now led by our former player, Mark Roberts, who was still finding his way in management. Three wins in the first three games meant we were sitting top of the league and even after a couple of losses we managed to hold on to the top spot for a few weeks. But things started going wrong. A combination of injuries and a very small squad meant we started losing form and losing games. We were in free-fall.
Around this time I received my birthday gift: that signed Ayr top. My daughter, using her new-found access to the first team dressing room, had asked Roberts and his players to sign it. They were bemused. Why would anyone want a signed top from such a team of under-achievers? Well, for me they were still Ayr United players. And hearing what was happening at the club around this time was a real insight into the kind of goings-on that most supporters never get to find out about. My lips were sealed but I felt strangely privileged.
My daughter was quickly learning what life was really like behind the supposed ‘glamour’ of a ‘real’ football team. She was also having to adapt quickly to being a young woman in a testosterone-filled environment, but was soon giving as good as she got from players both young and old. To the point that when all the gallows humour about the manager getting sacked was being bandied about she was able to ask him to let her sit in the dug-out on a match-day so she could hear all the abuse first-hand. He promptly invited her to be part of the first-team squad for that weekend’s visit to Dunfermline.
So it was that she travelled with the first team, was involved in the warm-up before the game and during half-time. And she sat on the bench. My daughter. Sitting on the Ayr United bench. This was surreal. It was also the start of a run of ten consecutive games I attended hoping to see a win, something I’m not used to doing, living 80 miles away.
Mark Roberts lasted one more game and by the time of the visit to Brechin we had a new manager in the shape of the more experienced Ian McCall. We travelled in a snowstorm to the Angus ground to witness yet another defeat. It was obvious then that changes were happening and my daughter would revert to being just a fan on the terracing but we continued to go through the weekly anguish of looking for a win. It finally came away to Stirling Albion with a resounding 4-1 victory, but any hope of a resurgence and a climb up the table were soon dashed as we continued our inconsistent form. Indeed only the fact that Stirling Albion were so poor and Stenhousemuir, like us, were a struggling side, meant that by the time it came to the last game of the season a win would guarantee third bottom to avoid the play-offs. Unfortunately that game was away from home against a Forfar side trying to win the Championship, but we turned in our best performance of the season to win 3-1 and survive.
The team celebrated as if they’d won the league, which was understandable if a little embarrassing. My daughter and I felt pleased and relieved but oddly disappointed that we weren’t going to get to see at least four more games in the play-offs. It had been that kind of season. Awful football at times. Occasionally exciting. Emotional. Yet somehow very personal.
That win became even more significant as the team steadily improved and Ian McCall’s experience began to show to the point that we are, at the time of writing, in with a chance of promotion to the Premiership.
Last season’s final game drama in League One, with Ayr at home to Albion Rovers requiring to better Raith Rovers’ score against Alloa, was another emotional moment in a lifetime of them. An injury time goalmouth scramble at Stark’s Park that ended with the ball hitting the post and being booted clear meant that we had won the league. Somerset Park exploded with emotion. My son and I were on the pitch immediately, tears running down my face, while also trying to hold my phone upright as my daughter watched on from the other side of the world. This was the first time I’d witnessed Ayr winning a league title at a ground that holds so many memories for me. Sometimes I wonder if it’s actually Somerset Park I support and not the team.
I am no longer able to share the love of my football club with my dad, but this void has been filled by my son and daughter who now have a renewed emotional connection with Ayr United: my daughter from being personally involved for a while with her dad’s team and my son seeing his wee sister doing half-time warm-up exercises with Alan Forrest.
That 2014/15 season had been long and painful and that strip hanging on my office wall will always remind of it.
Whether my son and daughter continue to be Ayr United fans for the rest of their lives remains to be seen, but hopefully that awful season was the one that will have convinced them. That would make all the pain and anguish worth it, and would make that signed Ayr United strip a very personal and treasured gift.