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When Killie were kings of Scotland

They never had it so good in the Ayrshire town as they did in 1965, when Willie Waddell took a leaf out of Herrera's book and gave the Rugby Park side a title-winning team.


This article first appeared in Issue 12 which was published in June 2019.

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when Jim McFadzean turned up at school in his orange Volkswagen Beetle, instead of parking his car he had to fight through 150 weans wanting his autograph.
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From early evening, men, women and children flocked onto the streets to take up vantage points to welcome home Scotland’s new champions.

In the 1960s, Kilmarnock was a thriving industrial town, blessed with a rich diversity of employment and one of Scotland’s finest football teams. Johnnie Walker’s logo was painted onto the corrugated iron roof that covered one half of the curved terrace behind the goal at the old Rugby Park. Many of the fans it protected from the rain on Saturday afternoons would have worked in the whisky blender’s bottling plant.

Massey Ferguson built tractors and combine harvesters at its factory in Kilmarnock, which were exported all over the world, and Saxone employed more than 1000 people making shoes.

Even the coal industry was enjoying good times. “More jobs likely soon in pits in Ayrshire” ran the headline in the Kilmarnock Standard, on 18 January 1964, reporting that recruits would be needed to work the new shaft that had been sunk at the Barony colliery.

Kilmarnock Football Club was part of the area’s success and boss Willie Waddell gave the workers something to talk about at the pithead and on the factory floor. The former Scotland winger had built a team that finished second four times in five years and Rugby Park was about to host European football for the first time, with a tie against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Inter-City Fairs Cup.

The Germans were famous in Scotland because they had contested the European Cup final against Real Madrid in 1960, before a crowd of 130,000 at Hampden Park. Madrid won 7-3 in what many people regard as the greatest game ever played on Scottish soil.

In his report for The Scotsman, the Kilmarnock-born galactico of sports writers, Hugh McIlvanney, described Eintracht as “creditable challengers to the undisputed champions”. He wrote that “The Germans, no less than their conquerors, had contributed to the healthily frenetic excitement that caused thousands of Scots to linger around Hampden long after the cheers and embraces of the presentation ceremony.”

In their last tie against a Scottish club, Eintracht had thrashed Rangers 12-4 on aggregate, and nobody was surprised when they beat Killie 3-0 in the first leg in Germany. Three weeks later, on 22 September 1964, a crowd of 14,930 watched the return at Rugby Park.

Kilmarnock supporter Bob Wallace, who was 12 years old, says: “We were there to watch the famous Eintracht Frankfurt. I don’t think anyone had any conception that we were going to beat them.”

Sipping coffee in a cafe by the railway station, his friend John Miller produces the eight-page souvenir programme, carefully preserved in a clear plastic envelope. The programme notes promise “Kilmarnock will be all out to do or die. The task is difficult – but not impossible. You can be certain that the boys will give of their best this evening.”

After only 90 seconds, those words were made to look hollow. The Germans scored again with a thundering shot into the roof of the net from 25 yards. The deficit was now four goals.

What happened next was so remarkable that Kilmarnock’s winger, Tommy McLean, remembers it as the most unbelievable match he was ever involved in. The 17-year-old was the baby of the team. His only ever previous first-team appearance had been against Hibernian in the Summer Cup and he says it came as a shock when the manager read out his name in the changing room.

“I think the rest of the lads were as surprised as I was,” he recalls. “I thought he was throwing me in for the experience because it was one Kilmarnock were ruled out to win and he had nothing to lose.

“Willie Waddell didn’t do a team talk, but he would go around individual players. He came to me and said ‘You have been waiting, this is your chance and get on with it’.

“I didn’t have time for nerves or anything,” McLean says. “It was one of those where everything clicked for the whole game. My passes were good. My crosses were good. I think I hit the post.”

Striker Ronnie Hamilton got Kilmarnock’s first in the 13th minute and two minutes later they had the ball in the net again. McLean recalls: “The Germans started getting nervous. The crowd was typically Scottish and going hell for leather. Once we got it back to 2-1 they sensed there was a chance.”

In the 52nd minute, left back Jim McFadzean headed home from a free kick. On a wild and windy night, with the fans in a frenzy, the Ayrshire men were within a goal of drawing level. For a while it looked like Kilmarnock’s effort had taken its toll, then, eight minutes from the end, their big gangling inside-forward, Jackie McInally, out-jumped the Eintracht defence for a fourth and the fans invaded the pitch.

When Ronnie Hamilton grabbed the winner in the dying seconds the commentator observed in clipped BBC tones: “All the boys in Ayrshire are swarming onto the park.”

Grainy black and white pictures on YouTube show hundreds of fans surrounding the players. “It was wonderful,” says McLean. “The crowd came onto the pitch and lifted me into the air. It’s a great memory.”

The pitch invasion would have been even bigger if all of those who wanted to get on the park had been allowed. Bob Wallace says with a smile: “My memory was the fourth goal. I made a step forward and I felt my father’s hand on the back of my collar.”

He adds that another of the night’s heroes, Jim McFadzean, was one of his teachers at Stewarton High School. “That was our gym teacher. The next morning, when Jim turned up at school in his orange Volkswagen Beetle, instead of parking his car he had to fight through 150 weans wanting his autograph.”

The versatile defender had been a member of the Hearts squad that were Scottish champions in 1960. He was to become one of a tiny handful of players to win league titles with two different clubs that didn’t include Rangers or Celtic.

Killie’s European adventure ended with a 4-1 defeat to Everton in the next round, but the greatest season in the history of the Rugby Park side was just getting started.

The previous year, Willie Waddell had travelled to the Nerazurri training ground in Italy with Jock Stein, who was then in charge of Dunfermline, to observe the methods of Helenio Herrera, the Inter Milan manager who was the highest paid coach in the game.

The Argentinian was the Jose Mourinho of his day. He won four La Liga titles in Spain and three Serie A titles in Italy with a football philosophy based on a suffocating defence that would squeeze the life out of opponents before hitting on the counter-attack. Waddell took the approach back to Scotland with a defence-minded 4-2-4 system for Kilmarnock’s opening game of the 1964/65 season in the League Cup against Hearts.

The Kilmarnock Standard was unimpressed. “With Hearts also operating the set-up as they have been doing for some time now, the result was deadlock – an uninspiring lifeless contest with all power and imagination concentrated in defence.”

The ‘Killie catenaccio’ was controversial, but it got results. The team didn’t drop a point in the league until October, when Partick Thistle denied them a seventh successive win, with a 0-0 draw at Rugby Park.

When Rangers visited the following month, Kilmarnock were the league leaders. A huge crowd of 31,000 watched a 1-1 draw described by the local paper as “no match for the faint hearts” with its punishing pace and hard tackling. “That goals were scarce could be largely accounted for by the fact that Scotland’s top defences, in opposition, were right in form.”

It shows how much the game has changed that the team captain, Frank Beattie, was a working miner, who did his shift at a pit in Stirlingshire before travelling in for training on the bus.

Kilmarnock’s solid defence made them hard to beat, but they could also be dangerous in attack. John Miller describes Davie Sneddon as the brains of the Kilmarnock forward line. He had played alongside Sir Tom Finney at Preston North End before Kilmarnock brought him back to Scotland, in November 1961, for a club record fee of £17,000.

“He didn’t score a lot of goals, but he didn’t half feed Brian McIlroy. The two of them seemed to have a great understanding,” Miller recalls. “And then when Tam McLean came in, there were times you thought he could place the ball on a sixpence. He was the only guy I ever saw taking corner kicks and you thought ‘he might even score here’.”

When the bells rang in the New Year, Kilmarnock were sitting just behind Hearts at the top of the table, but their form dipped and a run of five games without a win took them down to fourth.

Bob Wallace adds: “I can just remember at that time, as 12-year-olds would do, you would spend hours poring over the league table and looking at fixture lists and working out what was going to happen if this happened and that happened.”

As the season closed, the Ayrshire team pushed themselves back into contention with a brilliant run, winning six out of seven games and drawing the other, against Rangers at Ibrox. The late burst took Killie within two points of the leaders Hearts, which set up a dramatic final game at Tynecastle. At the time, it was two points for a win and goal average, rather than goal difference, was used to separate teams that were tied on points.

Kilmarnock needed to win by two goals and not concede. If Hearts could win, draw, or even lose by a one-goal margin they would be Scottish champions for the third time since the war.

Bob Wallace was all set for the trip to Edinburgh, but on the Wednesday before the game he was diagnosed with mumps and confined to his bed. He says: “I was adamant I was still going but it did not happen I’m afraid.”

To add to his frustration, the Killie-mad schoolboy couldn’t even listen to the match on the radio because the commentary was concentrating on the Scottish Cup final, at Hampden Park, which was taking place at the same time.

“We’ve got the biggest game in the club’s history, it was effectively the league decider, and it was pushed to one side because Celtic were playing Dunfermline in the cup final.”

John Miller, then 16 years old, was among the thousands of fans who did travel up from Ayrshire in the hope that Kilmarnock could bring the league flag back to Rugby Park for the first time in their history. He remembers that the only way he could get to a game was to cycle three miles into Stewarton, where he left his bike in his auntie’s washhouse, before getting the bus into Kilmarnock.

Western SMT buses laid on a football special for the match in Edinburgh. Hearts had not made it an all-ticket game and he says the first challenge was getting into the ground. “When we got to Tynecastle, probably about half an hour before kick-off, we couldn’t see it for queues.” He says the line for the boy’s gate was so long that, instead of waiting, he joined the shorter queue for adults and paid the full price at the turnstile.

When Miller eventually got into the stadium, the game had already kicked off and the terracing at the back of the school end was packed so tightly they couldn’t see anything. The official attendance at Tynecastle was 38,000.

“I don’t know if it was somebody having a joke, but I heard somebody mention ‘the only way you will see the game is up on the pylon there’. Two of us climbed up to the first level of the floodlight pylon before the barbed wire.” This was the precarious vantage point from which they watched the first half.

“We were standing up on the pylon when Kilmarnock scored the two goals and we were hanging off. Jumping in the air was not recommended.”

There were 27 minutes on the clock when McLean collected the ball on the right wing and clipped it across the penalty box to forward Davie Sneddon, who nodded it in the net. Two minutes later, Brian McIlroy scored the second, tucking it neatly away in the corner.

“In the first half we played really well and deserved to be 2-0 up, but we were defending for our lives at the end of it,” recalls McLean. “Our goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson made a wonderful save in the closing stages, that was just as important as the two goals we scored that day.”

Kilmarnock hung on for four minutes of injury time with their goal under siege. When the final whistle went, Willie Waddell dashed from his seat on the touchline and ran the length of the pitch to leap into the arms of his captain Frank Beattie. Miller says: “The place was going absolutely doolally. It was like Eintracht times two.”

The celebrations continued in the changing room, where the players slugged champagne from mugs because nobody had thought to bring any glasses. The Ayrshire men were champions by 0.042 of a goal, the closest finish in Scottish League history.

Speaking after the match, Waddell said: “It was easily my greatest day in 30 years of football. The players thoroughly deserve this moment. No players have ever given more for the club and for me. They are 11 lads who played their hearts out.”

It also turned into one of the greatest nights the town had ever seen. From early evening, men, women and children flocked onto the streets to take up vantage points to welcome home Scotland’s new champions.

At Kilmarnock Cross, where the crowds were thickest, the police linked arms to keep back the supporters who surged forward when the team bus arrived shortly after 9pm. The black and white Western SMT vehicle carrying the players and officials was cheered through the town with chants of “Killie, Killie” as they inched their way back for a reception at Rugby Park, at which Tommy McLean was reminded that he still wasn’t old enough to drink. “I was told not to go on to the parties or anything like that. The senior players said ‘you are too young’.”

The wee winger from Larkhall would enjoy more celebrations in the years to come. McLean went on to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup and three more league titles with Rangers, but he says this one will always be special because it was the first. “It’s the early memories you hold onto, you had nothing to lose in those days. Winning the league was a great achievement for a provincial club.”

Helenio Herrera of Inter Milan was among those who sent telegrams of congratulation. Willie Waddell’s adoption of his defensive philosophy had been vindicated by success, but Kilmarnock’s championship winning campaign was about more than tactics or formation.

In a special editorial, the Kilmarnock Standard described their football team as an integral part of the life of the community –  and their achievements as a victory for team spirit. “The credit belongs equally to every member of the triumphant eleven, to the management who have never relaxed in their efforts to bring the club to the top, to the backroom boys who worked so hard to perfect the machine.”

The last small-town club from the west of Scotland to win the league title had been Motherwell in 1932 and the feat has never been repeated. Since Kilmarnock flew the flag at Rugby Park, only city-based Aberdeen and Dundee United have broken the Glasgow duopoly.

More than half a century on, the football club is one of the few community assets still standing from the combination punches of deindustrialisation and Thatcherism.

By the end of the 1980s, nearly all of the factories and pits had closed. Johnnie Walker’s famous striding man hung on for longer, but eventually even he took a last swig of whisky from his bottle and walked away, taking 700 jobs and part of the town’s identity with him.

When Saturday comes, the fans still turn out at Rugby Park in their blue and white scarves and sing along to Paper Roses. One of the new stands is named after Frank Beattie and pictures of the title-winning side hang on the walls inside the stadium.

What Willie Waddell and his players achieved will be remembered as long as football is played in Ayrshire.

This article first appeared in Issue 12 which was published in June 2019.

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