When telling friends I was off to Ayrshire again for another matchday their eyes lit up. Having already enjoyed reading about my previous adventures in that neck of the woods they began to guess which of the big SJFA sides I was heading for this afternoon. One confidently stated “It has to be Auchinleck Talbot at last”, while another tried to remind me that “You promised to go to Beith this season”. After dismissing these ideas, along with further guesses of Cumnock and Kilbirnie Ladeside, there was visible disappointment on their faces when I announced I was off to see Killie. They couldn’t believe that I’d forgo some of the magical names in the heartland of Junior fitba for a day out at Rugby Park. I knew they had a question for me; why would I miss a juicy Junior clash to see some boring SPFL side?
Well for me there is nothing mundane about Kilmarnock Football Club; the oldest professional side in Scotland, who celebrate their one hundred and fiftieth season this campaign. They are the answer to the question of who were the last ‘provincial’ club to win the Scottish Football League, proud participants in the very first Scottish Cup match and able to boast of being one of the very few teams in the country to have played in all three major European competitions. The fixture certainly ain’t an average one either, for their first match in a new decade the romance of the Scottish Cup has brought Killie together with the only side in the land older than them; Queen’s Park.
Kilmarnock were formed on the 5th of January 1869 by a group of local cricketers at Robertson’s Temperance Hotel on the town’s Portland Street. Allow me to give this some historical context: while Notts County had been going in England for seven years by the time of Killie’s formation, Germany wouldn’t have a football club until the creation of BFC Germania 1888 in the April of that year. Recreativo de Huelva didn’t become the first Spanish team until eighteen months later in 1889 and Genoa only introduced ‘calcio’ to Italy in 1893. In the beginning Killie briefly played a sport more akin to rugby but the success of today’s opposition encouraged them to take up the freshly cemented rules of association football and they never looked back. In March 1873 they became one of the eight founding members of the Scottish Football Association, seven months before that inaugural Scottish Cup match; a 2-0 loss to Renton. League play commenced in 1890 but it took five years for Kilmarnock to join and even then they were only admitted to the Second Division. Consecutive tier two titles in ’98 & ’99 however meant Killie started the 20th Century in the top flight.
Since then Kilmarnock have almost exclusively dined at the top table of Scottish football, having pretty much always occupied a place in the highest division with the exception of the ten years following World War II as well as the late seventies to early nineties. Two decades of the last century could be regarded as particularly significant for Killie, the first being the roaring twenties when the Rugby park side won the Scottish Cup twice. The first win came in 1920 when Killie bested Armadale and Morton on the way to Hampden where Albion Rovers were defeated by three goals to two. Nine years later in the fifty first edition of the tournament Raith Rovers and Celtic were dispatched before almost 115,000 watched them conquer strong favourites Rangers with a 2-0 win.
Then in the sixties Kilmarnock, under the management of ‘Gers icon Willie Waddell, almost became known as the greatest chokers anywhere in the history of the game. They lost two Scottish Cup Finals in 1957 and ’60 to Falkirk & Rangers respectively as well as falling at the final hurdle of the League Cup in both ’61 & ’63. Worse still came in the league itself as Killie finished runners up at the end of four of the first five campaigns that decade. Their main rivals for the flag in the 1964/65 season were the side that beat them to the title in 1959; Heart of Midlothian, whom they faced on the final day of the season at Tynecastle. Going into the epic title decider The Jam Tarts had a two point lead meaning Killie required a win by two goals to achieve glory and glorious that day they were. The Ayrshire men went 2-0 up in under half an hour and that allowed their keeper Bobby Ferguson to become the hero with second half saves. It was Kilmarnock’s finest hour, their sole title win thus far and the last time a club from outwith a major city claimed the league flag.
That’s not to say that the club hasn’t enjoyed some high points since. After a brief foray down to the third tier, Killie returned to their rightful place in the Premier Division under Tommy Burns in 1993. Then just four years later, under future Uganda & Kenya gaffer Bobby Williamson, Scottish Cup number three was on its way to Rugby Park. After seeing off Dundee United in a semi-final replay Kilmarnock found themselves facing Falkirk on the 24th of May at Ibrox in the first town vs town final for forty years (the previous one featuring the very same sides in 1957). I remember watching it as a fifteen year old and it was no thriller, a solitary strike from Paul Wright in the twentieth minute taking the old trophy back to East Ayrshire.
Last season Killie were on fire under highly regarded head coach Steve Clarke, a third place finish being their best since the summer of ’66. I was at Tynecastle late in the campaign to see them; the team played good football with confidence, while a massive away support drove them on with chants and song. Then Clarke left and was replaced by former Juventus & Chelsea deputy Angelo Alessio, but the bold move was a disaster when the Italian was sacked after twenty two games in charge. Before the winter break Killie sat in seventh place, having lost the last five. Today perhaps then was an opportunity for a rested squad to reboot their season and start the new decade on the front foot.
Leaving the station and right across the road I’m confronted by a pub with the frankly ludicrous name of Fanny by Gaslight. Formerly known as the Railway Tavern, and briefly the rather whimsical Fifty Waistcoats, why it has adopted the title of a 1940 novel that explores prostitution in Victorian London I’ll never know. Poking myself in through a rather tight entrance I find a rather cavernous interior with one of my favourite pub features, a 360 degree central bar topped in mahogany and clad in oak. The old mangle in the doorway is an unusual touch however.
In terms of drink it is mostly the usual fayre with the exception of the Marston’s 61 Deep pale ale which is only £2.90 a pint. I explore a bit as I drink and see that the place is a live music venue with acts advertised weekly until mid-April. The instrument artwork hanging from the ceiling and barmaid’s heavy metal vest accentuate the musical theme. This of course means I’m visiting at the wrong time to see the place in its pomp, good boozer by day but I bet it is excellent when the bands are rocking.
Just round the corner we have a really beautiful place with another unusual name; The Tartan Sheep. From the outside it does look like a fancy tea shop but through the door and up a flight of stairs we have a boozer that combines quaint old fashioned features with modern design. The carpet and stools are obviously made from the wool off the sheep on the sign, with a large hearth containing a fancy electric fire and LED lights. I like the bookcase wallpaper which gives a cosy feel and the TVs are so massive in such a small room it makes me feel like I’m in a hospitality suite at Vicarage Road as the game kicks off on Sky. All is immaculate and pristine.
Braw surroundings aside the drink selection is great and the service excellent. Twenty three gins, craft beer in bottles and plenty of malts or rum to choose from. Because I rarely see it I opt for a Caffrey’s which the Englishman behind the bar pours an inch short of the £2.50 pint and insists on only charging me for the half. My £1.25 almost pint then comes with a free pie; scotch in variety, hot and excellent. It is the product of Killie’s Wm. Luke & Sons and they are being doled out in vast numbers to the arriving Queen’s fans. Of course I didn’t just pay for a half pint, eat a free pie and bugger off. I stayed for a bottle of Joker IPA, not only to make sure the place made a profit from me but to just to enjoy more time in a fine bar that shows how spending a bit on décor and putting in the effort to treat punters well reaps rewards.
Finally closer to the ground came a pub that had been highly recommended to me by Killie supporters, the Brass and Granite, a deceptively large place geared towards the needs of fans (both home and away) headed to the match. Before going for a pint I’m drawn to a double glass cabinet that contains all the various awards the venue has won, including a Sunday Mail ‘Pub of the Year Award’. Over in another corner around the pool tables is a shrine to Kilmarnock Football Club, walls clad in old shirts, programmes and other artifacts. The ’97 Scottish Cup victory seemingly the most celebrated event. Across the whole pub I count twenty televisions and at least two beautifully restored vintage carnival slot machines. The theme is football but done with subtlety and a great deal of respect to the local team.
At the bar we have cask ale, premium beer, Hoegaarden and spirits galore. Estrella is a serious lager and thus comes at with a serious £4.60 price tag, what a pint it is for the money however. There is also a matchday menu with mac ‘n cheese or double pork burger with chips at a very reasonable cost. The place has a capacity of 270 and whether by choice or regulations it means that it is busy but remains comfortable. No queues at a well staffed bar, no squeezing through crowds to go for a pee. Perfect final stop off before the game.
Rugby Park is one of the grand old ladies of Scottish fitba grounds having been home to Killie since 1899, although it was majorly rebuilt it the mid-ninties. Surrounded by houses on three sides (very tight to them on the east) and a newish hotel at one end, I like that it is in the middle of the community and by walking towards it you follow in a century plus of other footsteps. Before heading in I have a pint of Ye Olde English cider in the Killie Club and it is vastly superior to the Motherwell and Partick fan bars I’ve visited. Big queues are not an issue when you are served quickly.
Inside the stadium is like a more homely McDiarmid Park with modern single tier stands on three sides and the tidied up old main stand on the western touchline. Some grounds can feel rather generic these days but Rugby Park just maintains a sense of uniqueness. Off note there are two small sections of safe standing which remain largely empty today, making it difficult to judge what benefits they bring. Good to see a club experimenting with them however.
Finally I’m no expert on plastic pitches but I have been to grounds where you’d never know by looking that the surface wasn’t real grass. Here you can tell it is fake a mile off, it looks nothing at all like the real thing. Whether how a synthetic looks affects how it plays is not for me to say however and during the ninety minutes to follow Killie didn’t seem to have any issue being on it.
After a cracking build up the game itself did very little for me, no cup shock rather a walkover for the home side and the very result they needed for that mid-season reboot. Killie burst out of the blocks determined to avoid and upset and looked vastly superior to their League Two opponents from the get go. Goal less since November Kilmarnock started to make up for it after just nine minutes when Alex Bruce nodded in a Chris Burke free kick. It was the first of three first half assists for the thirty six year old ex-Rangers, Cardiff City and Birmingham City winger who looked every bit the player he was ten years ago. Three nil half time and a relaxed Killie were easily cruising to a Scottish Cup fourth round victory.
Second half and same story. With my Killie pie consumed (as good as they say but not as good as a Kilwinning Rangers ‘Buffs Pie’) the goals kept on rolling in, Greg Kiltie killing the game as a competitive fixture in the sixty second minute. At the death Kabamba and Johnson brought the total up to six; a straightforward, controversy free win and a very strong performance from the home team.
Half an hour from Glasgow by train. That’s no journey at all for a great day out in fine pubs and at a legendary football club. Three boozers today; two were fantastic and one had the potential to be if you go when a band is on. I’d travel longer and further for just a Tartan Sheep or Brass and Granite, but getting both in one day left me spoilt.
Yes the football wasn’t up to much but it was nice to sit amongst long suffering season ticket holders getting treated to a first win (and first goals) in months. Killie needed a lift and got that by getting a huge win at just a canter. While I’ve already highlighted Chris Burke’s performance it needs to be said again; what a player.
I greatly underestimated Kilmarnock Football Club. From the moment I started my research to arriving at the ground itself I was amazed by the size & scale of the club in terms of history, infrastructure and support. Being the oldest professional club in Scotland isn’t their only claim to fame, Killie have many as one of the country’s truly top clubs. While there ain’t one team in Ayrshire, my journeys to the Juniors have shown me otherwise, the Rugby Park side can certainly claim to be the biggest and perhaps even the best.