Tuesday, 21 March 2017


This is from an forthcoming article in a Scottish junior club's match programme


Growing up in Ayrshire in the 1960s, football wasn’t a pastime it was a way of life. It was what you did. You played during playtime at school – albeit with a tennis ball after an unfortunate collision between a laced-up pig’s bladder and a classroom window. The boys’ playground in my school divided into two – the ‘wee gemme’ and the ‘big gemme’. You started out in the former in Primary One and progressed to the latter by Primary Six. It was what you did – except for the really good players who were snapped up for the ‘big gemme’ as early as Primary Four, the Primary Seven lads acting as talent scouts on the rare occasions they deigned to watch the younger boys in action.

Our school was blessed with two trees at the bottom of the playground. Between the tree and the wall was the goal. Appropriately enough the smaller tree was the ‘wee gemme’ goalpost and the larger one the ‘big gemme’s.’ At the other end – or uphill to be more accurate, it was the traditional jumpers for goalposts. One end provided no problem in settling the thorny issue of whether a shot went over the bar or not. If the ball landed up on the main road it was either a corner or a goal kick. Except there was no such thing as a goal kick. It was a ‘by kick.’ Just as a throw-in was always a ‘shy.’

The top end was more problematic. There were arguments often ending in fisticuffs over whether the ball was ‘in’ or ‘ower.’ And the no-man’s land between the two trees was a morass of bruised knees and skinned knuckles as both games converged, with four teams hunting down two tennis balls and over thirty schoolboys barging into one another with fights inevitably following. ‘You’re claimed’ was the most frequently heard playground expression, followed by ‘big fight’ as everyone eagerly formed a ring around the two protagonists. You could say this primitive form of amateur boxing was the second most popular sport in school. That too was what you did.

It was what you did the moment you got changed at home after school. Playing in the park till you got shouted in for your tea. And it was what you did after your tea until you got called in either for bed or because it was getting dark.

This last command, the one that meant no more fitba’ until the 11.00am playtime bell the following morning, was the one that was most reluctantly obeyed. An unbelievable number of small children in my village developed hearing problems, unable to pick up the call to come home. An equal amount had a strange nightly distortion of their visual fields, not being able to distinguish their own mothers waving maniacally at them to get home or get skelped –often both.

It was what you did at weekends. And even when there weren’t enough boys around to form two proper teams (though more often than not it was twenty-a-side) it was still what you did. You played five-a-side. If there weren’t enough players for that, you played ‘three-and-in.’ If it was just you and one pal you played ‘heidies.’ If you were left on your own you played ‘keepie-uppie’ – and lied to all your pals the next day about how many you kept up, only to end up with that badge of shame – the ‘riddie’ or the ‘beamer’ – when you failed to reproduce your heroics in front of a crowd.

But it was what you did.

You had a nickname. You never picked your own, it was bestowed upon you by general approval of the gang. It could be descriptive: ‘big man,’ ‘wee man,’ ‘speedy’ or ‘slowcoach.’ Or the name of a famous player of the time: ‘Puskas,’ ‘Pelé,’ ‘Baxter’ or ‘Law.’

That last was the most coveted one. Everyone wanted to be Denis Law just as everyone wanted to be centre-forward. Striker? That was someone who downed tools at work demanding more money. Sweeper? He was the guy who got rid of the litter off the streets. Keeper? That was the man who looked after the animals at the zoo.

No, the custodian was always a ‘goalie,’ and that was the one position no one wanted. You lined up waiting for the captains (positions possessed by the two boys with the biggest frames and/or the fastest fists) to pick their players, starting off hoping to be that first pick and to dream of the forthcoming glory of scoring all the goals. Not chosen? Well, maybe you could be a winger. Still in the line? Half-back was better than nothing. No joy? Suddenly the much-derided position of full-back became an attractive option – given the only alternative left. Usually, and to my great relief, that was normally when I left the line, as right-back.

Then there were only two kids left. Their nicknames were the ones you didn’t want. Even to be called ‘rubbish’ (as to be honest I often was) was better than the appellations these poor kids were stuck with – ‘Fatty’ or ‘Specky’ – or for the truly unfortunate, ‘Fatty Four-Eyes.’ They were the goalies.

But if you were ever picked to be a goalie you never admitted the real reason for your selection. You kidded yourself on that the captain had saved the best till last. That it was ability, not obesity, that determined his choice. That it wasn’t because you were short-sighted, it was because the skipper possessed foresight. You knew – you just KNEW – you were going to pull off a series of spectacular saves, that within a few minutes nobody would be calling you ‘Fatty,’ you’d be ‘Banks’ or ‘Yashin’ or maybe even ‘The Cat.’

Then when a timid effort slowly trundled in your direction you’d leap into the air, arms outstretched, you’d land acrobatically on the ball and clutch it close to your chest. You’d stand up, look around, milking the imaginary applause. You’d peer into the distance, look around for a team-mate, scheme how you were going to set in motion the move which would start with you gently rolling out the ball to set up an attack which would end with a fantastic goal and it would all be down to you. Your team-mates would surround you and pat you on the back at the end of the game and say they couldn’t have won it without you.

Then, when you’d pictured all that, you’d throw the ball up in the air and blooter it as far up the park as you could.

THAT was what you did.

Later, as short trousers gave way to long and voices cracked and plunged from soprano to bass before suddenly soaring upwards again, then rapidly plummeting once more, as patches on your face began to feel like sandpaper after washing, as girls turned out to be – well - a bit more interesting than you had once thought, as the 1960s gave way to a new decade, a new World Cup was played and the positions and nicknames changed. ‘Midfielder’ became a respectable term and yours truly had moved up the park twenty yards or so and was now allowed to venture into the opposite half. Oh, what joy to discard ‘rubbish’ right-back and gratefully don the apparel of midfield ‘general.’

You quickly forgot the old names and celebrated the new. It was what you did.
‘Puskas’ was now ‘Muller,’ ‘Baxter’ became ‘Beckenbauer’ and ‘Law’ metamorphosed into ‘Jairzinho.’ ‘Pelé?’ Ah, he was still ‘Pelé.’ And some of these names stuck. There is today a man in his sixties, living in London, who when he visits his old stamping grounds is still addressed only as ‘Pelé.’

It is a sight to behold when he meets up with two of his old mates, ‘Jinky’ and ‘Cruyff.’ The trio, with a collective age greater than three treble twenties on a dartboard, are still awarded those honorifics by their old friends. In truth they have lifelong acquaintances who know them only by their ‘fitba’ names.’ Oh they know the surnames well enough, but the first names? No. ‘Pele’ has always been ‘Pele’ And if you think it strange that someone could stroll past Troon Cross and answer to that name when hailed in the street, well, he wasn’t the first person ever to be addressed as such in that town. That honour belongs to a man whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento and he too has a nickname that originated while playing football in school, a nickname he has carried all his life, a nickname by which he is known to the entire world.

That nickname is ‘Pelé.’ With all due apologies to my old friend in London, the real ‘Pelé.’ And he has played at Troon FC’s Portland Park. But that is a tale for another time. For now all you need to know is that he gained his nickname the same way all those young boys in Scotland did half a century ago. Through playing football in school, in the park and in the streets.

Because that is what he did.

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.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Eddie is better than Eusebio

Googling for something unrelated today the search threw up a photo of myself with the late Eddie Morrison, Kilmarnock FC's record post-war goalscorer. The photo linked to an obituary piece on Eddie I'd written for a website I used to run. I've reproduced it here.

Terribly sad news indeed. Eddie was my boyhood hero and all-time favourite Killie player. I'm sure there will be plenty of tributes and obituaries which will recognise the many sterling qualities he brought to the game - his wholeheartedness & determination chief among them. There will be recognition too of his goalscoring ability - Kilmarnock's top post-war striker and second best of all time. And if not for a premature (and unwanted by Eddie) transfer out of Rugby Park he would have become number one, his 154 goals being just five short of Willie Culley's all-time record. Some of those goals were spectacular like the overhead goal against Dundee in 1968. Some might have called it 'Brazilian' in its execution but Eddie himself said it resembled a then current TV advert for Bilsland bread! Then there was the twenty-yarder on the volley at Stark's Park in 1972 which guaranteed Killie's place in the Scottish Cup semi-finals. Or.....no, there are far too many marvellous Eddie Morrison goals to describe here. Instead I'll mention a couple of stories about his enduring popularity. 

During the 1990s the London & South East branch of the Kilmarnock Supporters Association met regularly and one of the younger members wanted to know exactly what kind of player this Eddie Morrison was, that all the 'old' (ie over 30) fans kept going on about. One of the 'older' fans drew the teenager to one side and told him: "easy, next time he's on the telly, just watch Alan Shearer. That'll give you some idea."

The same group of fans were involved in a TV quiz against supporters from Birmingham City on a short-lived satellite channel a few years later. This channel was so poor it couldn't even afford to have buzzers installed for the quiz so the teams had to use a word to shout out instead of pressing a buzzer. Without thinking and without dissent, the word used by the Killie boys was 'Eddie.'

On a personal level I'd add two instances. During the transitional season of 1974-75 (after which the league was to be divided into three divisions) I was singing the praises regularly of Eddie Morrison to all and sundry. Nothing new in that. I'd been doing it for years. But this time it was away from Rugby Park as I'd left school and was living and (occasionally) studying in Middlesbrough. Some people were getting a little fed up with it. So for the final game of the season, a vital match against Dundee United at Rugby Park which Killie needed to win to have any chance of making the new Premier Division, a trip was arranged including supporters of Newcastle United, Middlesbrough, Dunfermline, Stafford Rangers, Everton, Blackburn Rovers and Dundee United (a Perthshire farmer's boy who was stupid enough to wander into the Killie club swinging his DUFC travel bag, singing 'Andy, Andy, Andy Gray' and has never been seen since) to see Eddie Morrison in action.

To my horror, Eddie - 32 starts in 33 previous matches - was on the bench! Killie were three down and buried inside twenty minutes. They brought it back to 3-2 at the break and introduced Eddie as a sub for Davie Provan early in the second half. Despite his - and the team's - best efforts, United scored again to win 4-2. For the neutrals who travelled with me it was an entertaining game and an excellent introduction to Scottish football but as a showcase for the talents of Eddie Morrison not so good. For the reputation of the loudmouth who had been extolling his virtues all season, disastrous.

Some thirty years later I wrote a book called 'Killie Greats.' Some names needed serious thought before being included. Others were nailed on certainties. Eddie Morrison was in the latter category. I interviewed Eddie for the book and he gave me enough material for a biography, let alone a chapter. This conversation was between two middle-aged men yet in my mind's-eye it was between a teenager and his idol. At the book launch Eddie - and the others in attendance - all performed brilliantly. One supporter came up to me afterwards and asked if he and his children could get a photo taken with Eddie "for the kids." The kids in question couldn't have been able to remember Kilmarnock winning the Scottish Cup in 1997, let alone a player from the 1960s and 1970s. Their father, on the other hand............... Eddie, of course, was happy to oblige. 

Eddie also managed Killie and was still a regular attender at Rugby Park, right up to the end of the season just gone. I find it difficult to express just how sad I feel at the news of his passing. All the old cliches like 'end of an era' or 'one of a kind' and that old favourite 'won't see his like again' will no doubt be trotted out. They will also be true.

Something of the measure of his popularity can be gleaned from the Kilmarnock Standard in the week of his transfer to Morton in 1976. The paper was inundated with letters of protest and responded in an editorial: "Although every individual fan has his own favourite, you have to be something special to appeal to the crowd en masse. Eddie Morrison was such a player."

The amazing thing is that fully 35 years after that transfer Eddie Morrison remained 'something special' to Kilmarnock supporters.
I followed that later the same day (May 31st 2011) with some photos I'd dug out. They're not the greatest quality - especially the second one, an attempted 'selfie' in the pre-selfie era.

Here's a pic of Eddie with some young fans,Park Hotel, Kilmarnock, December 2006. L-R Andy King - right-back in the 1965 title-winning side, yours truly, Eddie Morrison, Davie Sneddon - inside-left in the title-winning team and, like Eddie, former Killie manager. I'm not going to identify the kids in the pic, data protection etc. 

Eddie and myself, Glasgow August 2006

Finally, Eddie as he should be remembered. Scoring acrobatically for Killie against Partick Thistle in 1975 with Alan Rough helpless in goal and Alan Hansen rooted to the spot.

The story behind the headline relates to a supporters' chant to the tune of 'Cielito Lindo'

"Aye, aye, aye, aye
Dickson is better than Gemmell
And Eddie is better than Eusebio
And Tommy is better than anyone"
Sadly, Tommy Gemmell, referenced in the song has died recently. Both Eddie and Eusebio are gone too. The others in the song are Killie's two Scottish internationals of the time, Billy Dickson and Tommy McLean.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

'CROWDED HOUSES' focuses on Europe but I do realise there's great big wider world out there. Finding information is much more difficult but I've included a chapter on it.

Whilst European league crowds are the highest in the world a number of other countries possess clubs which come close to challenging the continent’s best. North and South America provide the obvious contenders though in recent seasons China, India and Japan have all begun to witness big rises in attendances.

Thirty-one European clubs averaged 40,000 or more in 2015-2016. There were seven clubs elsewhere which hit that number. Argentina’s River Plate drew an estimated 54,000 per match which makes them ninth highest in the world. Kerala Blasters from the Indian Super League averaged 52,008 (11th), Mexico’s Monterrey were on 48,009 (19th), Club América, also from Mexico, drew 45,098 (25th), Guangzhou Evergrande were China’s best with 44,764 (28th), Seattle Sounders were top dogs in the USA on 43,754 (30th) and UANL Tigres, the third Mexican club averaging over 40,000 were 35th with 41,203.

Some countries provide highly accurate attendance figures while others are more confusing, some whose accuracy is questionable and others non-existent. Brazil for example requires a detailed financial bulletin for every match which records not just the numbers attending but for every individual section of the ground, outlining capacity for each, tickets sold, tickets unsold, admission price per ticket, total payment received, club members in attendance and complimentaries issued.

So it can be seen that when Grêmio met Porto Alegre in Série A in 2016 the attendance was 14,101, 5,834 of whom were members (closest equivalent to season book holders). The bulletin also shows that in two sections of the ground there were eighty-seven and sixty-five spectators respectively who paid the top price of R$ (Reals) 100 (approximately £26) for entry, that 817 children paid the bottom rate of R$10 (£2.60), that members also paid R$10, that the cheapest adult entrance otherwise cost R$25 (£6.50) and 1,759 paid that amount.

The bulletin also details taxes paid, both federal and local, on revenue received, expenses incurred for referee and officials both for match fees and hospitality and travel costs, staffing costs, even the amount paid to the anti-doping agency (R$ 4,720 or £1,225).

The bulletins must be signed by officials from both clubs and are posted, free for all the world to see, on the Brazilian federation’s website http://www.cbf.com.br a couple of days or so after the match. It is by far the most detailed statement of football match attendances anywhere in the world.

Brazil’s honesty is refreshing, particularly as it throws the continuing decline of attendances into the full glare of sunlight. This is a country which in 1963 saw Fluminense and Flamengo create a world record for a club match of 177,656 paying spectators from a total of 194,603 present. In 2015-16 the highest league figure was 54,996 for São Paulo’s 2-2 draw with the tragic Chapecoense, victims of the air disaster in 2016 which killed 71 of the 77 passengers and crew, leaving just three players among the six survivors.

At the other end of the spectrum this once fanatical nation endured the humiliation of watching a pathetic crowd of 796 assemble for América Mineiro’s 2-1 win over Coritiba.

In Uruguay it’s necessary to peruse the small print in the press to find an estimate and even then there’s no guarantee of finding a figure. Argentina records just the total number of tickets sold and (perhaps) an estimate of season ticket holders

Fortunately most South American countries issue end-of-season summaries from which it’s possible to calculate a rough average.

The same vastly differing attitude to publishing crowd figures also exists between neighbouring countries in other continents. Saudi Arabia, whilst not issuing the same financial details as Brazil, does make comprehensive individual match details freely available, in English, on its website http://www.slstat.com/spl2013-2014en/allstat.php?id=11 while Qatar is highly reluctant (probably because it would embarrass their status as 2022 World Cup hosts) to offer anything at all other than vague outlines.

Africa is worst of all. The most common references to crowd figures is when they are compared (disparagingly) with TV viewing numbers for English and Spanish games.

Sadly, the effects of war, disease and famine which continue to devastate so many countries also renders gathering attendance information almost impossible – and in those circumstances, frankly irrelevant.

There are also countries where the headline figures need to be cited with a health warning. The Indian Super League (ISL) was established as recently as 2014 and immediately proclaimed itself to be the fourth best attended in the world. That was true – in as far as it went. However, the ISL has only eight teams and the season consists of just sixty-one matches, including play-offs, and no two matches ever kick-off on the same day and time. That’s two matches fewer than the World Cup Finals and more exclusive TV scheduling too. The season lasts just eleven weeks. It’s easy to see how their average edged ahead of Italy with 380 games over nine months or Mexico where the season lasted ten months with well over 300 matches. Though Mexico has since reclaimed fourth spot.

Yet it was India’s I-League, now effectively the second tier, which produced the biggest attendance anywhere in the world in the past thirty years when 131,000 attended the Kolkata derby between East Bengal (Kolkata itself is in West Bengal!) and Mohun Bagan in 1997. In cricket-mad India that is the biggest attendance for ANY sporting event in the country’s history.

Just twenty years later the I-League can’t draw 20,000 to a single match, sees crowds of a little over 300 at some games and averages around 5,500 per season.

All told there were are least 180 clubs from thirty countries in the rest of the world which averaged at least 10,000, around sixty of which hit 20,000, a dozen made 30,000 and the seven above over 40,000. Five countries had second tiers with clubs with five-figure averages – Argentina (before the ridiculous expansion to thirty top tier clubs), Brazil, China, Japan and the USA. Both Brazil and the USA have seen 10,000+ averages in their third tiers in the past three years.

Competition formats vary greatly too. Brazil has a ‘European-style’ league. Twenty teams play each other twice. The top sides take the continental competition places and the bottom ones are relegated. There are no play-offs. It is absolutely identical to Italy and Spain. Mexico has two championships, apertura and clausura, with play-offs in both to determine the respective champions. Argentina now has a bloated thirty clubs in its top flight, playing each other once and their most local rivals a second time to bring the total up to thirty matches per club. Major League Soccer (MLS) in the USA and Canada splits into two ‘conferences’ but some matches are inter-conference affairs. The season culminates with play-offs involving the top eight sides. But it also has a final table with both conferences combined. Play-off winners Seattle Sounders only come seventh here yet they qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League while fourth-placed New York City ended the season empty-handed.

It’s a system totally unfamiliar to Europeans but it works. Highest attendance in the regular season in 2016 was 60,147 for Orlando City’s 2-2 draw with Real Salt Lake and 61,004 turned up in the play-offs for Montreal Impact’s 3-2 Conference Final first leg win over Toronto (they lost the second leg 5-2 after extra time). This being North America the Conference Final was what Europeans would call a semi-final with Toronto going on to lose on penalties to Seattle Sounders in the ‘real’ final for the MLS Cup.

Iran operates a traditional European season and closely resembles pre-war Scotland’s attendance patterns with huge crowds for the Teheran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis which can attract 100,000. Yet run-of-the-mill league games are often played in front of 10,000 or so. The Cairo derby between Al-Ahly and Zamalek was the much the same – six-figure gates were the norm. Riots which killed 74 fans after El Masry supporters attacked Al-Ahly fans in Port Said in 2012 led to a spectator ban in Egypt, lifted only to be re-imposed after a week following the deaths of 22 Zamalek fans, some shot (for which Zamalek supporters laid the blame at the door of the police) in a crush at a match v ENPPI. It has since been eased partially only for internationals and continental competitions, but is still in effect domestically five years after the riots which sparked the initial ban.

Figures for the rest of the world have been compiled from the most recent seasons available. The unavailability of the Salt Lake stadium in 2016 meant Atlético de Kolkata had to move to a much smaller ground. Their average dropped from 46,082 in 2015 to 16,674 which had the knock-on effect of reducing the ISL average by over 3,500 per match.

As with Europe, averages are taken from all league matches, including play-offs. All figures 2015-16 or 2016 seasons unless stated.

27,174   Mexico
24,328   China
21,954   USA
20,914   India
18,447   Argentina (2015)
18,141   Japan
15,736   Brazil
12,706   Australia
12,088   Algeria (2014)
10,219   Malaysia
9,368     Indonesia
9,131     Colombia
8,048     Iran
7,890     Vietnam
7,873     South Korea
6,931     Morocco (2014)
6,906     Saudi Arabia
6,520     South Africa
6,230     Ecuador
5,428     Thailand
5,314     DR Congo (2014)
5,303     Bolivia
4,876     Chile
4,820     Uzbekistan
3,992     Peru
3,885     Uruguay (2014)
3,186     Tunisia (2014)
3,090     Costa Rica
2,557     United Arab Emirates
2,537     Venezuela
2,097     Kenya (2014)
1,737     Paraguay

482       New Zealand (2015)