THE great fixture cock-up has been mad, bad and sad. Mad in the way Rangers were gifted an advantage in the race for the runners-up spot in the Championship. Bad in the way football’s beaks had to squirm through yesterday’s Scottish Cup semi-final, desperately hoping for the outcome which would produce the least worst car-crash involving the cup final, the Premiership play-offs, the expired contracts of umpteen players and disrupted summer holidays, with footballers unsure when they would be able to parade their new Crocs. “Hopefully never” would be the obvious answer to the last question, but spare a thought in this farce for Kilmarnock.
It is sad that Scotland’s oldest professional club aren’t, as things stand, able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their only title with a home game. A party was planned for next Saturday, and Killie were nice and early with their request for a match at Rugby Park. But when the post-six split fixtures emerged, they discovered they were being sent to St Mirren.
Hearts were sure they were going to win the league
No offence to the Buddies, but New St Mirren Park seems like a highly unpromising venue for a party, what with the Paisley side’s form being so lousy. It’s true you could reasonably expect Saints to clap them on to the park, given that guards of honour are so fashionable right now, if indeed they aren’t compulsory for teams winning the toss, having audible public-address systems and mascots whose synthetic fur doesn’t smell too much of sweat and spilled pie juice – but this would be a consolation prize compared to being able to commemorate a famous triumph in your own backyard.
You wonder what sort of computer the SPFL used for the fixtures. Definitely not state of the art, more like state of the ark. A wheezing, creaking Heath-Robinson affair, seemingly incapable of organising a 15-match schedule so that Kilmarnock’s straightforward request could be accommodated.
You wonder, too, if the administrators need a bit of a history lesson about the Ayrshire club’s achievement back in 1964-65. Well, since this is my favourite season ever – and I wasn’t even interested in football at the time, and wouldn’t put aside the leatherette folder containing my copies of Beatles Monthly to properly engage with the game for another two years – I’m only too happy to oblige.
Consider this for a top four: 1 Kilmarnock, 2 Hearts, 3 Dunfermline Athletic, 4 Hibernian. Notice anything unusual about these final placings? A distinct absence of Old Firm supremacy. This was the first time neither Celtic nor Rangers would finish in the top three. Once upon a golden age our football used to be richly diverse.
Every member of the Fantastic Four fancied they could win the title, indeed Hibs and the Pars were dreaming of a league and cup double. Jock Stein was manager of the Hibees. Pat Stanton and Peter Cormack were emerging and Willie Hamilton – who could drop a ball 50 yards on to a silver plate before folding the salver in two to stuff it into his holdall – was imperious at inside-forward.
Hibs played Rangers three times that season (once in the cup) and won the lot. They invited Real Madrid to Easter Road and beat them, too. But then in the March Stein was lured by Celtic, Cormack telling me recently of the hurt and confusion of a dressing-room that couldn’t understand why the manager hadn’t seen out the highly promising season rather than rush to a team who could only finish eighth. Although Hibs quickly won at Parkhead, hat-trick man Neil Martin sprinting over to the abdicator to flick the V-sign, their challenge soon faded.
Dunfermline, with Alex Edwards crafting and Alex Ferguson at centre-forward, went even closer. The league campaign, featuring a first-ever victory at Parkhead, was fitted around one of the Fife team’s forays into Europe before Athletic Bilbao, who won the toss of a coin to host the third game in Spain, edged them out. The Pars just seemed to run out of time, having to play five games in 11 days, and although they reached the cup final, Big Jock’s Celts would prevail, a sign of things to come.
Hearts, according to Killie’s Tommy McLean when I spoke to him recently, simply thought they had to turn up on the last Saturday to claim the title. “They were two points ahead and red-hot favourites,” he said. “They were a good team and when we went back to Tynecastle for an experimental friendly at the start of the following season – no offside until the 18-yard line – they won 8-2 and Donald Ford scored five. But that day there was a sense we were just fulfilling a fixture – I do think that was Hearts’ attitude. They were sure they were going to win the league. They were complacent.”
Manager Willie Waddell kept everything low key. “There was no big speech,” McLean told me. “He did what he always did, took off his Burberry, put it on the peg, read out the team and disappeared.” Kilmarnock had to win 2-0 to nick the title. The goals came from Davie Sneddon and Brian McIlroy and immortality was theirs when Bobby Ferguson saved tremendously from Alan Gordon, goalkeeping, of course, being a fine Killie tradition.
You can imagine that save being remembered and possibly exaggerated at the 50th anniversary party, except you can’t be sure that New St Mirren Park will be conducive to this. If ever a stadium needed the boost of a such an event, it’s Rugby Park. In all of the colour-coordinated, plastic pop-up emptiness of the Scottish fitba-scape right now, it’s Killie’s ground which looks the saddest. They’ve just decided to close the Moffat Stand next season.
Fifty years ago the fitba-scape resounded to the big noise made by teams we now call “diddy”, to famous continentals being felled and the most intense of contests locally. “There can never have been, and it is unlikely there will ever be again, a more dramatic moment in Scottish football than what was experienced at Tynecastle Park, Edinburgh,” declared the Kilmarnock Standard.
None more dramatic, but none more Kilmarnock. McLean remembers the team sharing just the one bottle of champagne, possibly because victory had been unexpected. “We were £25-a-week players who’d won the league with quite a modest home support, just 5,000 sometimes. Back at Rugby Park that night there was no lap of honour because we hadn’t been given the trophy, but we waved to the people from the stand and then went downstairs for a buffet tea.”
All Killie wanted to do was improve on that, just a little bit.