The day Kilmarnock won league by 0.042 of a goal

Kilmarnock manager Willie Waddell leads his team out to celebrate at Tynecastle. Picture: Daily Record
Kilmarnock manager Willie Waddell leads his team out to celebrate at Tynecastle. Picture: Daily Record
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What does 0.042 of a goal look like? Who cares, they will tell you in Kilmarnock. Especially this weekend, on the 50th anniversary of the afternoon they won the Scottish title by this barely discernible margin.

Scottish football being Scottish football, the club’s request for a home fixture today has been ignored by the authorities, who have sent them to play St Mirren instead. But last night those surviving members of the legendary side, including goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson, who has flown in from Australia, gathered at a hotel near Rugby Park to toast a success achieved by the breadth of one of their now silver hairs.

Last night's anniversary dinner in Kilmarnock. Picture: SNS

Last night's anniversary dinner in Kilmarnock. Picture: SNS

It is, perhaps, the tightest, most dramatic last-day dénouement of any league season in British football. Strangely, Scottish football’s gaze fell not entirely on Tynecastle Park, where first-placed Hearts hosted second-placed Kilmarnock.

At Hampden Park on the same afternoon, Celtic and Dunfermline were battling for the Scottish Cup in front of 108,000. A smaller and perhaps more tremulous crowd of 37,000 crammed inside Tynecastle at the same time – 3pm, Saturday.

It couldn’t happen now. For one thing, a league decider would be switched to whatever kick-off time suited whichever television station was broadcasting it, while a Scottish Cup final on the same day as the league climax? Not even our loony football authorities could come up with such a scenario, surely.

Everything about the afternoon seems slightly unreal. How Hearts fans of a certain vintage wish it hadn’t really happened, that it was all simply a bad dream. Survivors of this particularly gut-wrenching experience were able to scoff when, 21 years later. a new generation of Hearts supporters were pole-axed by a last-day collapse perhaps more familiar to many today.

On that most recent occasion, Hearts lost the league title on goal difference by a comparatively hefty margin of three whole goals. “Pah”, the veterans of ’65 could sneer. “Try losing the league by 0.042 of a goal, then we’ll talk”. This figure was calculated on the number of goals scored thoughout the season divided by the number of goals conceded – goal average, in other words.

Goal difference was later implemented as a method of separating teams, which means Hearts are unique for being deprived of a championship by two different mathematical formulae. Of course, it provides little in the way of compensation to know that had goal difference been in place 50 years ago, Hearts would have lifted the title. Had it been goal average in 1986, well, you’ve guessed the rest.

It is fascinating to look at the 1965 climax through the eyes of two players who were perhaps too young to appreciate the enormity of the occasion into which they had been thrust. To give some indication of how much rested on the shoulders of the 17 year-old Kilmarnock winger Tommy McLean, consider this; one of the most venerable clubs in Scottish football had, even as long ago as 1965, been in existence for four years short of a century. Although they had finished runners-up in four of the preceding five seasons, they were still waiting for their first Scottish title success.

Understandably given his tender age, McLean was still living at home in Lanarkshire with his parents. He was excused having to meet his team-mates in Kilmarnock before making the journey to Edinburgh. Perhaps Willie Waddell, the Rugby Park’s canny manager, surmised that McLean was better off being spared the nerve-shredding build-up in the company of players more alert to what the day meant for Kilmarnock.

“Waddell played it low-key actually,” said McLean yesterday. “I was allowed to report straight to Tynecastle for the match. The others went and had a pre-match meal prior to the game. I went straight to Tynecastle in the car and met them there at 2pm. I am a Lanarkshire boy so rather than go away back to Kilmarnock it was easier for me to go to Edinburgh – my uncle Bill took me, he always took me to games, because my father was a baker, and had to work Saturday afternoons. As soon as we hit Edinburgh, crowds were all over the streets. You began to realise the importance of the game.”

It was Bill who had the task of filing a report to Tommy’s father, also Tom, each Saturday night, detailing how his youngest son had fared: good, bad, or indifferent. It was surely the first term that was scribbled on his report card that evening, after Tommy set up the goal that set Killie on their way after 26 minutes, crossing to the back post for Davie Sneddon to head into the net. But even then, Hearts had the edge – in terms of the championship race, they were still up by 0.027 of a goal.

Enter Roy Barry, the defender who was only in his early 20s, and who, he admitted yesterday, fell into a trap that tends to snare the young. He simply expected Hearts would turn up and do what was necessary to win the league. Doing what was necessary basically involved doing anything but lose by two goals or more.

While it did seem a matter of when rather than if, there was the relatively recent 7-1 home defeat by Dundee, their slayers in ’86, to remind them that outlandish results do happen. Given how it all came down to a calculation based on goals, this shock reversal to Dundee in February proved significant in the final analysis. But it was far from the minds of those of the maroon persuasion on that final afternoon, Barry included.

“The problem was people turned up in great expectation, assuming we were going to win,” he recalled yesterday, after finishing his shift delivering fish for a firm owned by his brother-in-law in Fife. “It sometimes doesn’t work out like that – and it certainly didn’t on the day. Everyone thought we’d go on the park, Kilmarnock would give us victory and that would be the end of it and we could all go and party. Of course the parties were all arranged – you have to, haven’t you? Everyone wanted to celebrate. But it turned into a nightmare.

“My contribution to the second goal that was scored by Kilmarnock I will never forget. I was playing in the right-half position and I got the ball just inside our own half and made a square pass to the right. But it was short, and was intercepted. They went straight down the left wing and scored their second goal, which killed us off.

“And you know something? Since that very day I never played a square ball again in my life! It stuck with me my whole career.”

Bertie Black picked up the ball before quickly transferring it to Brian McIlroy. While Hearts were appealing for offside, McIlroy didn’t think twice and drove low into the far corner of the net. When the Kilmarnock celebrations died down, they were left with the sobering thought that there was still more than an hour to go, plus – though they didn’t know it then – a further four frantic minutes of injury time. Somehow they got through them, Ferguson saving a late shot brilliantly to his right by Alan Gordon.

“I have a DVD of the game. Someone included it in a This is your Life-style DVD for my 70th birthday,” said Barry. “In the film you see Willie Waddell running on to the pitch with his staff. I come into the frame with my head down, totally wrecked. ”

Sneddon, who went on to manage Kilmarnock and still lives in the town, yesterday reflected on an afternoon he can barely go to the shops without being asked about. “The memory that stands out for me is when the final whistle goes, and this figure with his coat flaps flying comes racing on to the park, having emerged from the dug-out. Willie Waddell, who was not a demonstrative man, was coming towards us, arms in the air. And he threw them around big Frank Beattie, the captain. That was some sight.”

Inevitably, there were some who questioned the method by which Kilmarnock had been adjudged to be champions. This newspaper for one, perhaps motivated by a little local bias, harrumphed on the Monday that “decimals are out of date”, arguing that it was “bad business to decide a needle-edged championship in such a manner”.

The system was changed, but not until the start of the 1971-72 season. And not before Kilmarnock supporters could sing, with infinitesimal accuracy, “all we are saying is, give us 0.042 of a goal”.