Cup derby between Ayr United and Kilmarnock is a do or die of shame affair says Cammy Bell

EVER since the semi-final draw was made for the Scottish Communities League Cup, Kilmarnock players and staff have had to go through a ritual each time they make their way into Rugby Park for their home games. On approaching the front steps of their stadium, they have been accosted by fans who will point in their faces and warn: “You better not lose to Ayr.”

“We have been told we would never live it down if that happened,” says goalkeeper Cammy Bell, who on Saturday will play in his first Ayrshire derby and first cup showpiece at Hampden.

That combination, allied to the fact that the great, and greatly bitter, rivals have never met at so advanced a stage in a national competition, has earned the coming weekend’s confrontation the billing of the biggest the pair have played.

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“I think the fact that it is being played on a weekend at the national stadium makes it such an occasion for both sets of players and the fans,” says Bell. “It might not be full but the two clubs will be well supported and the fans will be given a day out to remember.”

Well, one set will want to remember it, anyway. And it is the fact it could linger long which gives it added piquancy. James Fowler signed YTS forms with Kilmarnock in the summer of 1997, as the club were basking in their Scottish Cup success.

Now, in his testimonial year, across a decade of senior involvement at Rugby Park he has only played in one cup-tie and two competitive games against Ayr – the teams meeting in the Scottish Cup three years ago with a 2-2 draw at Somerset Park followed by a 3-1 replay win for Kilmarnock in front of their own supporters.

For Fowler the nourishment in this derby rivalry is provided by the starvation rations, the clubs last sharing a pitch when Ayr provided the opposition for Garry Hay’s testimonial in September.

“Because it comes around so rarely, you don’t know how long you are going to have the bragging rights for. Other derbies are played four times a season but this one doesn’t tend to crop up even once every four years,” says Fowler, the 2009 games being the only competitive encounters between the sides in the past ten years. For him, there is more than just a matter of a little local difficulty.

Fowler hopes he can erase the bitter memory of Kilmarnock’s last League Cup outing at the national stadium which was the 5-1 mauling by Hibernian in the 2007 final.

His manager Kenny Shiels, above, will be pleased that Fowler isn’t allowing himself to be caught up in derby desire.

The introspective Irishman considers that a danger. If anyone knows about how to prepare a team for a semi-final, it is Shiels. He is in double figures for such games from his spells in charge of Tobermore United, Carrick Rangers, Coleraine, Ballymena United and Larne. “In this situation you must manage from the shoulders up,” he says. “We will have more media attention, more profile. There has been so much talk, such a long time between quarter-final and semi-final, it adds to the expectation.

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“It can swallow that up if you don’t put things into perspective. Listening to the radio this morning coming in I heard that Scotland, per head of population, had more people killed in the Second World War than the rest of Britain. I thought, ‘wow, if we lose against Ayr it pales into insignificance’. These people were fighting for their country and losing their lives.

“This is a football match and the whole heels of the hunt we must treat it as that, without under-estimating the occasion. Defeat would not have a massive impact in the lives of those involved but losing is not an option in the minds of the players.

“It is very true that it is a real meaningful day for the club. But if you divert your thoughts and overload on that way of thinking you can overlook the product itself. We cannot be thinking about the traditions of the club and the importance of the game within that. We have to focus on how well we can play against another football team and eliminate all the other processes from our thoughts. The game will take care of itself because of our preparations, not because it is a derby.”

Last June, Shiels didn’t even have a team of players signed up. In that context, he is in a quandary about whether he would take a cup success ahead of a fifth place Scottish Premier League finish that would probably earn a berth in the Europa League qualifiers.

“I’ve thought of that and the only answer I can give is that I only want what is best for my club. I don’t think you can make a choice. I struggle to answer that. Winning the cup would be about building bridges and bringing the community together. We have just lost 206 jobs last week, we’ve lost Johnnie Walker. It’s a commuter town now. There is apathy in the town. The football club is the focal point of the town. It is the pivotal part of Kilmarnock, where people can get rid of frustrations felt from being out of work. I think our football club provides so much for the town of Kilmarnock and the surrounding areas.

“There is a responsibility for us to give them something back, so probably from their perspective winning a trophy would be the answer to that question. For my perspective, reaching fifth in the league would be the biggest miracle, if you go back to the month of June.”

Shiels may privately put less stock in beating Ayr on Saturday, but he might not want to utter such blasphemy within the environs of Rugby Park.

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