How a bacon roll on the beach became Kilmarnock’s catalyst to avoid play-off defeat and drive to European football

A play-off pressure cooker awaits Kilmarnock and Dundee tomorrow night. But Jamie MacDonald remembers how breakfast rolls served Kilmarnock well and eased the tension the last time they were faced with a play-off predicament – and launched a revival that ended in Europe.

Craig Sibbald, Mark O'Hara and Jamie MacDonald in action during the Ladbrokes SPFL Premiership play-off final first leg. Falkirk FC v Kilmarnock FC. Picture Michael Gillen.

Like in 2016, Kilmarnock enter the second leg at Rugby Park with a one-goal deficit and their 28-year place in the Scottish top flight at stake.

Lee Clark, then manager at the time, cancelled training and took the heat out of the situation by taking the team on a seaside walk the day before the return match with Falkirk.

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“We had a day recovery and then the next day instead of training he took us down to Troon for a walk,” MacDonald recalled. “We got bacon or egg rolls and literally did another walk up and down the beach and it was probably one of the best things he could have done for us.

Kilmarnock win the 2016 play-off and stay in the Premiership. Pic: Michael Gillen

“Some managers would have worked us hard on the training ground – but by then the work was done.

“Everyone was well aware of the importance of the game we were going into but he kept our legs fresh and relaxed everyone. We started on fire, 2-0 up after 10 minutes and just blew Falkirk away.”

The Bairns had taken a slender lead from the first leg, much like Dundee will do from Dens Park on Thursday. The Championship runners-up saw off MacDonald and Raith Rovers in the semi-final to set up the meeting with Tommy Wright’s team. A late goal for Brandon Haunstrup halved the deficit and has, crucially MacDonald says, kept the Premiership side in touch for tomorrow night’s make-or-break match.

“Dundee were excellent but I think 2-1 will suit Kilmarnock after the way the game started for them. Watching the game I thought Dundee could have been 3-0 up – it's now game on, to be honest.

22-05-2016. Picture Michael Gillen. Kilmarnock first goal, Greg Kiltie 23.

“The goal for Kilmarnock was massive for them and they probably needed it. It is finally poised for an exciting game – a cup tie really.

“At Rovers we were in a similar position and went to Dundee with nothing to lose. It changes mentality, more like cup football with everything in the balance.”

Often, it’s not just the players’ place and the club’s league status in the balance either. Relegation brings its own off-field consequences and it’s another reason Killie benefited from getting away from it all five years ago.

“Players come and go but there is a staff you don't see all the time so it is a difficult and stressful time for them and their own jobs. There was elation for them. Often they’re fans as well as staff members and it means a hell of a lot to them.

Kilmarnock manager Tommy Wright during a Scottish Premiership play-off final first leg match between Dundee and Kilmarnock at the Kilmac Stadium at Dens Park, on May 20, 2021, in Dundee, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

“Relegation can mean cuts and that situation was being mentioned in the lead-up to our first game but I think Lee Clark did the best thing for everyone by just taking us away from it all.

“You've seen many times some bigger clubs in Scotland drop down and not all bounce back immediately. There is always that worry, but for Killie we managed to improve each year and got European football back with Steve Clarke so in a way it can also be a catalyst to drive you forward.”

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The scoreboard at full time during a Scottish Premiership play-off final first leg match between Dundee and Kilmarnock at the Kilmac Stadium at Dens Park, on May 20, 2021, in Dundee, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Jamie MacDonald 21. Picture Michael Gillen