Hometown hero Rory McKenzie on Kilmarnock's title elation, Arbroath's challenge and his brother's burst lip

Many stories have been written this week, and this season, of Arbroath and their unlikely bid for glory in Scotland’s second tier.

What would it mean for them to win the cinch Championship? Or the club’s promotion to the Premiership? How would it affect the town, for the supporters’ dreams to come true and the club to rank and play among Scotland’s top 12 clubs?

Rory McKenzie could answer all those questions, but the subject matter was Kilmarnock. Standing pitchside on Friday night in a blue-and-white striped shirt soaked with blood, sweat and tears, McKenzie was the answer of what it meant to restore top flight football to Ayrshire at the first time of asking.

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Kilmarnock’s 2-1 victory and league win came at the expense of Arbroath’s own title bid which had captured the collective imagination of Scottish football and beyond. Unexpected yet merited.

But an emotional club stalwart like McKenzie epitomised what it meant to his fellow fans, his boyhood club and his local area. And had the blood-splattered right shoulder to prove it.

“It was different class to share that with all the boys and all the fans,” he smiled.

“It was quite emotional when I saw my brothers, Craig and Fraser, at the end. I was welling up and almost lost for words.

“Craig drove me up to Inverness last week and it was a sad drive home. I don't think we actually spoke until we reached Perth.

Blair Alston scores the winner to make it 2-1 in the 90th minute and ensure Kilmarnock's championship title. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

“I saw him running on at the end and I kissed him that hard I burst his lip!

“This week I couldn't stop thinking about what Saturday and Sunday would bring.

“Would I be sitting in the house in a darkened room or would I be having a party?”

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It is the latter and the celebrations began in earnest on Friday night and continued into the weekend proper. Part one may be over and Arbroath’s ‘fairytale’ delayed but the feel-good factor around Kilmarnock is unlikely to stop this summer. League title wins don’t come often to Rugby Park. It may be the second tier but this is the first league championship since they were crowned champions of Scotland under Willie Waddell in 1965.

Rory McKenzie celebrates with his first medal in 11 years at Kilmarnock's first-team. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

There has been silverware since – the 1997 Scottish Cup and League Cup in 2012 – but after 28 seasons in the top division, relegation bit hard a year ago. Now after the frenetic finish on Friday, they are making a quick return to the top flight.

“It is easily the most satisfying moment of my time here,” the Killie youth academy graduate added.

“I was just lost for words and that has never happened before.

“You think you are going to win trophies at the start of your career. You think you are going to do amazing things.

The Kilmarnock players celebrate with the league trophy. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

“But, that is 11 years I have been in the first team and this is my first medal.

“We finished third a few seasons ago but you don't get anything for finishing third. Then we got knocked out of Europe four weeks later so that left a sour taste.

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“To have something to show for our efforts is incredible.

“Realistically this is the only league we could win, and it feels amazing. Last year was a killer blow to everyone but we have bounced back.”

The manner in which they did on the night, persevering through James Craigen’s 10th-minute opener which wrote another line in the Arbroath fairytale, made the celebrations at full-time and pitch swarming by jubilant fans, buoyed by relief. Arbroath had already defeated Killie twice this season and were on course for another until Ash Taylor and then Blair Alston struck inside the last 15 minutes.

“In the second half I was just willing the ball in every time we got a corner,” McKenzie admitted. In truth any one of the 10,000 home supporters could have said the same thing, feeling the same emotions as the 28-year-old watching Kilmarnock chances go high, wide, flagged offside or stopped by Arbroath keeper Derek Gaston. “[He] just kept pulling off save after save and I didn’t think it was going to come. We have had loads of chances but he’s pulled off three or four top saves.

McKenzie (L) evades Arbroath's Nicky Low during the cinch Championship cliffhanger. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

“You are starting to think it is not going to be your night, but, what a finish from Blair.

“If there is a way to win the league then that is surely it.

“It made up for the first half when we were so bad. I don't think it was down to nerves. We just got sucked into playing long balls and it was a bit of a scrap.

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“To be fair to Arbroath – they played better football than us and to be honest they had played better football than us in the three games between us this season.

“But, in the last 45 minutes we showed what we are all about.

“We found the way to play against Arbroath and it shone through.

“We sensed they were tiring. After about 50 minutes or so I saw a few of them stretching.

“But the longer we went without scoring the more you start looking at the clock.”

It had gone 90 minutes when Alston struck, crucially or cruelly, depending on your definition of a happy ever after ending.

“Thankfully we finished the game so well and it was just the best,” added McKenzie, caught in the elation of the last-gasp drama. “It was just a blur. I just remember seeing Blair and if there is anyone you want in that position then it is Blair. You just always think he is going to score from the edge of the box.

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“When I saw Gaston and the ball sliding down the side of him, it was just an amazing feeling.”



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