The telephone rang in the smoky old newsroom where time had stood still for decades and the caller’s voice was both driven and straight to the point. He wasn’t for taking “no” as an answer.
David E Murray had grown up on the terraces of his hometown club where his grandfather David had been a director and his father Ian was managing director of a local coal merchant.
Now he had set his sights firmly on taking his family’s association to the ultimate level by acquiring Ayr United as his own and leading them back to the promised land of the Premier League which they had not graced for ten years. He vowed to make the club as “good a non-Old Firm team as there has ever been, given the opportunity”.
The year was 1988 and Ayr, with the irrepressible Ally MacLeod at the helm for a remarkable third stint, were riding high at the top of the Second Division and homing in on a record-breaking season in which they tested the back of the rigging an astonishing 104 times.
As boss of Murray International Holdings and one of Scotland’s most flamboyant businessmen, 36-year-old Murray, who had lost the power in both legs after an accident 12 years earlier, was not accustomed to rejection or failure. He soon had to change his tune.
The saga, still fervently debated by Honest Men 31 years on, was played out on a weekly basis for many months on the pages of the Ayrshire Post where I was the sports editor, one quarter of the way through my marathon 40-year shift.
It was the era of BT’s “It’s Good To Talk” commercials and Murray and I could easily have been signed up for testimonials as we chatted at length almost every day, he giving me a succession of front page splashes as Post readers fed off the growing excitement of this audacious takeover bid.
My adversary at the rival Ayr Advertiser was Iain Ferguson, who later became assistant editor of the Daily Record and is now head of PR at Ayr Racecourse, situated only a free-kick away from Somerset Park.
Together we charted the unfolding drama in our pages, each trying to steal a march on the other as we reported on the developing tug-of-war for the club which both of us, as Prestwick boys, had grown up to follow as keen supporters.
Ferguson remains adamant that Ayr were right to knock back the approach and recalls Murray’s initial offer of £90,000 being described by Ally as derisory, a view that clearly carried much sway with those in and around the club.
“I remember Ally claiming at the time that Ayr had received an offer of £80,000 from, I think, Reading to buy Willie Furphy, one of the team’s young stars. That put the Murray offer into perspective and Ayr, in my opinion, were right to turn it down.”
In his later days at the Record, Ferguson interviewed Murray, by then Rangers’ owner, soon after the death of his Sunday Scot newspaper which survived only a handful of issues after being boycotted by most Celtic fans and many other supporters besides.
As an aside, Ferguson quizzed him on his reaction to being snubbed by Ayr and immediately felt his pain. “It was obviously still hurting him and he was insistent he would have stayed with Ayr had his bid been successful and not made the move for Rangers when they became available.”
Murray told him he would have ensured that Ayr were on a level at least with a St Johnstone with a stadium and facilities to match. That claim will always be up for debate and there has long been a lingering suspicion among many doubting supporters that the chance to own Rangers would have proved irresistible and Ayr could have been left high and dry within a matter of months.
As it transpired, Murray’s Ayr bid, which peaked at £1.25 million and offered £17.50 per share which had been trading at only £4.50, found support from only four of the club’s 47 principal shareholders. In short, it was kicked into touch by an overwhelming margin of 19,036 shares to 2,090.
Onside was club legend Alex Ingram, a commanding fans’ favourite striker whom MacLeod signed for nothing from Queen’s Park before selling him to Nottingham Forest for £40,000 in 1970 and then bringing him back in a cut-price deal, the shrewdest of business. However, not even the support of United’s all-time fourth-top scorer and a pledge to redevelop the creaking old stadium would sway the Somerset decision makers.
Riled by rejection, Murray again contacted me and arranged to place a striking advertisement in the pages of the Post, headed “Message to Ayr United Supporters” in which he spelled out the full details of his bid.
He wrote: “No doubt you have recently read in the press that the Board of Directors have again recommended a rejection on my proposals over the acquisition of the club. As I understand matters, their main concerns were a) price, b) the potential risks of one man/family control.
“On point A. I firmly believe that £17.50 per share is a realistic value when you consider that up to eight months ago, the highest price paid was £4.50 each.
“On point B. The only comparison to make is with other Scottish clubs who have been under one man/family control in recent years, eg Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Aberdeen, Hibernian and Dundee. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
“In their most recent letter to shareholders (a copy of which has just come into my possession), the Board also made what verged on a character assassination, suggesting that I was a ‘most volatile’ and ‘very unpredictable’ person. I am not prepared to enter into a slanging match and would merely suggest that if this is the case, I do not have a monopoly on these qualities.
“For example, my five written requests for a meeting (plus numerous verbal ones) were all denied despite the fact that it was the chairman who in January originally wrote suggesting a meeting would take place, then one week later decided against this.
“For the record, I would like to confirm the broad basis of my offer to the main shareholders:
“A. £17.50 cash per share.
“B. A further £750,000 cash investment into the club (not a loan) for a two-year programme of development, including a phased series of ground improvements at the stadium to include the covering of the main terracing, modernisation of the main stand, creation of new changing rooms, creation of a segregated family area and provision of entertainment facility for sponsors and official Supporters’ Club with the balance of the monies to be available to Mr MacLeod for purchasing new players and securing the services of existing players.
“C. In recognition of the sentimental rather than financial value which may well be attached to various shareholdings, each shareholder (large or small) would have had the right to retain a certain number of shares. These would admittedly have become non-voting shares but would have entitled the holder to two years’ season tickets free of charge and a 25 per cent discount over a further two years.
“D. The appointment to the Board of Alex Ingram, below right, a former Ayr United favourite and now successful local businessman.
“I understand that the Board have recommended rejection of my proposals. The Board also criticised me for demanding a hurried decision within a certain time scale but I was only endeavouring to highlight that if my proposals were to be put into action in time for season 1988-89 then the job had to commence sooner rather than later. In any event, I am pleased to see from the Board’s letter to shareholders that many, if not all, of my proposals were ‘targets of the existing Board long before Murray came on the scene or are already in place’.
“At least if nothing else transpires with regard to my own ambitions, the Board have confirmed the nature of forthcoming developments for the club.
“It was also confirmed to the shareholders that if my offer was accepted the Board would in total resign and that ‘Mr Ally MacLeod has indicated that if the proposals are accepted not only would he be unwilling to become a director he would also resign as manager’. This, in my opinion, is a complete scaremongering exercise and everyone is fully aware that Ally MacLeod is loyal first and foremost to Ayr United and its supporters. I am positive that if we had on this occasion been successful, a future relationship between Ally MacLeod and myself would have developed to the benefit of the club.
“Finally, I would like to thank all the supporters who have written to me over recent months, not only to voice their support, but also to express their enthusiasm for Ayr United.
“My best wishes to you and the Club in the forthcoming season and in its quest for Premier League status.”
Murray had pitched up at Somerset Park in January 1988 and boldly announced that, given the opportunity, he would lead Ayr back into Scottish football’s top flight where they plied their trade for the first three years following reorganisation in 1975.
In one of his frequent calls to me, he claimed that in the past Ayr had sold stars such as Stevie Nicol, Robert Connor and Alan McInally. But when they won promotion, he insisted they would need new players or else they would become a club going nowhere.
I circled the notes from one interview in which he told me forcibly: “They are giving supporters a raw deal if they go up and buy second-hand players who are rejects from other clubs. I am talking about buying quality players and keeping the good players they have at the moment. I want to buy Ayr purely for the right reasons and want to see them in the Premier League where they belong and not having to sell their best players.”
Murray’s mutterings caused much angst among United’s seven-strong board who I knew well from my labour of love following the club’s fortunes. Ayr had lost £37,886 the preceding year but were still in the black with more than £66,000 in reserve. Crowds had doubled with the leap to the top of the Second Division and Ayr were now the best supported club outwith the Premier League.
The chairman was George Smith, a local farmer, who held 2,000 shares. The principal shareholder was vice-chairman and Girvan accountant Sandy Loudon, who owned 4,406. The other board members were Myles Callaghan (1,778), Donnie MacIntyre (750), Bill Barr (700), Tom Clydesdale (400) and Mike Thomson (100).
These men were effectively the power brokers but they would not be rolled over and were steadfast in their opinion that Murray was looking for “too much, too soon and at too little a price”.
Ayrshire MP George Foulkes, who was later to become chairman of Heart of Midlothian, entered the fray and claimed it was time for the board to meet Murray face to face, saying: “I think he has some great ideas and is a genuine and sincere person who wants to build the club up. He is one of Scotland’s fastest-rising businessmen who never attempts second best. His interests are orientated towards Ayr United and it could lead to other industrial and commercial developments in Ayrshire.”
However, the board, who with their families controlled more than 60 per cent of the club’s 26,000 shares, refused to buckle and dug their heels in deeper.
Vice-chairman Loudon told the Ayrshire Post that he would be back on the terracing immediately very happy indeed if there was someone better to do the job than the present board.
Ingram, who scored 117 goals – the majority of them headers – in 11 seasons at the club, attempted to hit the mark again when he told supporters: “No club can turn down such a package. We want to take Ayr United into the Premier League with a set-up to match. Ally is an important catalyst and we hope he will stay.”
Chairman Smith wrote to shareholders and stressed: ‘We state categorically that Mr Murray’s proposals grossly undervalue your club. I believe that your Board, greatly assisted by your manager, players, staff and supporters, has done a good job. Our record stands.
“We have a further job to do and we have every confidence in the club’s prospects of achieving it under the direction of the present Board with the support of you, the existing shareholders. No one person holds sway over our Club, the variety of views is respected and welcomed. It’s a well established formula and at Ayr United I assure you it works.
“Your Board retains serious misgivings about the effective control of your Club passing into the hands of one person and I can also say as your Chairman that I am troubled on the Club’s behalf at the prospect of it.”
When Murray went on to buy Rangers for £6 million only five months after being finally rebuffed by Ayr, the United directors found themselves being openly questioned for their judgement. Some cruelly mocked them as the men who had missed an open goal by turning their backs on Murray’s riches.
As history was to show, Rangers eventually imploded under Murray’s excessive spending and in May 2011, Craig Whyte bought the troubled club for £1. Rangers plunged into administration the following year and were later liquidated. They were then demoted to the old Third Division, a tier below the club who had rejected Murray’s approaches in 1988.
The irony wasn’t lost on many, including Donnie MacIntyre, who recalled the events in a newspaper interview in 2012.
“The more successful Rangers became under David Murray, the more Ayr fans were saying that could have been us.
“Even David himself had fun with it. I knew his family because they came from Ayr and whenever I bumped into David he would say ‘There’s that wee man who turned me down’.
“I don’t want anyone to think I’m gloating. I have a lot of respect for David Murray, particularly how bravely he has handled everything he has had to endure physically.
“But I believed we made the best decision and perhaps recent events have made others agree.”
MacIntyre revealed how the first time he learned of Murray’s interest was when he was driving home from Glasgow one Saturday night and saw the newspaper headline “£1 Million Bid For Ayr”.
He told how he never met Murray as correspondence was sent by courier to George Smith’s farm in Girvan. Smith would then take his proposals to the board for approval and the directors would meet round the clock to discuss them.
MacIntyre claimed he couldn’t remember specifically how much was offered but said it wasn’t £1m and, most crucially, there would be an obligation for the club to pay that money back to Murray in time.
He said: “That was the main reason why we voted against the bid. I have always told people who questioned our decision that it was based on what we believed was best for the club.
“Had we decided from our own perspective we would have sold out because every one of us on the Board stood to make at least five figures from the deal. Some would have been due a six-figure sum so I’m sure our children and grandchildren would look back and wish we had sold our shares. But we didn’t. We went against the popular view.”
It was an agonising time for diehard supporters of the club which wasn’t used to being thrown under the national gaze and historian Duncan Carmichael still vividly recalls the traumas it caused him. He was initially in favour of the Murray approach but, like many others, switched horses mid-race and remains convinced the United shareholders made the correct call.
Carmichael remembers: “Yes, I was in favour at the time. The story broke in the Sunday Post on the morning after we had lost 2-0 away to St Johnstone but it was our first away defeat in any competition for more than a year. At this time the mood was buoyant and the St Johnstone result was only a blip.
“The reason I was in favour was due to the frustration of being out of the Premier League for ten years. Yes, the team was doing well but the height of the ambition was getting into and consolidating in the second tier. David Murray’s tone implied a wonderful future. That was good enough for me. I would happily have taken a chance on him.”
Carmichael admitted that his stance changed drastically not in the intervening years but within several weeks. He explained: “I am an Ayr United shareholder and was kept in touch with the Murray bid via correspondence from the club. A letter to shareholders dated 22 March, 1988, included the following: ‘His original proposal contemplated a cash injection of £90,000, later increased to some £112,000 plus a repayable loan of £500,000 in exchange for 75 per cent ownership of the club by way of shares issued to him.
“ ‘Mr Murray’s latest proposal is to inject the whole £500,000 into the club not by way of a loan but by way of new shares to be issued to him on the basis that he gains 75 per cent control. Shareholders will bear in mind that in seeking to acquire 75 per cent ownership Mr Murray would secure for himself not only 75 per cent ownership of the whole club as it stands but also 75 per cent of his own investment of £500,000 howsoever that was later spent.
“ ‘By that argument it could be argued that Mr Murray is only prepared to divest himself of £125,000 to put himself into 75 per cent ownership and the virtually unassailable position of one-man control’.”
Carmichael believes that Murray’s later involvement with Rangers would not have happened if he had been the dedicated Ayr United supporter that he claimed. He insisted: “The situation at Rangers could have been fatal for a club like Ayr United where there is no possibility of rising from the ashes and getting crowds of 49,000. It could easily be interpreted that he was trying to acquire Ayr United on the cheap because he was told that he was free to make counter proposals but none were forthcoming.”
Back in newspaper-land, the smoke has long been outlawed from the Ayrshire Post office but reporting the dreams and aspirations of Ayr fans lives on, albeit with a different incumbent in the sports editor’s chair, my son Stuart, who was properly schooled as an Honest Man.
Did Ayr miss the boat when they snubbed the Murray riches or did they dodge a bullet and could have hit the financial buffers just as Rangers did seven years ago?
In truth, we will never know for sure. There is no doubt that the United of 1988 were in good hands, led by gentleman George Smith and his band of six directors who were all committed fans.
Perhaps they didn’t possess the financial muscle or business acumen of Murray but no one could doubt their deep love and feeling for the club. And that for me counts for everything.
Mike Wilson was Sports Editor of the Ayrshire Post for 40 years before passing on the baton to his son Stuart.
This feature appears in Issue 14 of Nutmeg, a long-form publication devoted entirely to every aspect of Scottish football. It is published quarterly. Available via subscription at www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk