Ayr United travel to Firhill on Saturday to take on the Great Glasgow Alternative, the Jags, the Harry Wraggs, everyone's favourite other team, Partick Thistle. Instead of picking through last Saturday's three minute debacle - or trying to second guess what might happen between between what should be two evenly matched sides in an entirely unpredictable league - a trip down memory lane seems like a perfect excuse to look back on one of my favourite ever games.
Those of you who remember the early days of the internet might recall the Ayr United Yahoo group. Set up by Kev McLelland, it was the the best place to virtually hurl abuse at the manager/defence/centre forward/Chairman of the day from the comfort of behind your keyboard. From the venerable Kev came 'Ayr United - A Video History 1989 - 1999' a copy of which I found the other day. Standing out from the grainy video clips and excellent match reports (well, maybe not as much as the 2-0 game against THEM) was my favourite day at Firhill, and a game probably up there in my top five Ayr games ever.
Season 97/98 marked Ayr's return to the First Division as a side on the up. But, after the relative stability of Ayr's Championship season - Henry Smith; John Traynor, Willie Jamieson, Ronnie Coyle; Tam Smith, Robert Connor, Paul Kinnaird and Alain Horace; Issac English and Stevie Kerrigan 10 of a fairly regular 11 - Ayr fans witnessed a conveyor belt of 'talent' from all across the world as United looked to find their feet. Gordon Dalziel used 47 players that season, including some names never to be forgotten - Kristján Finnbogason, Jim Dick, Laurant D'Jaffo, Ian Ferguson - and some you'd like to forget or probably don't remember. Louie Donowa, Mark Duthie, Willie Mainge, French Internationalist Luc Sonar, David Morley, Jeff Peron and Richie Warholm anyone? And Mohamed Sylla, on as a substitute at Almondvale only to be subbed off shortly after.
The last game of the season came about and Ayr travelled to Firhill on a sunny afternoon in May, the last of the league season, knowing a point would see them safe. And relegate Thistle. Partick had kept their survival hopes alive, taking 10 points from their previous four games, while United blew their chance of survival the previous week, losing 3-1 to Falkirk at Somerset Park. There was a nervous anticipation around the streets of Maryhill, especially in our car as we were lost. We stopped to ask a Partick fan directions and he jumped in. He'd flown over from Barcelona especially for the game. The walk up to the ground having parked the car ('can I watch yer car mister?' i.e. gies a quid or its gettin bricked), seeing the long line of 2000 plus Ayr fans, most of whom had arrived on a fleet of free buses told you this was going to be a special game.
I'll let the video and Kev's match report from that CD tell the rest of the story:
And Kevin McLelland's match report:
Partick Thistle vs Ayr United
9th May 1998
Scottish League Division One
Partick Thistle 1 - 3 Ayr United
Firhill Park, GlasgowThe Scottish League's match computer served this fixture up way back in June and even then it was viewed with a certain amount of trepidation. Most Ayr fans believed that staying up was the main aim for the season and the final match at Firhill was always going to be important.
What we didn't bank on was that Thistle would be penniless, inept and going nowhere by the time we met. Nowhere except Division Two that is. The plight of the Glasgow club has been well-documented over the last few months and part of me is sad to see the demise of an alternative to the sectarian cancer which afflicts most of Glasgow, but their problems didn't occur overnight. To get into a state like Thistle are, where they sack the tea-lady and groundsman to cut bills, takes years of mismanagement and anyone with the merest hint of business acumen could probably have spotted the club haemorrhaging cash long ago. Sadly for them that didn't happen and they're now a shadow of the side that lost out in a playoff to stay in the Premier only 3 years ago, and are reduced to taking players on loan from Queen's Park to fill jerseys. Still, the chance to stuff the media darlings and according to Jim White, 'Everyones second favourite team' was just too good to miss.
And so the scene was set. A sunny day in Glasgow, over 2000 travelling Ayr fans and three times that number backing Thistle. Ayr required only a draw, Thistle needed all three points. The pitch resembled a bad haircut, but given that it was only cut twice in the previous few months, and the last time was in the rain with a garden lawnmower, it wasn't too bad. The organisation was however. The Jags shambolic state was mirrored by the turnstile operation and stewarding. 14 buses disgorged Ayr fans half a mile from the stadium and as we approached the ground, the queue to get in snaked 400 yards up the hill. The turnstiles weren't even open. It's hard to believe they didn't anticipate a big support, so why wasn't someone organising more turnstile operators ? Eventually the gates opened and the usual motley collection of stewards huffed and puffed out their chests, demanding we keep away from the centre stand area where Thistle dignitaries were to be housed.
At 2:30, the singing started. All the old favourites, and a few more mocking the home side's predicament. After all, would you expect Thistle fans to shed a tear for Ayr? The tension built as the ground filled up. Ayr took both sides of the main stand and Thistle followers crammed into the plush new stand opposite, a glaring reminder of where a lot of cash went. A tannoy announcement at 2:55 warned of a ten minute delay to kick-off to let fans in. As I looked around the faces of the support, there was a lot of anxiety masked by vocal bravado. The tension was unbearable.
The players took the field to rapturous applause from around the stadium. Thistle ran on with a strange mascot among their number. Looking like a cross between Gary Paterson and Bertie Bassett, the Ayr fans taunted the unfortunate soul with cries of 'Charnley, Charnley give us a wave' - a cruel reference to the absence of their 'flawed genius' (sic). Ayr's players responded to the huge travelling support and about that point I felt it was going to be our day. The players looked focused, purposeful and determined, all the things you would ask for.
The referee called the captains together and battle commenced about 3:15. Barely 2 minutes had elapsed when Ayr had their first attempt at goal. A quick throw sent Ferguson behind the defence on the right and he shot just wide of the far post from an acute angle.
Thistle rallied and Lawrence saw his shot from 10 yards blocked by Castilla's legs before Shepherd mopped up McDonald's follow-up.
Darren Henderson fell foul of the erratic referee when he was awarded a 15th minute caution for dissent, having chased the official to complain at not being awarded 2 fouls in the space of 30 seconds. Seconds later, Ian Ferguson laid the ball off to Henderson who set up Findlay and his shot from 25 yards was touched over by Hamilton.
Lyons was cautioned for the home side for barging Millen to the ground as the skipper broke from defence with the ball but within a minute Ayr had the lead. Just like Thistle's season, the goal was a farce. Castilla's long kick caught Donowa offside and the ball was stopped by Watson inside the centre-circle. He tried to play it quickly to Boyle but Ferguson reacted faster and intercepted the pass before running 50 yards, rounding the bemused Hamilton and placing the ball in the empty net. Mayhem broke out on the touchline as the Ayr bench celebrated and the Thistle bench chased the linesman to complain that Ferguson wasn't 10 yards away. TV replays showed that Ferguson was about 6 yards away when Watson played the ball toward Boyle, so they may have a case, but let's face it, Ayr have had no luck at all this season and we were due a break of some sort. The fans were deliriously happy and once more, outsang a dejected home support.
Billy McDonald, who, depending on your allegiances, is either a powerhouse midfielder or an annoying wee nyaff with all the footballing skills of a sheepdog, was next into the book as he snapped too often at the heels of Ayr's midfielders.
Castilla made an excellent stop in the 35th minute, diving low to stop an effort from Evans, but the alarm bells should have been ringing to waken Ayr from their customary first half slumbers. Yes, once again, they nodded off and had it not been for the outstanding figure of John Traynor, Thistle could have been on level terms. As it was, almost 48 minutes were on the clock when they did just that. A cross from the right was partially cleared by Traynor, but quickly returned by Lyons. It took a deflection off Millen and spun up for Evans to head beyond Castilla with the aid of the right hand post. A terrible time to lose a goal and it livened up the home support to the point where several were rugby tackled by police as they attempted to invade the pitch.
Things looked brighter for Ayr at the start of the second half. Shepherd robbed Stirling wide on the right and broke into the box, but his pass intended for Ferguson was cut out by the impressive Archibald.
With 52 minutes on the clock, the fans got their wish as Djaffo entered the fray in favour of Donowa. Anyone who doubted the Frenchman's credentials or appetite for the game had those thoughts dispelled very quickly as he proceeded to turn in a virtuoso performance. Four minutes after coming on, he scored perhaps the most important goal of his career. Collecting a neat pass from Shepherd at the edge of the box, he turned his marker and shot in one movement, sending a searing left-foot effort past the despairing lunge of Hamilton. Utter bedlam ensued. The whole contents of the Ayr bench emptied onto the pitch as the linesman struggled to cope and the fans reached new heights of delirium in the stand. Futile attempts by stewards and police to have the fans return to their seats ended when 3 or 4 people were ejected, guilty only of enjoying themselves.
A minute later, Billy Findlay embarked on a mazy dribble before shooting over the bar, but he was only finding his range for later on. Thistle threw everything they could into attack as they sought the two goals they required for safety. In truth, they had little to offer and Ayr's outstanding rearguard coped admirably with everything that came at them.
Around the hour mark, two more chances fell Ayr's way. They were turning on the style with some inch-perfect passing and one such pass from Djaffo released Shepherd down the right. He sent the ball into the box to Ferguson but Hamilton did well to hold the striker's effort. Djaffo himself was next to try his luck and after dribbling past a couple and running clear, he shot wide of Hamilton's far post with a left-foot drive. The same combination of Djaffo sending Shepherd down the right to cross for Ferguson almost brought a third goal as the striker laid it back to the loan star to shoot just over.
It was all Ayr now and as the minutes ticked away, the uneasy feeling that it was too late for Thistle descended on some of their fairweather fans. They began to drift off , starting as a trickle of ones and twos, quickly growing to a river of orange and yellow, they poured out of their seats, unable to watch as their team slipped into the oblivion of Division 2. In stark contrast, Ayr's followers were in full voice and some rather unkind songs suggesting that Partick weren't very good and hadn't any money were being belted out from the main stand.
With 20 minutes remaining Ferguson should have delivered the final nail in their coffin. Archibald was penalised for handball outside the box and with everyone expecting Henderson to have a shot, the ball was played to Shepherd, who squared it to Fergie 7 yards out. Sadly, his effort flew high over the bar, but I'm sure it bounced off the surface onto his shin at the vital moment.
The final 10 minutes belonged to Billy Findlay. Many people doubted his fitness when he arrived, but he has quickly settled into the defensive midfield role and links very well with John Davies. Saturday was his best game in an Ayr jersey. As legs tired and strength was sapped in the heat, he seemed to be getting faster. He chased, harried and chipped away at the Partick defence, never letting them settle on the ball, always on hand to play or receive a pass. Having sent Djaffo clear and Henderson in on goal, he decided to have a go himself. In injury time, he collected a loose ball in his own half and set off on a run which was to end in a contender for goal of the season. Striding forward from the halfway line, Partick backed off him and he faced no resistance until the edge of the box. He cut inside onto his right foot and lost Watson in the move. Next he mesmerised Nicky Henderson with a bit of trickery before making space and from 22 yards, he flashed a right foot shot high into Hamilton's top left corner. Once again, the fans were in raptures, only this time, we knew we were safe. Findlay milked the applause of the faithful whilst dotted around the turf were the crumpled figures of Thistle players. There was barely enough time to restart the game before the ref sounded the final whistle and the real celebrations began. Each and every player walked along the lines of fans, collecting scarves, flags and hats and it really makes you wonder what we would do if we actually won something worth celebrating. Several minutes after they had gone into the dressing room, some of the players reappeared after chants of 'We want Ayr'. Only 3 or 4 made it out this time as for some reason, the stewards wouldn't let the rest back on. However, I'm sure they would have acted the same had Thistle won....
So there it is, a bit of an epic, and I apologise if the actual match content is a little thin. At times my recording of the match became rambled and incoherent. Other times, it was drowned out by some damn fine singing. Ahh, who cares ? "We're staying up, we're staying up, we're staying, Ayr are staying up!"
Team: Castilla, Shepherd, Miller, Millen, Traynor, Anderson, Donowa (Djaffo 52), Davies, Ferguson, Findlay, Henderson Unused subs Duthie, McKeown
Ref: Graham Allison (6/10 - after a poor start, he did let the game flow more later on. Probably his best performance actually. (I'm feeling generous !)
(With thanks to Kevin McLelland. I haven't asking him to use his videos and match report but I'm sure he wouldn't mind!)