Ayrshire's bitter derby reaches Hampden
26 January ~ On Saturday there will be a new addition to the long list of derbies played out at Hampden Park. For the first time in a century of private enmity, Kilmarnock and Ayr United will meet in the semi-finals of a major cup competition. Scotland v England, Rangers v Celtic and Hibs v Hearts may garner more media hype when they slug it out at the national stadium, but the Ayrshire derby won't disappoint the Sunday Mail sub-editors. There's plenty of animosity here. Kilmarnock sit mid-table in the SPL while Ayr occupy the relegation play-off spot in the second tier. But history shows this is no mismatch and form suggests Killie have more to fear.
It has been quite a season for one of Scotland's least-publicised football hotspots. Both teams are in the last 16 of the Scottish Cup and the junior side Auchinleck Talbot were a dodgy decision away from earning a replay against Hearts.
It would be unfair to say Ayrshire is most famous throughout the world as the county of Bill Shankly's birth – or the only place in Britain Elvis ever visited. Kilmarnock are one of only ten extant clubs to be champions of Scotland. And in 1965-66 the Real Madrid of Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stéfano were held to a draw when the old European Cup graced Rugby Park. The following season Killie lost to Leeds United in the Fairs Cup semi-finals, preventing Scotland from becoming the first country to provide finalists for all three European club competitions in one season.
However, this area of south west Scotland garners most football fame from the trivia of interesting names: Shankly's nascent playing career involved the long-defunct Glenbuck Cherrypickers, and Rugby Park was up there with the Baseball and City Grounds for playground stadia quizzes.
The proximity of Glasgow and the Old Firm is, of course, the main drain on Ayrshire's standing as a senior football region. But the draw of the junior game is felt more passionately here than anywhere else in Scotland. Many of the former mining communities of South and East Ayrshire complain that the senior game drains their more sociable, local football culture.
Auchinleck Talbot – again, beautiful name – are the most successful club in the history of the Scottish Junior Cup. As holders they travelled to Tynecastle earlier this month to take on Hearts in the senior version. Around 2,000 Talbot fans watched as a wrongly disallowed goal prevented them from taking Scotland's third largest club back to Beechwood Park. Two years previously, North Ayrshire's Irvine Meadow XI lost 3-0 across the city at Hibs, taking 3,000 fans to Easter Road.
Hibs were knocked out by Division Two's Ayr United last season. Four decades younger than Kilmarnock and playing at a stadium with terracing on three sides as opposed to Killie's all-seater international venue, Ayr have never won a major domestic trophy. But this season they have eliminated St Mirren, Inverness and Hearts in the League Cup en route to Saturday's semi-final at Hampden.
Ayr have only reached one major national final before. In 2002 they lost the League Cup final 4-0 to Rangers. That game came a year after Kilmarnock had lost the same final to Celtic. Ayr did it as a Division One club and obtained a reputation as a cup team, despite never having lifted major silverware.
Everyone knows Scotland were the first team to beat England after they won the World Cup and a lot of us know Rangers were the first team to beat Celtic after they won the European Cup. But what matters this weekend is that Kilmarnock won the Scottish Cup in 1997 and, the following season, First Division Ayr United knocked them out of the competition.
Killie won the Scottish Cup at the end of a season when Ayr, a second division side, put them out of the League Cup. In 1998-99, Kilmarnock were playing in the UEFA Cup. Again they drew Ayr, still a league below them, in the Scottish Cup and lost 3-0.
Ayr haven't played in the top flight since 1978. They have never qualified for Europe. The closest they came was in 1972-73 under the legendary management of Ally MacLeod. That campaign included a 1-0 win away at Kilmarnock, who were relegated just seven years after playing in the European Cup.
The League Cup is the only major domestic trophy Killie haven't won. They have lost the final five times – remarkably, in Scotland, to five different teams. All things past and current considered, there is slightly more chance of them beating Celtic if they make the final than there is of as of them beating Ayr in this semi-final.
Former player Brian Reid is the man currently pulling the strings at Ayr, while Irishman Kenny Shiels has presided over a quite remarkable season at Rugby Park. In late November he led Kilmarnock to their first ever home win over Rangers in the SPL, at a time when the champions were still top of the table. Last week, however, Killie were stuffed 3-0 as newly-promoted Dunfermline gained their first ever SPL win at Rugby Park. Dunfermline were bottom of the table at the time, as were Terry Butcher's Inverness when they exposed the frailties of Shiels' swashbuckling style with a remarkable 6-3 win at the start of November.
Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and one-team Aberdeen are ahead of Ayrshire in Scottish football's league table. Motherwell having won all three of the domestic titles puts Lanarkshire forward as the next-placed region. But if intensity of local derbies is a factor, Ayrshire can sneak in front.
The animosity was expressed loud and clear over the Sky microphones when the final whistle was blown in Kilmarnock's first home win over Rangers since 1994: "Ayr, Ayr - fuck your Ayr United" sang the home fans. On Saturday, for the first time in Ayrshire senior football, the venue will be neutral – unlike everything else. Alex Anderson
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