Illo 1 Final

We are now accepting entries for the 2021 WSC writers' competition. As inspiration, here's the winning entry from 2020

April 20 ~ At the beginning of the truncated 2019-20 season, I decided to keep a log of the matches that I attended. Having been a regular at Kilmarnock for more than 20 years now, I’m not sure what made me begin this particular process, other than a slight tendency towards cataloguing events and completing collections that has grown as I get older. Until lockdown I was in the process of making my way to each of Scotland’s 42 senior club grounds. Around the same time, I began to seek a complete set of Kilmarnock programmes from European competition. Despite great progress, the idea that 17 Nentori Tirana away will always elude me frequently bothers me. I don’t imagine that there were many who made the journey from Ayrshire to Albania in 1965.

Kilmarnock in Europe, and specifically in the Balkans, was to be the first entry in my new list – a match that never took place in a season that never finished.

Having already booked a summer trip which coincided with the tie against Welsh cannon fodder Connah’s Quay Nomads, I missed Killie’s first European adventure in the best part of 20 years. This saw me watch the first leg, a 2-1 away win, in the middle of the night in the Japanese Alps and, in sheer horror and disbelief, the 2-0 defeat at Rugby Park in an Osaka hotel bed, my wife sleeping a foot away, happily oblivious to the ongoing disaster.

With the first two qualifying rounds drawn at the same time, I had already booked a trip to take in the away leg of the next round against Partizan Belgrade. I wasn’t alone. Hundreds of other Killie faithful were making the journey. The queue for the WizzAir flight from Luton – if ever there was an airport to further aggravate an already irate group – to Belgrade was peppered with them, their pain etched visibly just below the surface of their blank expressions. As a teacher, time off during July and August doesn’t come at a premium, but it was apparent that many of these supporters had sacrificed time and trips with family to be here.

The routes taken were many and varied. I was the first of my group to arrive in Serbia, joined in turn by friends who had come via Montenegro, Croatia and Germany. The last to arrive was staying for a grand total of 36 hours.

Our travelling party was an eclectic bunch, as many friendship groups which are built on following a smaller club are – two teachers, a call centre manager, a bus driver and a “computer geek for Morgan Stanley”, aged between 25 and 45. I awaited their arrival in a bar where the Sava meets the Danube and began to feel some of the resentment dissipate as I nursed a 90p pint and looked over at the old town, imagining Ayrshire men, women and children working their way across the continent, converging towards the ancient city.

Soon, blue-and-white-clad groups on walking tours looped the city centre, taking in far more of Belgrade’s varied history than probably anticipated. Despite the majority making efforts to sew a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, the eldest of our group was unable to raise a smile at the situation. Often criticised, Scottish top-flight football retains charms that its wealthier neighbour in England lacks. The vast majority of players do not earn amounts that allow them to retire to their mansions in their mid-30s and that alienate them from the fans who pay to watch them. Gate receipts, rather than TV deals, still pay their wages and with that comes a different relationship, one that feels far more intimate.

What our friend was feeling, then, was personal. He travels, nearly every week, from Inverness to attend matches, home and away, arranging his shifts around the fixtures. He had been let down, no doubt about it. To him, one of those who had taken his precious summer holiday to follow the team, the failure to beat part-timers from Wales meant that he never forgave the newly appointed manager Angelo Alessio. His season ended there, in many ways. No one was happier when Alessio got the boot.

Come would-be matchday, there was to be a “Killie end” to accommodate the 100 or so others with nowhere else to go. We had met a solitary Welshman on Republic Square earlier that day. He had travelled from Denmark, where he had watched TNS exit the Champions League to FC Copenhagen the day before. He confirmed that he was the only travelling Nomad that he was aware of. Technically, he was the official club photographer and had a UEFA pass for the match, so perhaps he didn’t even qualify as travelling support. He inadvertently added to our humiliation by reiterating how small a club Connah’s Quay were and the surprising nature of the result against Kilmarnock. We grinned, wished him all the best for the match and dulled our bitterness with another pivo.

The match ended in a pleasing 3-0 defeat for the Nomads, 4-0 on aggregate. Frustratingly, Partizan did not look unbeatable. Their main striker, Umar Sadiq, had flopped at Rangers the previous season. The plucky Killie team of Steve Clarke might have knocked them out and set up another adventure. Partizan went on to play Manchester United in the group stages. The hypothetical logistics of getting to Old Trafford by 8pm on a Thursday night after school in Ayr were discussed (just about doable).

The ghost of Connah’s Quay Nomads continued to haunt my season. They were mentioned over the PA system at match four (Cove Rangers v Cowdenbeath) in reference to their upcoming game against the former in the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup. Then they were part of the BBC coverage of the competition against Partick Thistle. The mention of the club brings a wry smile to every Scottish football pundit, a byword for failure, and a pang to every Killie fan.

Watching Killie since Belgrade has often been a sad return to pre-Clarke times: disgruntled fans, a team struggling to find the net and the gradual, inevitable disintegration of the team. The saddest part of this is the weakening of the genuine reconnection between the town and the club that had taken place, which prompted so many to travel to Serbia in the first place.

Even taking into account the 1997 and 2012 cup victories, the passion, pride and joy that Clarke brought in the 2018-19 season was like nothing I had experienced since my first outing in May 1995. The town seemed more buoyant, happy to have a civic pride and identity that had been ripped away in the “post-industrial” years restored through the team, led by one of their own (Clarke was born in nearby Saltcoats and his brother, Paul, played more than 400 times for the club). Local businesses got on board and crowds began to rise. I, and many others, felt life and love breathed into a relationship that had become stale and monotonous.

People’s moods improved and conversations in the stand moved beyond the grumbles of the previous decade. In the current crisis, I miss the blether with the elderly man who sits next to me and can remember Rugby Park nights against Real Madrid, Eintracht Frankfurt and, indeed, 17 Nentori Tirana almost as much as I miss the matches themselves. I wonder how he is doing, hoping that he has managed to avoid the virus and remain upbeat despite a fortnightly social event being curtailed. Beyond all, I hope that he will still take his seat next to me when I return.

And with that comes the realisation that the disaster against the Nomads wasn’t quite as disastrous as it seemed in July. Current events bring a lot of perspective. I don’t regret booking in advance. Belgrade was a memorable moment in my Killie-supporting life, the culmination of my favourite season watching my favourite club, and a taster of what might happen again in the right circumstances. Imagine how much fun it would have been if we had actually been playing.

At the moment, we all need to ensure that the communities created by our clubs – and the individual supporters – survive to tell the stories of glory nights in years gone by. These are the people and the stories that see us through many a football crisis and that will see us through these football-starved times. The return to Rugby Park will be all the sweeter for this hiatus. Keith Dunlop

Illustration by Adam Doughty

Click here to find out how to enter the 2021 WSC writers' competition – there is a £250 cash prize for the winner, whose article will be published in WSC this summer

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