“Today, ladies and gentleman, I am going to talk about something very close to my heart.” That was the opening of a speech to my class at school when I was 11 years old. 23 years later and I am again going to write about the very same subject which remains close to my heart — Kilmarnock Football Club. It’s the oldest professional football club in Scotland, born in 1869, and as the label on every bottle of whisky manufactured in the town would portray, “still going strong” or as many would currently suggest – is it?
I grew up in Ayrshire, Scotland and despite living in close proximity to two local professional teams I was surrounded by fans of Rangers and Celtic. That’s unfortunately par for the course in Scotland. Despite supporting my hometown club I was in the minority as many of my friends would dream of playing at Parkhead or Ibrox whilst my dream growing up was to pull on the famous blue and white stripes of my boyhood heroes. It consumed my thoughts on a daily basis.
My Primary 3 report card read, “Neill’s mind is sometimes at Rugby Park and not in the class room.” This was a very astute observation from my teacher as there is no question this was certainly the case. People from my small coastal town will remember me as the wee boy who ran around playing football with the Killie strip never off my back. During the week I would try to replicate my idols at the local playing field and on a Saturday my Dad would take me to watch them in action. Home or away, we would be in the terraces cheering on our team, the Killie boys.
When I first started watching Killie they were in Scottish Second Division and struggling. One of my first recollections was watching a disastrous defeat away to lowly East Stirling and witnessing the fans go ballistic after the final whistle, my Dad included, as they demanded change. Things got better quickly thanks in huge part to my boyhood hero, Tommy Burns. First as a player, then as a manager, Tommy dragged the club back to where they belonged in the Scottish Premier Division. As the club stirred and made its way back up the divisions, my love affair hit an all-time high.
Rugby Park was regularly packed and crackling with atmosphere. For years the average attendance was well over 8,000, including the years spent in the lower divisions. The club was on the up and everyone knew it. We were constantly featured on the TV or radio. There was a buzz around the club and in the town. We may not have been winning trophies on a regular basis like the Old Firm, but the highs far outweighed the lows. I have too many great memories of following Killie during that era to list them all, but there are some moments I have to mention. Beating Ayr Utd on New Year’s Day at Somerset Park regularly, Bobby Williamson’s winning goal at Ibrox, surviving relegation on the last day of the season at Easter Road and then winning the Scottish Cup for the third time in the clubs’ illustrious history.
I watched all of this as a fan on a Saturday and on weekdays, as I sat in a class room probably bored out of my mind, my thoughts would drift and before I knew it I was running out of the smallest tunnel in Scottish football, possibly the world and onto the beautiful grass pitch at Rugby Park. For years, Kilmarnock were renowned for having one of the best playing surfaces in British football. I remember watching the players spray passes across the field effortlessly during the warm up and I yearned to be out there on such a glorious pitch. There was even something about the green pitch especially under the lights that made those blue and white striped jerseys look even more special. Would I ever be able to kick the ball like that, I wondered? My daydream would always end with me scoring a last minute winner and turning to celebrate in front of a packed East Stand. My Dad and all my fellow Killie fans that I had stood beside home and away, looking on and reveling in the fact that one of their own was living the dream.
While this was a daydream, I did everything within my power to try and make it a reality. Unfortunately, my affection was not reciprocated. Killie released me as a 14-year old from their youth team in the most unceremonious manner and then passed up the opportunity to sign me again after a trial period when I left Dumbarton before signing for Sunderland. I never got to live my dream of playing for Kilmarnock, but I instead enjoyed playing and scoring match-winning goals in England for Wolves, Sunderland and Sheffield United.
Despite breaking my heart twice, it has never dampened my love for the club. It was just business. It’s as plain and simple as that. In football we all know the way it works — a coach either fancies you or they don’t. If anything, the rejection fueled my desire to prove people wrong. I always thought the chance to wear a Killie jersey would come again but as I watch from afar, I can see that my dream as a school boy is no longer a possibility. The bottom line is my dearest wife would have something very serious to say about our family leaving the sunshine of Florida for the wind and rain of the west coast of Scotland to join a club where the whole culture and environment I enjoyed so much has been sadly eroded over the years.
No longer is the walk down Rugby Road bustling with thousands of fans strolling up to the stadium in expectant mood and in fine voice belting out “Tommy Burns Blue and White Army.” Now the stadium is embarrassingly empty with little or no atmosphere. When I watch any live games or highlights on TV, it looks like a mid-week reserve game with only a few lonely souls plus friends and family in the crowd. Voices can be heard echoing around the stadium. Long gone are the days of a packed stand to run and share the exhilarating rush off a last-minute winner with.
To add to the apathy and lethargy that surrounds the club, the power brokers have also introduced an artificial pitch. Instead of the beautiful green grass that used to be the envy of many, it has been replaced with a “state of the art” heap of rubbish. As if the product being served up right now is not bad enough, the people “in the know” have managed to make it worse. As a professional player who, since arriving in America, has had to play on various different artificial surfaces, I can tell you categorically that it does not make for better entertainment for the fans, and, at the end of the day, is the game not all about the fans. It is like playing a different sport!
One of the main reasons I came to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies is the glorious grass pitch we get to play on every other week. The surface always allows us to pass the ball quickly and crisply. Our attacking players can dribble and commit defenders at will as the ball glides along the surface. Is this not what fans want to watch? Teams have struggled to cope with our incisive football at home as we have enjoyed a fabulous record of 11 victories, 4 draws and 1 defeat. Compare this to Kilmarnock’s recent home record, which is abysmal to say the least.
Killie currently sit bottom of the SPL on three points after eight matches and have sacked their manager who was only appointed in the summer. After years of dodging relegation almost by default, I fear this year we won’t be so lucky. Everything associated with the club right now is negative. Every journalist or pundit is lining up to take a shot at the board, coaching staff or players. I cannot remember the last time I saw a positive news story about our club. Having said that, the club Twitter did post a nice picture of the players attending a cook school recently! Perhaps serving up something better on the pitch would be of more interest to the fans.
If anything sums up the state of the club right now, it is the fact that my Dad does not go. He has blue and white blood running through his veins. He once told me when I was a young boy that he would go to watch Killie if they were playing on the moon and I never doubted him. I once remember us both heading through to Edinburgh on a freezing cold school night in the middle of the winter to watch the youth team play in a BP Youth Cup tie against Hearts. That’s not quite the moon, but you get the picture. Whilst my Mum thought for a while we were mad, she quickly realised how much it meant to us and before long both her and my sister joined us.
So may I beg the question why is all of this happening? Why are there so many likeminded Killie fans totally disillusioned by the whole club and the way it is run? May I suggest that like most organisations that are failing, the trouble stems from the top? Yes, the club is debt-free and we are grateful for those who helped achieve this. But at what cost? The money men and the leaders (or so-called leaders) of the club strike me as being totally devoid of ideas in terms of what the supporters and the community need and want. Do they really know how to make our club great again and punch way above our weight as the leading provincial club in Scotland? From what I see and hear the clear answer is no.
Is it a co-incidence or good luck that a club like Swansea City are where they are, performing way above their station in life on a consistent basis? Or is it the case that a group of clever directors with an excellent vision and knowledge of football have set out to run their club with a distinct ethos, way of playing etc., that everyone throughout the club buys in to and replicates from tea lady through youth teams to the first team? No prizes for the correct answer, so why do Killie not do likewise?
Killie is at its lowest ebb for a long, long time but the good thing about a club with such tradition and history and deeply loyal fan base is that it can still be turned around. Not perhaps in time to save our Premier League status this year, but to make sure the club can return at the first time of asking and thrive in the Scottish Premier League again.
So what will it take? Firstly, someone in the board room with a plan, a vision, a strategy. Bobby Fleeting was the man responsible for dragging Killie from their doldrums at the bottom of the Scottish Second Division. Right now, I don’t see anybody with the foresight, knowledge or passion for the club striving or capable of doing this. Look at any big club that suffers a fall from grace. Managers get sacked and players get pelters, but the decline starts at the top and this is certainly the case at Killie.
Only after things improve at the top will the manager be able to make an inroad to the pitiful home form and overall team performances and results. As I write this, the manager’s job is vacant and I have no idea who would be the correct appointment under this board and with the current playing staff. One thing I do know is they need someone that can relate to the club. It is not a prerequisite that the manager has played for Killie. Tommy Burns had never played for Killie before he signed. He was a Celtic man through and through, but what endeared him to the fans was as soon as he joined he showed an intense passion for our club. He could see instantly the way the fans cared and through his words and actions he was able to inspire them.
The new manager must have the character and traits to do this along with charisma, bullishness and passion. The Killie faithful used to sing “There’s only one Tommy Burns.” Unfortunately, they were right, God rest his soul, but if we can find someone with the same characteristics as that man, I have no doubt my great club will rise again.