Difficult times at Rugby Park

2nd October 2017

It is not one of the braver predictions to forecast that Celtic will win the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership this season. Aberdeen and Rangers are likely to contest the runners-up place, though the term had a slightly hollow ring to it last season, when Aberdeen finished 30 points behind Celtic. It is also reasonable to assume that the consistently well-organised St Johnstone team will end up fourth (or thereabouts), the position they have reached in each of the last three years.

For the other eight teams in the division – and although they would no doubt publicly set their sights higher – the first priority is to avoid either direct relegation through finishing last or ending up in the penultimate place and facing a hazardous play-off against one of the Championship teams. A finish in the top 6 – also achieved last season by Hearts and Partick Thistle – would represent a distinctly successful season.

That is not to say that, outside the Old Firm and Aberdeen, the Scottish Premiership clubs lack the ambition for winning trophies. Over the course of the last decade, the Scottish Cup has been won not only by St Johnstone, but also by Dundee United, Hearts, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hibernian and so the prospect of lifting some silverware is clearly realistic. But, as far as the league is concerned, the long, gruelling task of autumn and winter is to eke out as many points as possible in order to enter the spring with some optimism.

On Saturday, I went to see two of the likely also-rans – Kilmarnock and RossCounty – battle it out at RugbyPark, where a cash payment of £15 bought me a senior’s seat in the Frank Beattie Stand. On the opposite side of the ground, the front of the roof proudly referenced the home club’s foundation – “Kilmarnock FC 1869” – four years before the formation of the Scottish Football Association, of which it was a founder member.

The further investment of £3 procured an impressive match programme which, in addition to the usual news and comments from the home team’s perspective, included details of the 18 previous encounters between Kilmarnock and RossCounty as well as career summaries of all the players in the visitors’ squad. There was also a fascinating piece on a relatively obscure piece of Scottish football history: the “B” Division Supplementary Cup, which was contested between the second division teams in 5 of the 6 seasons from 1946-47 (although the 1949-50 final between Kilmarnock and Forfar was not held because the clubs could not agree on a suitable date).

Kilmarnock have not been in the second tier of Scottish football for 25 years, but this season is already shaping up to be something of a challenge. Prior to Saturday’s match, they were bottom of the table with 3 draws and 4 defeats from their opening 7 fixtures. For their part, RossCounty – two places and one point above them – had responded earlier in the week to what was obviously considered to be their disappointing start to the season by parting company with their manager, Jim McIntyre, and replacing him with the experienced Owen Coyle.

The 2-0 win for RossCounty was thoroughly deserved. They had forced half a dozen corners and generally held the upper hand with some impressive passing play before a neat header from Craig Curran gave them the lead after 35 minutes. Just before half-time, another extended passing sequence resulted in the left-back Kenny van der Weg finding space in the penalty area to score the second. Kilmarnock brought on their talismanic centre-forward Kris Boyd for the second half and had a period of pressure midway through the period – aided by the bright sunshine streaming into the faces of the visiting defenders – but their opponents held on comfortably. There were perhaps 100 or so visiting supporters in the stand behind Scott Fox’s goal, who no doubt enjoyed their journey back to Dingwall.

Ross County were anchored in midfield by the physical presence of Ross Draper and Jim O’Brien; they have streetwise campaigners in the lively Michael Gardyne and the captain Andrew Davies; Fox is an experienced goalkeeper and Curran led the forward line with energy and commitment. Interestingly, their starting line-up had five players with experience in the lower divisions of the Football League in England.

In some respects, Ross County reminded me of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle team that I had seen play at St Mirren in November 2014 (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator) on their way to winning that season’s Scottish Cup – indeed Draper was a member of that side – though perhaps without the cutting edge provided on that occasion by the young Ryan Christie. I might check out this season’s Cup odds when the fourth round draw is made.

For Kilmarnock, these are difficult times. The referee’s half-time and full-time whistles were accompanied by crescendos of booing from a sizeable proportion of the home supporters in the main stand behind the dugout. As I left the ground, I did wonder what the immediate future might hold for the manager, Lee McCulloch, and, sure enough, it was announced yesterday that he had lost his job.

A rearrangement in the fixture schedule means that, for McCulloch’s replacement, the first 5 league games will be away from home, including trips to Rangers and Celtic. A long and gruelling journey through to spring is indeed in prospect for Kilmarnock FC.

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