Better Times at Rugby Park

22nd January 2018

In Difficult Times at Rugby Park (2nd October 2017), I reported on the Kilmarnock versus RossCounty fixture in the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership that I had attended on the last day of September. The visitors had deservedly won – 2-0 – and I remarked that they had 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 William Hill Scottish Cup. I made a note to check out the bookmakers’ odds when the top-tier teams entered this season’s competition in January.

For Kilmarnock, things had not looked so promising. The referee’s half-time and full-time whistles had been accompanied by crescendos of booing from a sizeable proportion of the home supporters in the main stand. The manager – Lee McCulloch – had been relieved of his post the following day. I had concluded that “a long and gruelling journey through to Spring” was in prospect for the Ayrshire club.

But what do I know? In the subsequent 3½ months, Kilmarnock – under the new manager, the experienced Steve Clarke – have won 6 and drawn 5 of their 13 league fixtures and risen to sixth in the table. By contrast, RossCounty have won only 2 games out of 14 and slipped to bottom place, three points behind the side above them, Partick Thistle.

As promised, I duly checked out the bookmakers’ assessments prior to the 4th Round of the Scottish Cup – with the Premiership teams now included – being played this weekend. One of the fixtures was Kilmarnock versus RossCounty at RugbyPark. Their odds on lifting the trophy this season were 33 to 1 and 40 to 1, respectively.

On Saturday, following a soup and sandwich in the internet café in King Street and a 20 minute walk to the ground along the icy pavements, I took my place in the same seat of the Frank Beattie Stand that I had occupied in September. The seats along from me were taken by two middle-aged women with their young sons, one of whom – aged about 7 or 8 – was on my immediate right.

The atmosphere was much more supportive of the home team that it had been on my previous visit. The Kilmarnock support clearly included the boy next to me, whom I assumed to have been on a sugar-rich diet, as he anticipated the kick-off by repeatedly jumping up and down and clapping and shouting. His activity level then seemed to rise a couple of notches after the game had started. When his mother asked if he was disturbing me, I took the opportunity to suggest that they swap seats, which she kindly did. She asked me to let her know if she herself starting bouncing up and down; I then made a reciprocal request.

It was a close-fought match. Both sides were well-organised and sound in defence allowing few chances to be created; both were wasteful of possession at crucial times. Kilmarnock did hit the post in the first half and, after the interval, RossCounty’s best move of the match created the opportunity for an unopposed close-range header from Jason Naismith, which he duly guided wide of the goal. The game drifted towards what seemed to be its inevitable stalemated closure and a replay on Tuesday evening. “They played better against Rangers” – a recent 2-1 victory – said my neighbour.

And then, as so often happens with football matches, we had five minutes of drama at the end of the tie. In the 87th minute, the Kilmarnock midfielder, Rory McKenzie, attempted to reach a floated pass in the visitors’ penalty area. In my line of sight, he was running away across the six-yard box with the RossCounty player, Tim Chow, in attendance. McKenzie stumbled as the ball bounced away off his outstretched foot and went past the post. The referee, Bobby Madden, pointed to the penalty spot and issued a red card to Chow. The Kilmarnock substitute, Lee Erwin, converted the kick. The crowd – led by the woman to my right – roared its approval.

There was still time for the 10-man RossCounty to mount a rescue attempt. The stadium clock had stopped at 90 minutes when, showing rather more urgency than hitherto to get the ball into the Kilmarnock penalty area, the visitors forced a corner. The incoming kick was headed on by County’s goalkeeper, Aaron McCarey – pressed into service by the circumstances as an auxiliary (and unlikely) attacking weapon – and saved on the line by the sprawling Jamie MacDonald in the Kilmarnock goal. McCarey furiously protested to referee Madden that the ball had crossed the line; Madden responded by blowing the final whistle.

And so the revival of Kilmarnock FC continues. They have been drawn at home against a Highland League side – Brora Rangers – in the next round of the Cup. Compared with the occasion of my previous visit, these are better times at Rugby Park.

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