My question had been “What’s wrong with Rugby Park?”
“The name for a start!”, was the annoyingly logical reply.
“And, that wee red-roofed covered terracing stuck out by the corner flag. What’s going on there?”, my friend added, clearly less than enamoured with the eccentricities of Killie’s ground.
That was back when Rugby Park, home to Kilmarnock, was one of Scotland’s quirkier football stadiums. Sure, it was neat and tidy with acres of finely manicured emerald green grass. The verdant pitch seemed slightly removed from the fans who were kept a respectful distance from the turf by vast swathes of concreted terracing lazily arcing away towards neat bungalows. There was no towering terracing, no precarious high vantage point to be had.
The stadium housed a cavernous covered terracing along one touchline complete with imposing, almost industrial looking, stubby floodlights on the roof. There was further cover from the elements in the form of a bizarre piece of barely covered terracing perched bending one goal, off centre it seemed tucked away in a corner as if to say “Don’t judge us on this part of ground, it’s a bit of an afterthought, a work in progress. But do come and stand here if you want to be detached from the main buzz”.
That little bit of terracing, known as the Johnnie Walker end, had huge white lettering on a red roof (and remember Killie’s colours were blue and white). It seemed very crude and piecemeal compared to the other Rugby Park structures. But it certainly gave something out of the ordinary to this ‘conservative’ ground, particularly as the main stand was typical of so many in Scotland. Dark, predominantly blue with the almost obligatory ‘enclosure’ down pitchside where, in true Scottish tradition, the most fiercely vocal critics, often men of a certain age, positioned themselves, all the better to berate the players as they entered and left the field. Behind that stand was yet more open, lush grass. Kilmarnock it seemed owned a huge patch of this Ayrshire town.
I liked the old Rugby Park, an impressive oasis of green amidst the tight grid of streets that surrounded the stadium. Tucked away amongst Scottish provincial prosperity it struck me as a good place to watch football. Oh, and the pitch not only looked good but was endorsed by the SFA, who often took the Scotland national team there for training sessions.
In a way it is odd that I found Kilmarnock’s grand old stadium so inviting as my first trip there had been rather hairy. When Scotland had three leagues, the Premier League was alarmingly easy for sides to be relegated from and on one notable occasion it was the mighty Hearts who fell through the relegation trap door. Unthinkable it seemed, the famous Heart of Midlothian reduced to scrapping it out in the second tier.
For some Hearts fans, the scrapping element was taken quite literally. The name Heart of Midlothian might have been distinguished but in the late 1970s some Hearts supporters were anything but. Early in the 1977/78 season a struggling Kilmarnock tackled the newly demoted Hearts amidst a backdrop of continual fighting. The afternoon became an orgy of punch-ups with fans charging at each other seemingly oblivious at times to the game on the pitch and the glorious sunny afternoon. I ended up seeking safety in the distant, uncovered end behind one goal as fans traded blows, and at one point we were offered a close up of an intense wresting match between a wayward Hearts fan and the exasperated police behind the goal.
The Glasgow Herald reporter was not impressed by these boisterous shenanigans and noted that he (for it was always male football reporters in those days) had witnessed an afternoon of continual ‘skirmishing’ – a word I think you would be unlikely to come across in today’s paper. It was a sour afternoon and I’m pretty sure that not long after this grounds in Scotland became formally segregated. Oh, and the match ended 1-1.
Fast-forward to a balmy summer evening a decade later and I had quite a different experience at Rugby Park. An evening when you felt you were in on something special. The wily Tommy McLean, who had once been a star Kilmarnock player, was the Motherwell manager who lured Davie Cooper from Rangers to deepest-darkest Lanarkshire. I trotted along to witness the great maestro make his Motherwell debut in a Skol League Cup tie at Kilmarnock and along with 4 or 5 thousand others was treated to a sumptuous display of open, exciting football. Kilmarnock I’m afraid was merely the stage to a Motherwell renaissance.
It was mid-August and one of those rare Scottish languid, summer evenings. In a big sparsely populated ground like Rugby Park you could sit down on the terracing and enjoy a match as I imagine you might in Italy or Spain. As a pleasant evening unfolded it was clear that the majestic Cooper was going to be a huge hit for Motherwell. Tommy McLean, taciturn but talented, was constructing a very good Motherwell side with players of the calibre of Stevie Kirk and Bobby Russell. Purposeful, direct and entertaining a 4-1 romp for the ‘Well correctly hinted at better things on the horizon. They may not have been able to compete with the Old Firm but this Motherwell side were destined to be tricky customers indeed.
Cooper with his in-built footballing genius, his probing passes, his dead-ball accuracy always posed a threat, whilst the slightly built Russell was the master of precision and seemed unable to waste a pass or possession. I still have the odd square programme from that match, Killie having at long last moved on from their little pocket sized offering that carried what was fairly described by programme enthusiasts as minimalist information.
Kilmarnock were bit-players again when they hosted Hibernian in a 2001 Scottish Cup tie. A goal with a minute remaining by Tom McManus catapulted Hibs towards another fruitless tilt at landing the Scottish Cup but in the moment the win was a great example of the drama that football occasionally does so well. That evening the colours within Rugby Park positively sparkled, aided by the bright floodlights, the shimmering electronic scoreboard, and the green of the massed Hibs fans colours contrasted neatly with the Killie blue to give a warm backdrop. As the winning goal hit the net there was a delayed reaction before the Hibs fans roar filled the evening sky. Under the lights the new look Rugby Park was rather impressive looking, certainly more so than the likes of Motherwell’s Fir Park where the old had given way to the new in a jumble of structures that had considerably less style or togetherness.
As a boy, desperately obsessed with football, Kilmarnock had a magic and mystery about them. They had won the league in 1965, their Esso foil badge had squirrels on it, their name started and ended with the same letter ‘K’, and they were a football club who bizarrely played at Rugby Park. What wasn’t there to like about this grand old club and Rugby Park.