Wednesday 22 January 2020

Winning the League by 0.04 of a Goal: Remembering When Kilmarnock Became Champions of Scotland

All the odds were stacked against Kilmarnock or so it seemed. To pip Heart of Midlothian to the Scottish Football League Division One title, they had beat their title rivals away from home by at least a 2-0 scoreline without conceding. This was thanks to the Edinburgh club's superior goal average as Hearts went into the final match of season two points ahead of them in an era when teams were awarded only two points for a win. For Hearts, what would be a third title in eight seasons seemed almost a given, for Kilmarnock, a first ever league title seemed improbable. But could the unlikely happen? Might the boys from Ayrshire actually make history?

Having been relegated in the first season of Scottish football when it resumed after the second world war, Kilmarnock Football Club spent the next seven seasons in the second division which until 1955 was known as Scottish League Division B. Although the club had spent most of their pre-war history in the top flight they had generally finished mid table or bottom half and two fifth placed finishes at the turn of the century were the highest they'd ever managed in the top division. Scottish Cup runners up in 1898, two semi finals, the last of which coming in 1907, were the closest they'd came to glory in all other seasons. Kilmarnock were not traditionally a big name club and certainly had never challenged the big two Old Firm sides in any meaningful way. As the 1960s dawned, however, things were beginning to look up for Killie. The clubs first season back in the top flight in 1954-55 had seen them finish 10th whilst finishes of 8th, 3rd, 5th, and then 8th again followed in what was those days an 18 team league, and that was just the beginning!

Kilmarnock's rise in the 1960s did not come through acquiring top names. Managed by Willie Waddell who took charge in 1957, Killie were a team of mostly Scottish born players and featured very few internationals with many of their squad one club players. Few went on to become big names at the larger clubs, with Tommy McLean who made his Killie debut, aged 17, in 1964 probably the only exception. McLean went on to win a host of titles and cups at Glasgow Rangers including the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1972 and a domestic treble in 1975-76. Players such as defenders Jackie McGrory and Andy King, however, never played for anyone else and both would play a vital role in the club's success without ever being snapped up by bigger name rivals. McGrory, an ever present in the team who between August 1962-December 1964 did not miss a single game, was by some considered the finest ever centre half to have played for the club whilst King would go on to play 21 times for Kilmarnock in European competitions to this day still a club record.

Despite the lack of big names Kilmarnock did, however, develop a solid defensive team who for much of the early to mid 60s were conceding on average barely more than a goal a game and several seasons conceded fewer than anyone else in the whole division. This strong defensive unit certainly paid dividends as the club started the decade with four second placed finishes in five seasons with the first of those seeing Killie finish one solitary point behind champions Rangers. Kilmarnock over this period could have easily been given the tag of nearly men and to emphasise this point over that same period they also lost 3 cup finals, one Scottish Cup final and two League Cup deciders. One can assume, then, that those involved with the club were rather keen to shake off the bridesmaid tag when the 1964-65 season got underway...

Kilmarnock started their 64-65 league campaign in tremendous style with six straight wins and, opening with a 3-1 home win over Third Lanark, Killie did not lose a league match until December 12 when they were beaten 5-1 away at Greenock Morton. Kilmarnock found themselves with only one league defeat to their name come Christmas with 12 wins and four draws from their opening 17 games. Once again defence had been the key - Kilmarnock had only conceded 14 goals in those opening 17 matches and five of them had come in one match. If they were going to finally swap the runners up position for a league championship then this season would surely have to be the one. 

Yes, McGrory, King, and Matt Watson were formidable in defence during that first half of the season but up front Ronnie Hamilton had also been a key player too scoring ten goals before Christmas. Jackie MacInally had also scored seven with others such as Jim McFadzean chipping in as well. Hamilton would never have as big a long term impact at the club as some of the others, and indeed he was sold part way through the following season, but his goals in the first half of 64-65 were priceless.

Kilmarnock, however, had not been the only team in fine form. Before losing 3-1 to Killie in their final match before Christmas, Hearts had actually led the table having been unbeaten all season so far. It was Killie, though, who would find themselves in pole position once the Christmas and New Year period were out the way. Boxing Day and New Year's Day saw Third Lanark and St Mirren both hammered 4-0 by Kilmarnock as they romped to the top of table and Hearts relinquished their lead in the title race.

Things were going swimmingly for Kilmarnock but it would not last as after New Year's Day the club lost four out of their next five league games and dreams of the title seemed to once again be slipping away. Killie then won three and lost one of their next four before two draws followed, and with Hearts beginning to drop points themselves a now inconsistent Kilmarnock were just about keeping their heads above water in the title race. All was not completely lost then. 

An astonishing 7-1 home defeat for Hearts against Dundee in February and the 1-0 defeat away at Motherwell that followed were supervened by five straight victories before a draw and a win took them into the final game of the season. For Kilmarnock, meanwhile, seven victories out of six preluded their final game meaning despite those post festive period setbacks they found themselves only two points behind a table topping Hearts side going into that final weekend of the season. In what is still to date the only season in the whole history of Scottish football where Celtic and Rangers finished outside the top four, it was either Ayrshire or the maroon half of Edinburgh where the title was heading.

Kilmarnock's opponents in that final game of the season? None other than Hearts themselves! A massive title decider was on the cards! A win for Killie away at their Edinburgh based opponents would see the pair level on points but Hearts' superior goal average, used at the time to separate teams level on points, meant Kilmarnock would need to win the game at least 2-0 and not concede to secure the title. Dividing goals scored by goals conceded in what was known as goal average meant a 3-1 or 4-2 win for Kilmarnock would see Hearts win the title but a 2-0 scoreline for the visitors would secure them the title for themselves. With the mathematics seemingly far more complicated than under the current widely used system of goal difference it made KIlmarnock's task arguably even harder than it would at first sight nowadays seem. For many, it looked like Kille had no chance at all!

28 April 1965 was Kilmarnock's day of destiny but the build up to the game was unusually low key. McLean who lived closer to Edinburgh than Kilmarnock was able to make his own way to the game and was told to arrive only one hour before kick-off - this for the arguably the biggest game in the clubs history! 

More than 36000 spectators were present at Hearts' Tynecastle home and Kilmarnock looking for those vital two goals found themselves ahead in the 26th minute to the dismay of most of those fans. McLean found Davie Sneddon at the far post and Sneddon was able to head the ball home. Boom, 1-0 Killie. 1-0 rather quickly became 2-0 and the visitors were in dreamland. Brian McIlroy received a pass from Bertie Black on the edge of the box, and despite Hearts appealing for offside, smashed a brilliant left footed drive into the far corner of the net.

2-0 was the half-time score and both teams were on the offensive in the second period, but Hearts only needed one goal and Killie could not afford to concede. Ronald Jenson hit the post for the home side early on and the tension was palpable. McLean came close to grabbing a third for Killie but it wasn't to be whilst for the home side an Alan Gordon miss is still talked about today. In truth, however, Bobby Ferguson in the Killie goal made a fantastic save. That Gordon effort was the last real chance of the game, Killie's defence held firm and the match finished 2-0, Kilmarnock had done it! The home side was despondent but the visitors were jubilant, Willie Waddell raced onto the pitch and was jumping for joy amongst his ecstatic players. Kilmarnock had won their first ever league title and managed it against all the odds - or in goal average terms by 0.04 of a goal!

Thousands of locals lined the streets of Kilmarnock as the team coach made it's way back to the club's Rugby Park ground and the town turned into one big party. The team had finally shaken off their runners up tag but having said that, a decade or so earlier fans of the small town club would probably have never imagined their team could finish runners up let alone win the title!

The following season Kilmarnock dropped down to third whilst a couple of seventh placed finishes followed, the team began to struggle and in 1972-73, some nine seasons after that title triumph, the team were relegated from the top flight having finished second bottom. The club has never come anywhere near the title since and after finishing third in 1965-66 did not finish that high again until last season when they finished third in the Premiership, albeit some 20 points behind champions Glasgow Celtic.

Despite never coming close to winning the league again, the 1960s did almost see one last moment of glory when the club reached the semi finals of a European competition in 1966-67. Having in 1964 famously beaten Eintracht Frankfurt 5-4 on aggregate in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup after a stunning 5-1 home win, the club were then defeated 6-1 on aggregate by Everton, whilst the following season Real Madrid knocked them out of the European Cup with a 7-3 aggregate scoreline. Their most successful European campaign, however, came a season later when they again participated in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Belgian side Royal Antwerp were hammered 7-1 at home in an 8-2 aggregate victory before fellow Belgians La Gantoise were beaten 3-1 on aggregate which was followed by a 2-1 aggregate victory over East German side Lokomotive Leipzig to see Kilmarnock reach the semi final stage. Leeds United would be the opposition. 24831 were in attendance for the second leg at Rugby Park but having lost the first leg 4-2 the resulting 0-0 draw was not enough to see them progress to the final. 

Those were the glory days for Kilmarnock Football Club but, as has been mentioned, they did not last long. On one triumphant Edinburgh afternoon in 1965, however, Killie became champions of that wee nation north of the border and boy did it feel good. Yes, it must be pointed out that if goal difference had have been used as opposed to goal average then Hearts would have won the crown instead, but we should not let that detract from what was a famous afternoon for Kilmarnock that gloriously brought to an end what was an incredible season. This a season the like of which Kilmarnock will more than likely never see again. 


  1. Fascinating. I knew they had won the league but did not realise so many near misses.

  2. Aye they did well for a few years. Interesting stuff to research.