Sunday 6 June 2021

Winning the League by 0.04 of a Goal (Revised Piece As Seen In Late Tackle Magazine)

The following piece recently featured in Late Tackle magazine (Issue 73 April/May 2021) and is an updated/amended version of an article I wrote, and posted on this blog, at the beginning of last year.

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, used at the time to separate teams level on points, as Hearts went into the final match of season two points ahead of Killie in an era when teams were still awarded only two points for a win. For Hearts, what would be a third top flight 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?

Kilmarnock's rise to prominence in the 1960s did not come through acquiring top names. Managed by Willie Waddell who took charge in 1957, the club that started the decade having never won a league championship were a team of mostly Scottish born players with many of their squad one club players but very few of them internationals. 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. 

McGrory, King, and Matt Watson were mainstays in that formidable defence but up front Ronnie Hamilton had also been a key player too, scoring ten goals before the Christmas festivities began. 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 none other than Kilmarnock themselves in their final match before Christmas, Hearts had also been unbeaten all season up to that point and despite that defeat, they were still joint top. Dunfermline Athletic and Hibernian were not far behind but would eventually fade away. Rangers and Glasgow Celtic, meanwhile, were both well off the pace and indeed 1964-65 would end up being to date the only season in the whole history of Scottish football that both Old Firm clubs have finished outside the top four. 

Although things had been going swimmingly for Kilmarnock their excellent form would not last as after New Year's Day the club lost four out of their next five league games. For the pessimist, dreams of title perhaps might have seemed to be slipping away from them, however, Hearts lost twice in two days at the beginning of January so although they would lead the table come the end of the month it was not as big a lead as it could have been. 

After three straight wins followed their two defeats, Hearts then dropped more points with a draw against Rangers in mid February sandwiched between defeats to St Mirren and Dundee, the latter a humiliating 7-1 home loss. Kilmarnock were now just a couple of points behind them having started winning again. 

Following that astonishing loss to Dundee, Hearts then managed five straight victories before a draw and then another win took them into the final game of the season. For Kilmarnock, meanwhile, seven victories out of six preluded their final match meaning they found themselves still two points behind a table topping Hearts side going into that final weekend of the season.

It was either Ayrshire or the maroon half of Edinburgh where the title was heading. Kilmarnock or Hearts for the championship and who were their respective opponents on the final day of the season? None other than each other! Yes, a massive title decider was on the cards! 

A win for Killie away in Edinburgh would see the pair level on points but Hearts' superior goal average 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 clinch the title but a 2-0 scoreline for the visitors would secure 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 arguably the biggest game in the club's history! 

More than 36,000 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 effort that almost went in is still talked about today. In truth, however, Bobby Ferguson in the Killie goal made a fantastic save to keep Gordon's effort out. That was the last real chance of the game as Killie's defence held firm and the match finished 2-0. Kilmarnock had done it! The home side were 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 long term the success would not continue.

The following season Kilmarnock lost 7-3 to Real Madrid in the first round of the European Cup and never building on that league championship success would not win the title again, in fact, nine seasons after that triumph they would end up being relegated! Although relegation was just a blip and the club have mostly been a top flight side in the years since, they have not exactly been a very successful one. The club followed up their lone title win with a third placed finish next time around but would fail to manage that feat again until 2019 more than 50 years later and even then found themselves 20 points behind Champions Celtic. 

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