The Only Way is Ayrshire

By Hitthebyline’s Rangers Opinion Columnist, Ewan McQueen

Seeing is believing - Killie overcame the odds

Scottish football fans have long endured Glasgow and Edinburgh as the purveyors of footballing product for many years, but this season, perhaps another region in our ‘wee nation’ merits a note.

Despite my love for Rangers, I can’t help but feel a little proud this season to hail from Ayrshire.

Ayrshire’s two ‘big clubs’, Kilmarnock and 1st division outfit Ayr United have had seasons that I’d describe as nothing short of remarkable. Despite their bitter rivalry, it’s fair comment to praise the progress that both clubs have made this season.

The pair of course met in the Scottish League Cup semi-finals this season. Kilmarnock may have went on to win the game 1-0 to reach the final (more on that later), but for both teams to get this far was a magnificent achievement in itself. Kenny Shiels’ Kilmarnock hadn’t reached this stage since they made the 2007 final, while Brian Reid’s Ayr United hadn’t reached the last four since they made it through to the final in 2002.

Ayr fans may have been gutted coming back down the road to Ayrshire, but the game showed off the passion amongst Ayrshire football supporters. 25,000 of them made the trip to Hampden and the atmosphere was electric throughout with both sets of supporters getting right behind their teams.

In the build-up to the game, my Facebook ‘newsfeed’ was filled for weeks with comments about the match, which showed how great the rivalry and indeed the spectacle was.

I’m not suggesting that the rivalry is up there with the derby matches in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but there can be no doubting friendships go out the window on a day of a Kilmarnock V Ayr game.

Kilmarnock did have a fairly comfortable route through to facing Ayr, beating lower league teams Queen of the South and East Fife. But you can only beat what is put in front of you and Kenny Shiels made sure that his team didn’t suffer any shocks.

However, that paled in comparison with Ayr’s run in order to face their Ayrshire rivals. Brian Reid’s men are a part-time side but completed three superb victories over top division sides Inverness, Hearts and St Mirren.

Their football may have not been the prettiest, but it was certainly effective. And although they were criticised by Shiels for their performance in the semi-final, it almost worked a treat. To hold an SPL team with far greater resources for 109 minutes of a Hampden semi-final was something to admire.

And something else to admire was Kilmarnock reaching the final. It was the first time they had done it in five years and only the fourth time they had reached a domestic cup final in the last 15 years.

Not many football fans including, let alone Kilmarnock fans, gave Killie much hope of winning the League Cup Final against Celtic. Neil Lennon’s men had been on a great run of form domestically having not lost since 2nd October.

Kilmarnock on the other hand had been inconsistent all season and sat in the bottom half of the SPL before the game. They were also without their inspirational captain Manuel Pascali who had broken his leg, days after the victory over Ayr.

But less than two weeks ago, Kilmarnock won the League Cup for the first time in their history, thanks to a solitary goal by Belgian striker Dieter Van Tornhout. Goalkeeper Cammy Bell also produced a world-class performance to deny Celtic on many occasions.

The aftermath was tinged with sadness following the death of Kilmarnock midfielder Liam Kelly’s father but the town still came out to celebrate the glorious achievement afterwards. It was Kilmarnock’s first trophy in 15 years and their brand of passing football had been richly rewarded.

Their brand of passing football has also seen them achieve many memorable SPL results this season, most notably two victories over Rangers. Back in November they became the first SPL team to beat Ally McCoist’s men thanks to a late goal from Manuel Pascali and then in February they stunned the sell-out Ibrox crowd by beating them by the same scoreline again.

Kilmarnock may currently be 7th in the table with only a remote chance of reaching the top 6, but that does deserve to be praised. Many pundits tipped them to go down at the start of the season but there has never been any danger of that. Players such as Dean Shiels, Cammy Bell and Pascali have been very consistent all season. Kenny Shiels hasn’t spent long in the Scottish game, but this hasn’t stopped him winning many plaudits, and standing an outside chance of winning manager of the year.

Ayr United have toiled as the season has gone on, despite their bravery, willingness to attack, great record against SPL clubs, and overall lack of resource. They currently sit 8th in the table, and look likely to hold on to 1st division status this year. Remaining financially prudent generally, despite being a part-time club is a formidable feat.

Killie, with Shiels at the helm have been galvanised and continue to punch above their weight, proving to be a tough customer for the very top clubs in Scotland. If Ayr are to fulfil the potential they’ve shown, they must continue to take a leaf out of the book of their rivals. They are capable, and there’s no doubting that the SPL has been a stronger and more attractive league with Kilmarnock playing the way they are.

As a local, I always like to see both Ayrshire teams do well. It is good for the local economy, the people of the towns, and has created a buzz for football again in this area. It just goes to show that Scottish football doesn’t need a complicated masterplan to get back to it’s best, just the right people in the right places, some attacking football, and a bit of belief.

Let’s hope they finish the season in style and give some of the nation’s other struggling football areas some food for thought next season.


Kenny Shiels: A shot in the arm for the SPL

By Ewan McQueen

Hitthebyline’s Ewan McQueen reveals why he thinks Kilmarnock boss Kenny Shiels has impacted positively in more ways than one on the Scottish game.


The man in question – Killie boss, Kenny Shiels

Since filling the void left by the inimitable Mixu Paatelainen at Killie, an unlikely cult hero in Kenny Shiels has emerged, and has scarcely been away from the headlines.

Things didn’t look good at the start for Shiels, as the Northern Irishman failed to win any of his 8 games as caretaker manager of the Ayrshire club. Many doubted whether he even had it in him to carry on the Finn’s good work.

However, this season he has dragged his team by the scruff of the neck up to 6th position in the table, and has made many shrewd signings including his own son Dean, whilst at the same time retaining the easy-on-the-eye style of play introduced by his predecessor.

To put the icing on the cake for the Rugby Park faithful, he has also led Kilmarnock to their first cup final in five years, as his men now prepare to lock horns with the might of Neil Lennon’s Celtic on March 18th.

But there’s much more to Shiels than just his success on the pitch. As a wavering SPL continues to face the ever-present danger of becoming stagnant, Shiels has introduced a colourful personality to the league at just the right time, and his comments that have landed him in hot water are undoubtedly a breath of fresh air, regardless of whether you agree with him or not. I feel the strong criticism he’s had is completely wrong. Infact, his honesty is a quality that should be admired.

Until recently the Northern Irishman hadn’t really got involved in any spats with fellow managers.

Instead, he went about re-building the Kilmarnock team who had lost some real quality in terms of Conor Sammon, Craig Bryson and Alexi Eremenko in the previous two transfer windows.

But in the past few weeks Shiels has been involved in many disagreements that have threatened to overshadow the football on the pitch. The first of these came to light in the aftermath of Kilmarnock’s 1-0 win over their rivals Ayr United in the League Cup Semi Final.

Despite requiring extra-time to beat the first division side, Shiels’s side were utterly dominate throughout, having an incredible 31 shots on goal and also enjoying 69% of the possession.

Afterwards, many criticised the Kilmarnock manager for showing a lack of disrespect towards Brian Reid’s men by saying only one side had tried to win the game and said it would have been a travesty if his side hadn’t won the game.

But in my eyes, Shiels was well within his rights to say what he liked about the Ayr side. Despite being a part-time club, Ayr had already beaten Inverness, Hearts and St Mirren on their way to Hampden.

This was a game in which Ayr played for penalties, which when it was a derby game and a chance to return to Hampden was nothing short of disgraceful in my eyes.

All Shiels did was being honest about the standard of his opponents in the game. More managers should be like this rather than trying to be nice to all.

Shiels had just seen his side rack up 31 shots and enjoy 69% of the possession. In my eyes, Shiels was entirely justified to say only one side tried to win the game.

The following week Shiels and Kilmarnock found themselves on the wrong end of a 1-0 Scottish Cup defeat to Hibs. Afterwards, Shiels had a pop at Hibs goalkeeper Graham Stack who he said had held onto the ball for long periods of the game.

Some said he was having a moan for the sake of having a moan. But he had every right to be aggrieved. Stack had clearly timewasted during the game, and this is something that should be clamped down on by referees.

Instead of being lambasted, Shiels should have been praised for his honesty.

And now on to his biggest spat (so far). His argument with Hearts boss Paulo Sergio last week threatened to spill over into something akin to World War 3. And it certainly seems it won’t be ending anytime soon.

Once again, I really enjoyed Shiels’s honesty. He merely put himself in Sergio’s shoes and said he would stand up to Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov over his handling of the team.

For Sergio to label the Northern Irishman a “clown” was absolutely laughable.

The Portuguese man was the manager who was the clown when he refused to shake Shiels’s hand not once but twice when they played at Rugby Park last weekend. And then Sergio had an altercation with Dean Shiels at the final whistle, which again showed his immaturity.

So let’s hear it for Kenny Shiels; a man whose positivity and honesty has been a breath of fresh air for Scottish football.

Let’s hope it continues for a long time yet.

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