I stood after the defeat by Kilmarnock at Hampden in the Semi Final of the Cup in 2012 and shook my head. The team that I have supported as a boy had managed to get to the national stage against their biggest rivals and rolled over. It wasn’t just losing that hurt, it was the manner in which they lost.
That is perhaps not fair. Ayr had produced one of those performances that got victories at Parkhead against Barca and Walter Smith a UEFA Cup Final place; except Ayr had done it with SFL players and not SPL standards.
We were not bitterly disappointed – much – but licked our wounds and headed back home to see if we could manage to stay in the First Division. We could not. Relegation was confirmed when another whimper came against Airdrie United – the jammiest team in the whole damn town who lost the final but still got a 3rd promotion to the First Division thanks to someone’s financial incompetence (allegedly).
The summer looked bleak as Ayr United, once again, were headed to the Second Division. The manager at the time, Brian Reid, then fell on a sword that was in a mutually agreed position and we had a new manager to welcome; a legend. Even more so as he had been brought to the club by Reid and had converted the faithful through his stellar performances having been the worst of the worst; a Killie player!
Mark Roberts had been with us going up, coming down, going back up again and then stayed with us on our return to the Second Division. It was a rookie manager… Like Ray Montgomerie, Paul Sheerin, Paul Hartley, Jackie McNamara… get the picture? So far, on paper at least it doesn’t seem to have worked out so well.
The team that played in that semi final has been broken up and whilst we may mourn the passing of another great opportunity to have our cake and eat it by beating our near neighbours I wonder if what we saw was the passing not only of a team that was not able to take a third SPL scalp that season in the cup but also the removal of the shackles of the past.
Brian Reid deserves credit for taking on a team that was faltering following the Neil Watt era. He saved them from the ignominy of the third division, took us up via the play offs the following year and then played see saw between first and second. For many supporters it was not good enough and seeing the back of him was well trailed on message boards and internet forums. Right now many of them would swap being in 8th in the second division for having to watch the rot they saw at Hampden. Unfair? I think so.
Mark Roberts took on a relegated team with the player budget slashed. The idea was that this new rookie manager was going to be able to invest in half a dozen seasoned pros that would have the best of the youth players in their ranks regularly. This was to be a team sitting pretty on top of a youth set up Brian had, in the eyes of the coaches, disparaged and felt not good enough. Now was their chance.
Falkirk have shown us that it can be done but they were hardly the first. Hamilton, Hibernian, both Celtic and Rangers as well as a plethora of other less lauded teams have put together youth squads plundered by bigger teams. Grassroots football is still surviving the predicted Armageddon of this season. For Roberts this was always going to be a long hard season and one in which he should make all his mistakes. There shall be no margin for error again.
Marko hit a problem firstly in the keeper’s position. Kevin Cuthbert is now a regular at first division Hamilton Academical so a replacement was sought. The back up Ryan Williams was recently released by Albion Rovers and early on it was clear Marko wanted new blood. It took time but Ally Brown has made the role his own. The search for the right guy went on a bit too long for many and that may have had an unsettling effect on the team.
Defence has always been an injury prone area for the club. This season the major pros Martyn Campbell and John Robertson have been major injury prone defenders. Campbell is once again out long-term – refusing payment whilst he is not playing; Robbo has had prolonged period on the treatment table. One player they could rely on with a mature head on young shoulders was Chris Smith. Junior is now at Falkirk but has just rejoined the club on loan until the end of the season. The hope was that Austin McCann and Marc Twaddle would provide support but neither have found Ayrshire heather very ignitable. It has meant that Darren Brownlie and Adam Hunter have been drafted in to support the likes of Jackson Longridge, Alan Murdoch and Kyle McAusland who are the young lads upon whose shoulders much will depend. As well as Smith back at the club Neil McGregor has been signed on loan from Dundee till the end of the season. The defence needs to now stand up and be counted!
The two other defenders in that semi final team – Eddie Malone and Jonathon Tiffoney – are away. Malone ended up at Raith Rovers very early on in the summer signatures – so early John McGlynn signed him!
The story of young Tiff is altogether another story. He is still on the AUFC website as a player. If you go looking on Alloa’s you will see him announced as an amateur signing. Tiff burst on the scene from the Ayr United Football Academy though his early development had been outwith Ayr’s Academy. Brian Reid always claimed it was he who spotted him. No matter who did he came to the Academy, blossomed and got into the first team. He went further than that and got into a Scotland squad. Rumour has it that after that camp for the national team, Tiff was a different person. Reid dropped him more often than not and the young lad clearly felt he needed to prove himself all over again. A few decent performances and the time came for him to sign on for season 2012/13. Depending upon who you talk to, he was ill-advised by his agent, went to Dundee who wanted him for the first division, they got promoted to the SPL, dropped their interest and Tiff didn’t want to sign on again for Ayr. As Ayr held his registration and he was under 23 they felt they were due compensation under the rules of the game and retained it. If clubs wanted Tiff they would have to pay for Tiff. He felt forced out the game because he was unable to get signed anywhere because he came with an automatic price tag. The question many have asked is why did he not just sign back on, get some games under his belt and make himself a move in January? Tiff answered that through a national newspaper – why play for a club that doesn’t want you and a manger that snubs you, he claimed. It all has to end sometime though!
In midfield, Marko now ahs an issue with a midfield maestro signing back on then getting himself long-term injured. Mickey McGowan was a revelation for the club last year but all that has been revealed this season is that he wasn’t going to feature much after pre season. During the last season, Jamie McKernon had come on loan as had two lads from Blackpool – Adam Dodd and Liam Tomsett. Loan deals finished at the summer so Marko looked around but then saw Andy Geggan off to Dunfermline Athletic whilst Alan Trouten went off to Brechin City. To be fair Trouts had endured a bit of a torrid time as the support had become less than convinced about him. Recently he cannot stop scoring for Brechin in the Second! The midfield needed rebuilt.
In came Davie Sinclair and Ryan McStay. Both on paper looked decent signings and Sinclair has been the major find with goals coming from his toes regularly. Around them Marko was forced youthful with Anthony Merenghi, Darren McGill, Aaron Wylie, Mark Shankland and Robbie Crawford. There are a few in there who should be worth a look at in the future and whilst Shankland has played for the national squad Crawford is the one most mentioned week in, week out. January saw Marko sign ex rangers and Maybole Junior player, Mark Donald till the end of the season.
Up front, now that ought to be where Marko plays a blinder. Michael Moffat was so good, he was on fire. This year he has been one of the brighter spots as he has provided some cheer with goals to keep some of the Somerset faithful happy. It has been one area where they have struggled. Young lads Ross Robertson and Roddy Paterson – another two young players – have gone to the Juniors, Robertson on loan at Glenafton till the end of the season and Paterson to Troon permanently. Signed in January, Liam Buchanan comes to the club with heavy expectation upon his shoulders.
The squad is radically altered from last year. The major changes from Reid’s time have included a new the reliance on youth from within the club; a new fitness and training regime; and an attempt to get away from loan players. All of this has boiled down to one reality; money. There will always be concerns over the cash flow of an SFL side that is under performing and Ayr United have no God given right to be in the SPL or even the First Division but the club believes it ought to be somewhere in that mix. Recently the cartoon supporter Somerset Boab started selling CDs to raise funds for players. He was due to hand over £1,500 at a home game that got postponed. Thank God it did; on that day through Facebook he got past the £15,000 barrier and is now heading towards a £25,000 fund!
The other difference from Reid’s time would appear to be that Marko is setting down the future and not trying to retain the status of being in whatever league people thinks he should be in. Marko made it publicly known that he wanted players to train with a ball at their feet and they needed to buy into the philosophy of football on the deck. In the main we see that. Unfortunately when the backs are right against the wall the ball gets punted and the punters get frustrated. Youth is the ONLY way for teams in the SFL to develop. The older players can be the backbone but the flesh has to be grown at home. If not financial ruin is on the agenda.
Loan players were wrongly blamed for Ayr falling out of the First Division the first season Reid attempted to keep us up. There were far more reasons than just that for our failure to stay in the First. But the taking of scraps from the SPL table because we are skint will stop – it has to! Nobody can afford to take on the wages of a big youth player whilst they have young players kicking their heels on the training ground. It is not right and it is not fair. Teams are grown they are not thrown together and one of the major criticisms of the past few years is the mercenary nature of players. They no longer have loyalty. Of the current Ayr team there are plenty with long records. Most of them however got that longevity through the youth ranks. Building teams and philosophies works. It won’t always work first time as it has at Alloa or at Arbroath or Queen of the South. Part time teams do not always have to end up with the scraps at the end of the tables though Cowdenbeath, Airdrie United and Dumbarton are struggling to