Kilmarnock FC – Rugby Park

Jason McDermott woke up on a Thursday morning just as he does every week. However, this was no ordinary Thursday morning. He stumbled into the bathroom in his upmarket hotel in central Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. The labourer from Irvine was nursing a slightly heavy head from drinking copious amounts of Jelen the night before. He knew he’d be fine. Numerous trips to Motherwell and Inverness following his beloved Killie had trained him well for an extended weekend on the keg. He was an experienced campaigner.

It was the day of the big match, it was 28 degrees and the sun was beating down. He was enjoying a few more beers to ‘top himself up’ before embarking on a private booze cruise that his fellow Kilmarnock fans had organised down the Danube river. This was booked weeks beforehand and had all been paid for. Jason loved being organised; just ask his mates.

His father – a season ticket holder at Rugby Park since around 1962 – had long regaled Jason with stories of when he travelled across Europe watching the Scottish underdogs in decades gone by. His favourite tale, often brought out around the kitchen table after a couple of bottles of buckie, was that night in Madrid in December 1965, when they took on Los Blancos at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. Another favourite was when a group of them got slightly lost on the long excursion to war torn Sarajevo to face Željezničar in 1998. Blurry weekends away in Kaiserslauten and Reykjavik were up there too, after he had argued with his boss – and his wife – to get the time off.

It had always irked Jason that he had never got to experience what his father had. You could even say he was jealous of his well travelled father. He knew that he just had to get to Belgrade, no matter what. He didn’t care about the cost. He had savings stashed well away from his wife, on the off chance that Kilmarnock made it into the Europa League sometime. For him, and many others, it really did feel like a once in a lifetime opportunity. After all, he was just a little bit *too* young to travel when they last appeared on the European stage in 2001 when they lost 2-0 in Stavanger, Norway.

Rewind back a few weeks and excitement was building ahead of the First Qualifying Round draw. But where would Kilmarnock fans be off to? With so many far flung exotic locations, it was a bit of an anti-climax when they were drawn against Welsh League runners up Connah’s Quay Nomads who play their home matches at a college athletics track a few miles down the road from Chester.

Never fear. By the time the Second Qualifying Round draw came around, Kilmarnock had already beaten Nomads 2-1 in the first leg at Rhyl’s ground. That last minute winner by Stuart Findlay made their fans more than quietly confident that their place in the next round, against Partizan Belgrade, was cemented. This is where Jason’s story becomes very interesting.

On his way home from Rhyl, still high after celebrating that headed winner, he booked his time off work along with accommodation and flights to Belgrade. The Ryanair prices were quite reasonable and he didn’t want to take the chance of them being inflated in a few days time. His mates had the same idea and they even chipped in and booked a booze cruise down the Danube. In fact, Jason and his mates weren’t the only ones to be this organised. It is estimated that around 700 Kilmarnock fans started to book their trip to the continent. Of course, they all knew that they weren’t yet through but there was absolutely no way, no way AT ALL, that part-timers Connah’s Quay would overturn the aggregate scoreline away from home, was there?

Wrong. A 2-0 victory for the Welsh minnows at Rugby Park saw them prevail and go through to set up a clash against the famous Partizan. This is where Jason’s story takes a turn. He still travelled to Belgrade, along with a couple of hundred other Kilmarnock fans. Their boat trip down the Danube? It still happened and they were kind enough to share it with their new Welsh mates. They even still attended the match at the Partizan Stadium, in their Kilmarnock shirts, singing their own songs throughout. It was fair to say, the only thing missing from this long awaited Kilmarnock european tour, was Kilmarnock FC themselves.

Admittedly, in the days leading up to the match I wasn’t that excited about the prospect of Kilmarnock v Connah’s Quay Nomads. Like many, I wrongly assumed it would be an easy victory for the home side against the Nomads, who are managed by former Manchester City captain Andy Morrison, with their own ‘unique’ approach to play.

This match formed the second part of a Scottish double header for myself and ‘professional’ groundhopper, Tony Morehead. We had travelled up to Aberdeen from Manchester the previous morning and had taken in Cove Rangers v Dundee in the Scottish League Cup as the prelude. The plan then was to stop in Kilmarnock on the way home, watch the main event and then drive all the way back to the land of cotton mills and colliery wheels.

We opted to take the coastal road down from Aberdeen down towards Dundee, stopping off in Arbroath to stock up on some smokies, before ploughing on past Perth and Stirling, straddling Glasgow and crawling through more pictueresque settings such as Greenock. Arriving in Kilmarnock, I chose to go and down a quick pint of Tennent’s in the Wetherspoons, which was rammed full of Killie fans who were cramming in their drink ahead of the match.

Rugby Park is just under a mile away from the town centre, a site at which the club have played since 1877. It was during the 1994-1995 campaign that the stadium as it is today came into shape, with three new stands being constructed. Following on from this, in 2002 a hotel was opened opposite the stadium and this is where we chose to have another drink before heading into the ground.

The hotel bar was packed, so we had to grab a quick pint from a converted Leyland double decker bus that was sat outside on the car park. Perhaps Killie thought they could also use this vehicle for their open top parade of the Europa League trophy once they had won the competition the following May? Apparently, on a normal matchday there is in fact a supporters bar under one of the stands but this was under refurbishment for our visit.

Our tickets were in the East Stand which had quite a long queue when we arrived just a few moments prior to kick off. Still, that didn’t stop us heading straight to the concourse to indulge ourselves by purchasing one of the infamous Killie pies. The steak and gravy pie has won lots of awards over the years and I have to admit is possibly the tastiest I have had on my travels so far. I wasn’t the only one who thought that, with Graeme having been sent up to the match with a shipping order by the looks of things. The Everton fan had no shame. However, the kind women knew he may receive some strange looks so provided him some kind of ‘pie disguise’ in the shape of a capri-sun box.

Winding our way up to our seats, I suddenly felt like I had been transported into a scene from Jurassic Park. There were flying creatures everywhere. They resembled the much maligned Pterodactyl (Yes, I did just have to type in ‘flying dinosaur’ on Google to find out what they were called). To my left, in front, behind… they were everywhere! All I could see were these flying beasts that the locals called ‘seagulls’. On reflection, there could well have been some Connah’s Quay fans in the stand to my right but there were that many wings shooting past us we will never know. Something that exacerbated the presence of these ‘seagulls’ was the fact the pitch was 4G, meaning any stray feathers – of which there were hundreds – clung to the artificial surface as opposed to blowing away and landing in one of Graeme’s many pies.

My mind then started to create all kinds of strange scenarios. If for instance, Kilmarnock found themselves losing in the closing stages, could they get a seagull to defecate on, or in, the opposition goalkeepers eyes? Perhaps these feathered beasts were actually a part of their plan. Had they in fact been hired by their Italian manager Angelo Alessio to assist Kirk Broadfoot at the back? Was this a tactic that Alessio had brought with him from his time at Juventus?

Anyway, to the match. A match where the Nomads defended deep and looked to attack their professional opponents on the break, and it worked. Kilmarnock did have more than enough opportunities to win the tie but simply couldn’t get the ball into the back of the net and as such they were subsequently booed off at the end of the night.

I mentioned earlier that Connah’s Quay have a ‘unique’ style of play, which is essentially defending solidly and getting the ball into the opposition box as quickly as you can. Whether that is by hoofing it, or launching it into the area like a missile from a throw in, you can bet the ball will spend a lot of time up in the air. Andy Morrison had said to the media that Stuart Findlay’s winner for Killie in the previous game was the first goal that his side had conceded from a set piece in three years of football… and it would take a brave man to argue with him.

Having weathered the Kilmarnock storm, Nomads grew into the game as the first 45 minutes drew to a close. Needing at least two goals to go through, they had to come out swinging in the second half – and they did.

Right back Callum Morris got the better of Killie defender Gary Dicker before flighting in an inch perfect cross to find the head of Ryan Wignall, who managed to turn the ball into the bottom left hand corner. Rugby Park was now tense, as they knew another goal for the away side and their European dreams could well be over as quickly as they had started.

With ten minutes left on the clock, things went from bad to worse for the Scots. Nomads doubled their lead and it came in controversial fashion, too. Substitute Jamie Insall slipped clear of Stuart Findlay to race on to a through ball and, in the Kilmarnock defender’s desperation to prevent the shot, he hauled the former Hibernian player down in the box.

The defender was given his marching orders and Morris slotted the ball calmly past Jamie MacDonald to put Nomads 2-0 up and more importantly, 3-2 up on aggregate. In the closing stages of the tie, Kilmarnock desperately tried to produce another late goal. Broadfoot’s header crashed off the bar, and as Nomads scrapped to keep them at bay, Wignall was sent off for his second late challenge of the evening.

By the time the final whistle had arrived a range of different emotions and behaviours were on show in the East Stand at Rugby Park. Most fans were booing and using colourful language to show their displeasure at what had just unfolded. While many were calling for the managers head. I felt this was a bit unfair as Alessio had only just taken over from the departing Steve Clarke, who had been appointed Scotland manager. 

Having said that, Gary Dicker was quoted after the match as saying, “It’s just not good enough. We embarrassed ourselves and our fans,” before labelling it Kilmarnock’s worst result in their 150 year history.

The fans who really made my night though were those who laughed about the situation. Those who had already booked to go to Belgrade surely had to see the funny side of it when they woke up the following morning. Fans such as Jason McDermott, our friend from the opening of this post. Grafting all week, years on end to see his side prevail when it matters only to be let down in embarrassing circumstances, losing to a club that sound like an error on Football Manager.

I’ll leave you with the words of one of Jason’s mates, Gordon, who captured himself detailing his thoughts as Connah’s Quay doubled their lead.

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