History of the Club
The Ayr United Family Tree
Ayr United Football Club was formed as the result of a series of amalgamations and counter amalgamations.
It all began in 1872 when the Ayr Thistle club got founded by a group of lads who used to meet on the steps at the foot of Wellington Lane. One of those youths was Thomas Templeton, a future provost of the town. In 1910 he was a neutral participant in the amalgamation talks between Parkhouse and Ayr FC prior to becoming a regular supporter of the newly-formed Ayr United right up until an illness preceded his death at the age of sixty-three in August 1918.
At the outset Ayr Thistle played on the Low Green, the town’s first football venue. The pitch ran on an east to west alignment. In 1875 Ayr Thistle decamped to a field situated just off Midton Road. They called it Thistle Park. One year later the club moved to a field in the present day vicinity of Robsland Avenue, just off St.Leonard’s Road. It was entitled Robbsland (sic) Park.
Ayr Academy also played on the Low Green from 1872. Ayr Eglinton, founded in 1875, played at the Racecourse (now known as the Old Racecourse). In 1876 these clubs amalgamated under the name of Ayr Academicals. Initially that club played at Mr Dewar’s Cattle Show field then, from 1879, they played at Springvale Park, the site of which is indicated by the street still bearing that name (off Midton Road).
When the Ayrshire Cup competition got underway in 1877 Ayr Thistle did not participate because they had loftier ideals. In layman’s terms this meant that they thought themselves too good to enter. Yet the club was not too proud to amalgamate with Ayr Academicals in 1879.
The new combine was termed Ayr FC and the agreed venue was Springvale Park. In December 1922 it was announced that houses were going to be built on that site. At that time there were locals who could recall the pioneering football matches at that location and even Penny Farthing races. In the summer of 1884 Ayr FC quit Springvale Park for nearby Beresford Park. The playing surface ran parallel to Beresford Terrace.
It is commonly known that Ayr FC eventually merged with Parkhouse to create Ayr United. So how did Parkhouse evolve? That club originated in 1886 at which time they played at Ballantine Drive and trained at Parkhouse Farm. It was a short stay at Ballantine Drive. The club soon began playing their home matches on the Old Racecourse.
Ayr FC’s existence at Beresford Park fell under threat in 1888.
The site was requisitioned annually in order to accommodate the Cattle Show and in that year it was required at an abnormally early date. Ayr FC had outstanding fixtures yet the ground would not be available for a month. The Townhead location rendered the rent expensive but it still required to be paid despite the club being turfed out.
This crisis was addressed by the committee’s decision to urgently look for a new field. The chosen location was in the lands of Hawkhill at the junction of the Glasgow and Mauchline railway lines. Due to a lack of grazing the grass was in poor condition but this did not deter a satisfactory rent being agreed with W.G. Walker and Sons, the neighbours and owners.
The new ground was named Somerset Park. It would be wrong to assume that it was named after Somerset Road. Back then the stretch of road now known as Somerset Road was actually the southern section of West Sanquhar Road until renamed in 1909. The connection in 1888 was the nearby Somerset Place which is now part of Hawkhill Avenue.
Somerset Park’s first game took place on the Monday evening of 7thMay, 1888. Ayr FC beat Aston Villa 3-0. It was a complete coincidence that the inaugural match was against a giant of the English game. It had already been arranged for that date with the expectation that the teams would meet at Beresford Park. The Stand at Beresford Park had been taken apart, carted (literally) across town and re-assembled on its new location. It backed onto the railway and it faced a pitch running on a north-south alignment. Parkhouse audaciously moved into the vacant Beresford Park. Their grade of football meant that they were not yet playing in front of a paying public yet somehow the club viewed the rent as affordable.
March and April 1897
Between March and April 1897 Somerset Park was closed so that the playing surface could be realigned to run from north-east to south-west rather than the existing north-south alignment i.e. at an angle to the present day Somerset Road rather than parallel to the railway. The decision to make the change was prompted by the need to have athletics facilities. A tarmacadam cycle track was also laid. This work was completed by neighbours and landlord Walker’s who had laid a similar track at Celtic Park.
This work was the preliminary to a successful application for inclusion in the Second Division of the Scottish Football League. On 4thSeptember, 1897, Somerset Park hosted league football for the first time albeit that a 4-1 loss was suffered against Linthouse. The Evening Times report of that match referred to the ground being “second to none in the provinces”.
The Second Division
Parkhouse got voted into the Second Division for season 1903/04 only to be voted back out at the end of the season. In 1906 the club got readmitted. Their exclusion in 1904 was assisted by their Somerset Park counterparts. Parkhouse had sent a circular to the voting clubs in order to solicit support for re-election to the league. Ayr FC then sent a circular to the same clubs detailing why Parkhouse should be accorded no support. The successful plot enabled Aberdeen to fill the vacancy. When the dark deed became apparent the already strained relationship between the Ayr clubs hit new depths.
Even as early as a decade before there had been speculation about the clubs amalgamating. Fleeting speculation in the intervening years seemed futile. The mutual loathing was surely insurmountable. Today the bitterest rivalry in world football is that between Argentinian clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate. Traditionally Boca Juniors has identified with the working man. River Plate’s nickname is Los Millonarios. The socio-economic factors in the rivalry are therefore apparent.
There is a comparison with the olden-day rivalry in Ayr. Parkhouse, based south of the river, populated a more prosperous part of the town and their support, on average, tended to be well-heeled. Ayr FC’s support came largely from the neighbouring districts of Newton and Wallacetown. In 1900 more than 200 homes in these areas were still inhabited despite having been condemned by the sanitary authorities as unfit for human habitation. The figures for infant mortality were worse than Glasgow.
The Years 1910-1920
The newly formed Ayr United Football Club had the option of two grounds to use as a base. Somerset Park was chosen. The playing attire was amalgamated too. Ayr United’s strip comprised the crimson and gold hooped shirts of Ayr FC and the blue shorts of Parkhouse. The first match was a midweek friendly at home to Hurlford. Then, on the Saturday, Port Glasgow Athletic visited for a Second Division fixture in which Archie Campbell and Charlie Howe scored in a 2-0 win.
On 26th November, 1910, a 4-3 defeat at home to Abercorn caused people to question the wisdom of the amalgamation. The Ayr Observer commented: “One left the field on Saturday, mingling with the downhearted supporters of the crimson and gold and listened to the many threats never to come back again.” It was a fickle attitude. Ayr United did not lose another home league match until 17th August, 1912, when the damage was inflicted by the Paisley-based Abercorn. The inaugural 1910/11 season ended in a runners-up spot but the club failed to get enough votes on applying for inclusion to the First Division. The Ayrshire Post was prompted to state: “There is no doubt that the method of automatic promotion in force in the English League competition is the right and proper one.”
Under Bert Tickle’s captaincy Ayr United won the first nine league fixtures of 1911/12. This remains a club record league start. It was decided to run a team at Junior level, effectively a reserve side. Home matches were to be played at Beresford Park. Juniors played their first match on 9th September, 1911. It was the occasion of a 1-0 defeat away to Craigmark Smithfield in the Ayr and District League. Playing at this level meant that Ayr United could field a team in the Scottish Junior Cup. On 16th December a league point was dropped for the first time in 1911 since 7th January. It happened in a 2-2 draw against Dundee Hibs at Tannadice Park. A week later a 4-2 home win over Leith Athletic left the club on top of the table with 21 points from a possible 22. Ultimately the Second Division title was won by beating Albion Rovers 4-0 at home on the same afternoon that near rivals Dumbarton lost 4-2 to Dundee Hibs at Tannadice Park.
First Division Football
In preparation for First Division football the number of turnstiles at Somerset Park was increased from nine to fourteen. Sam Herbertson, fated to fall at Gallipoli, was a goalkeeper signed from Beith. Full-back John Bell was acquired from Cowdenbeath where he was on loan so Ayr United had to negotiate with his parent club Rangers. Billy Middleton, an outside-right, was signed from Brighton and Hove Albion and outside-left Alec Gray was acquired on loan from Celtic, although Ayr United would eventually pay a fee of £225 for him in 1920, the player having remained throughout.
Team strengthening was necessary for the challenge ahead. Half-back Switcher McLaughlan was a veteran of the first Ayr United team. He was a highly popular half-back with a cannonball shot. Full-back Willie McStay, acquired on loan from Celtic in 1912, was the captain. Yet the future star of the team was Johnny Crosby, signed in October 1913 from Muirkirk Athletic. For season 1913/14 it was decided to disband Ayr United Juniors in favour of a reserve team.
The introduction to the top sphere was somewhat sobering with the first four fixtures ending in defeat. Then came a defeat away to Stevenson United in the Scottish Qualifying Cup. The first points on the board came with a 3-1 win away to Scottish Cup holders Falkirk which was followed by a 1-0 win away to Kilmarnock. A tenth-place finish in the twenty-club league was acceptable in view of the fraught start. Jimmy Richardson, a centre-forward, was signed from Sunderland in March 1914. He was to become one the greatest Ayr United strikers of all time.
A historic decision was made by the Ayr United board. The club colours of crimson and gold were discarded in favour of black and white hooped shirts and black shorts. However the declaration of war cast doubt on whether the league programme of 1914-15 would even begin. Mobilisation was immediate. Johnny Crosby, Neil McBain and John Bellringer were players who had already enlisted. The following were to make the supreme sacrifice in the Great War.
THE FALLEN OF AYR FC, PARKHOUSE AND AYR UNITED
Corporal John Bellringer – Ayr United. ‘C’Company. 1st/5th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Died at Gallipoli at the age of 23 on 12th July, 1915.
Private Samuel Herbertson – Ayr United. 1st/4th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers. Died at Gallipoli at the age of 26 on 12th July, 1915
Private Robert Capperauld – Ayr United. 5th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers. Died on 14th July, 1915, after suffering wounds at Gallipoli.
Private Thomas Clifford – Ayr FC. 6th/7th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers. Died at Somme at the age of 42 on 19th January, 1917.
Private Hugh Kerr – Ayr FC. 14th Battalion London Scottish. Died at the Western Front on 10th April, 1918.
2nd Lieutenant William Kerr – Parkhouse. Machine Gun Corps 4th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers. Died at the Western Front at the age of 37 on 2nd September, 1918.
Archie Campbell – Ayr United. 119th Brigade Royal Field Artillery. Died of war wounds at the age of 38 on 14th September, 1918.
Promotion then depended on the outcome of the annual general meeting of the Scottish Football League which was scheduled for the Monday evening of 3rd June. There was a motion from the Celtic delegate to the effect that the highest club in the Second Division should automatically pass into the First Division. The necessary two-thirds majority agreed. Then the St. Mirren delegate complained that the motion would mean the relegation of his club and he told the meeting that they had already committed themselves to a First Division wage bill. Extraordinarily it was decided to do a u-turn on the motion and that the matter of automatic promotion would be held over until the next annual general meeting. The Ayrshire Post opined “It was understood, however, that the meeting virtually decided for automatic promotion twelve months hence.” In truth Scottish football was a decade away from automatically promoting the Second Division’s top club.
At the end of 1912/13 the Second Division title was retained. Runners-up in 1910/11 and champions in seasons 1911/12 and 1913 – promotion again depended on the yearly farce known as the annual general meeting of the Scottish Football League. It took place on the Monday evening of 2nd June, 1913. Club chairman Tom Steen worked hard in support of Ayr United’s application. This was necessary. The matter of league points was a lesser consideration than chamber eloquence. “Nothing has been talked about by football followers in Ayr since the close of last season but the United’s prospects of promotion to the First League” – the Daily Record was commendably well informed. It was known that the result would be sent by telegram to the Ayrshire and Galloway Hotel, outside which a large crowd assembled in bad weather. There was great jubilation when the news came through that Ayr United had been promoted. It had been proven that the Scottish Football League could display a reluctance to relegate clubs from the First Division. Had this body now relented? No they had not. There was no relegation in 1913. A decision had merely been made to extend the top tier by two clubs. The other promoted club was Dumbarton who had finished sixth.
Purchasing Somerset Park
In January 1920 the Ayr United board announced that the club was going to buy Somerset Park and that it would be remodelled. A price of £2,500 was agreed with W.G. Walker and Sons, this is to be payable in five annual instalments of £500. Four months later Johnny Crosby was sold to Birmingham City for £2,800. The sale of Crosby therefore funded the purchase of the entire ground.
Archibald Leith was the foremost expert in the design of football grounds and this was the man Ayr United consulted. Leith foresaw a full length stand and three sides of open terracing. He also foresaw the pitch being realigned to run parallel with Tryfield rather than at an angle as it had been since 1897. The cost of the envisaged stand was estimated at £8,000. It would have had a capacity of 2,592. Although the purchase of the ground was immediate, four years were to pass before the redevelopment work got underway, a major modification being a less expensive stand with 1,345 seats. Just as Somerset Park’s purchase had been funded by the sale of a player so too was the cost of the new stand. Neil McBain was sold to Manchester United for £4,600 in November 1921. It was, at the time, a record fee for Manchester United (since eclipsed!). Although the purchase of the ground took place in 1920 four years were to pass before the bulk of the redevelopment work got started.
1920 also earmarked a transition with regard to personnel. Switcher McLaughlan, a veteran of the first Ayr United team, departed that summer. So too did the outstanding Billy Middleton and, as you have read, Johnny Crosby was already gone. Yet the team still had the appearance of being built on solid foundations. Full-backs Jock Smith (signed 1919) and Phil McCloy (signed 1918) would partner each other at international level while still at Ayr United. Half-back Jimmy Hogg (signed 1918) was another player destined to play for Scotland while still an Ayr United player. The last line of defence was the fearless George Nisbet, a goalkeeper who would instinctively dive head first into flailing boots. Centre-half Jimmy McLeod (signed 1921) was another who would be remembered as a club legend. Yet the total failed to reach the sum of its constituent parts. Individual brilliance brought nothing better than a final placing of fourteenth in the First Division in 1920/21 and the following season replicated this. Finishing tenth in 1922/23 was a false dawn when considered against a lapse to fourteenth in 1923/24. Fourteenth out of eighteen in three seasons out of four – if nothing else there was a consistency.
Internationals come to Somerset Park
On 12th April, 1924, the first international match ever played at Wembley resulted England 1 Scotland 1 and the Scotland full-backs were the Ayr United full-backs. The Scotland team was: Harper (Hibs), Smith (Ayr United), McCloy (Ayr United), Clunas (Sunderland), Morris (Raith Rovers), McMullan (Partick Thistle), Archibald (Rangers), Cowan (Newcastle United), Harris (Newcastle United), Cunningham (Rangers) and Morton (Rangers). The Bulletin contained: “The Beith farmer kept plodding on and generally created a fine impression. He kicked powerfully and with accuracy and the longer the game lasted the better did he become. Alongside his less impetuous club mate, Phil McCloy, was tip-top. He played with just as much concern as if he was taking part in an ordinary humdrum match at Somerset Park.”
If justice had been served the team would have reached the Scottish Cup semi-finals in 1924. At the end of the season Annual General Meeting chairman Lawrence Gemson said: “The manner of our defeat from the Scottish Cup will ever remain an unhappy memory.” There was substance to his prediction. Even seventy two years later it was possible to find old supporters who were still embittered about Ayr United’s Scottish Cup exit in that year.
The subject of their unforgiven resentment was a quarter-final tie at Airdrie. With the score at 1-1 and the final whistle due, John Anderson drove the ball into the Airdrie net from a John McLean cross. The referee signalled a goal. With the Ayr players lined up for the re-centre, the home players surrounded the referee to protest about something which was unapparent. Referee Humphrey then disallowed the goal after consulting both the linesmen. There was two theories.
1. The Airdrie goalkeeper had earlier kicked from hand when a goal kick should have been given. This would have been an advantage to Airdrie and the referee beckoned for play to continue anyway.
2. John McLean was deemed to be in an offside position before delivering the cross. This would have been an equal travesty since there was no doubt that McLean was onside. The replay at Ayr was tied and the teams met at Ibrox on consecutive days before a Hughie Gallacher goal put Airdrie through. Airdrie lifted the Scottish Cup that year and Ayr United did not pass the quarter-final stage until 1973.
Renovations at Somerset Park
At the outset of season 1924/25 home games were played at Beresford Park pending completion of the renovations at Somerset Park. Amidst much pomp and ceremony the ground was reopened on 13th September, 1924, on the occasion of a league visit from Rangers. However the campaign, ended in a crushing disappointment. In consequence of Motherwell losing at Aberdeen on the final league Saturday, Ayr United required at least a draw at Ibrox to save the club from relegation. Rangers won 1-0. Near the end a Jimmy McLeod header missed the goal by a foot. A team rich in individual talent therefore went down to the Second Division.
Two failed attempts at promotion created a lot of public concern. This was the catalyst for the formation of an Ayr United Supporter’s Club. Public ire was soothed in 1927. In May of that year Jimmy Smith was signed upon his release from Rangers. The season ahead was to see a scoring frenzy of such proportions that his name and that of Ayr United would find a place in the Guinness Book of Records. With the able assistance of inside-forwards Danny Tolland and Billy Brae he scored sixty-six league goals as the club romped to the Second Division title. As a reward there was an end of season tour to Norway and Sweden. The sea crossing from Newcastle to Oslo was rough in the extreme but the players recovered to acquit themselves well, even beating the Swedish International team 3-1 in Stockholm.
The return to the top sphere was daunting but at least the threat of relegation was staved off. Sixteenth in the twenty-club First Division amounted to consolidation. Ninth in 1929/30 amounted to commendable progress. By this time Andy McCall was excelling in the half-back line whilst winger Tommy Robertson lived up to his nickname of The Patna Flyer.
A New Decade
In the 1950s many fans reminisced on the 1930s as if that decade comprised a golden age. There were some fond memories but overall it was not a halcyon period. In the seven seasons for 1929/30 through until the conclusion of 1935/36, Ayr United conceded an average of 95.8 league goals per season. In 1930/31 the club had no league wins away from home and compounding the misery was a Scottish cup defeat at Bo’ness against the team sitting in bottom position in the Second Division. The adverse league form meant that a point was required from the last match in order to escape relegation. That match was at home to Kilmarnock! On a sunny evening Danny Tolland got the only goal with the consequence that Hibs got relegated with the already doomed East Fife.
A significant signing in the summer of 1931 was Fally Rodger, an outside-left who would go on to become a club legend after an apprenticeship at reserve level. Yet 1931/32 was like a continuation of the season before. It was a flirtation with relegation. A 6-0 defeat at Motherwell in November prompted an Ayrshire Post headline of DRASTIC CHANGES NEEDED. At the time it could never have been guessed that Motherwell would finish the season as champions of Scotland. A 17th place finish was merely an improvement of one place. As if by some form of arithmetical progression there was an improvement of one further place to 16th at the conclusion of 1932/33.
Very early in 1933/34, Alex Merrie, top scorer for the previous two seasons, found himself dropped. The reason why can be answered in two words. Terry McGibbons. McGibbons was a centre-forward signed from Irvine Meadow. He adapted to senior football straight away. By New Year in his first season he had amassed twenty-seven First Division goals. Third Lanark in particular felt the brunt. In the two league games against them in 1933/34 Terry scored ten. Six came in a 7-3 win at Cathkin Park and he got four in a 5-1 win in the return match at Ayr. Despite being a first season senior he was a travelling reserve for Scotland in the 1934 Wembley international. He finished the season with thirty-five league goals to his credit and an eighth place finish was a much appreciated sign of progress. A most spectacular result was a 3-0 league win at Celtic Park in March.
Silver Jubilee Year
The next campaign was blighted by goals being conceded on an appalling scale. 112 league goals got leaked. This brought the club to the brink of relegation in the Silver Jubilee year of 1935. At least a draw was needed at Airdrie in the final game in order to guarantee safety. The match was lost 3-2 after the home team scored in the 88th minute. There was a reprieve because St Mirren lost to Celtic. One year later there was no such reprieve. 1935/36 finished with Ayr United as the First Division’s bottom club. The misery of relegation was soon forgotten in a spectacular season in the Second Division.
In 1936/37, the team scored 122 league goals and this remains a club record. Terry McGibbons is the club’s second highest scorer of all time and he was simply rampant. With the season already underway, manager Frank Thompson made a swoop to sign Eddie Summers, Albert Smith and Jock Mayes from Clyde. In an earlier phase of his managerial career, Mr Thompson had acquired all three for Clyde. They made a quick impact. A draw at Airdrie preceded twelve consecutive league wins, this too comprising what remains a club record. Terry McGibbons struck form with a vengeance during that invincible run spanning 24th October, 1936, until 2nd January, 1937. Brechin City, Stenhousemuir and Montrose bore the brunt with each conceding eight goals at Ayr. These twelve games produced sixty-four goals for Ayr United. Five per match with four to spare! Only one home point was dropped in the entire season. The fabulous Hyam Dimmer excelled in the successful pursuit of the title. He was a flamboyant player who had the skill and willingness to entertain the crowd.