Somerset Park was a very busy place during the summer of 1950. The trackside fencing had rotted and volunteers from the Supporters’ Association set about dismantling it and building a wall in its place. This scheme was subsidised by allowing the public to buy a brick at the cost of a shilling. The wall remained until being replaced in 2019.
Season 1950/51 proved to be hugely exciting in comparison to the mediocrity endured since the return of peacetime football. For the first time in the club’s history a national semi-final was reached. It was contested against Motherwell at Ibrox on 7th October, 1950. The final was tantalisingly close. Hugh Goldie and Ian Crawford (with two) were the scorers when the team had a 3-2 lead. Johnny Aitkenhead (83) and Jimmy Wilson (85) gave Motherwell a 4-3 win. Seven minutes away from a final that it would take more than half a century to reach! In the same season Motherwell blocked our route to the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup also. 22,152 watched a contentious 2-2 draw in a Somerset Park quarter-final. The midweek replay, witnessed by 27,000, was lost 2-1 to a goal in the last minute of extra time. League progress manifested itself in a third place finish in ‘B’ Division, one place short of a promotion spot. Particularly impressive in the run-in was an 8-0 victory at home to Dunfermline Athletic.
On 21st January, 1950, Cowdenbeath won 2-1 at Ayr. The next home league defeat came on 13th September, 1952, when Stenhousemuir won 4-2 at Somerset Park. Between those dates Ayr United were unbeaten in thirty-three consecutive home league games and this remains a club record. In the history of the club Ayr United have completed just five league campaigns unbeaten at home. Those seasons have been 1911/12, 1936/37, 1950/51, 1951/52 and 2008/09. You will note that the early 1950s is the only time it has happened consecutively.
An interesting diversion in May 1951 was a series of matches to commemorate the Festival Britain. The team journeyed south to play Luton Town (lost 4-2), Bedford Town (lost 1-0), Plymouth Argyle (lost 2-1) and Brighton and Hove Albion (lost 5-1). Once more a promotion push materialised but once more there was a third place finish. Confidence was high that 1952/53 would secure one of the two automatic promotion spots.
Ayr United 11 Dumbarton 1 – This annihilation took place in a League Cup sectional in the first home match of 1952/53. Jim Fraser (4), Willie Japp (3), Jacky Robertson (2), Mike McKenna and Joe Hutton were the scorers. By the season’s end the fans could reflect on an 8-3 defeat away to Clyde in the Scottish Cup and a fifth place finish. Archie Anderson signaled his displeasure by resigning. Reuben Bennett took over as manager but the descent continued. A drop of four places in 1953/54 was bad enough but there was the ignominy of losing 5-1 at Berwick in the Scottish Cup. Berwick Rangers did not even have full league status at the time.
The Scottish Cup exit in 1955 was just as humiliating. A 1-1 draw away to Inverness Caledonian at least left the opportunity to atone in the midweek replay. Horrifyingly the Highland League club won 4-2 after extra time. Compounding the sense of crisis was a Somerset Park attendance of 4,217. Despite it being a Wednesday afternoon kick-off this was considered to be critically low based on typical Scottish Cup gates in the 1950s. 1954/55 was punctuated with some shocking league defeats thereby adding to the scale of desperation: 4-0 at home to Stenhousemuir, 9-0 away to Third Lanark, 5-1 away to Hamiton Accies, 6-1 away to Forfar Athletic and 5-1 away to Arbroath. Ironically Reuben Bennett tendered his resignation in the aftermath of victory at Cowdenbeath. This occurred with just four league games remaining, only one of which was managerless. The new boss was Neil McBain. A mid table finish might even have been considered flattering.
Signings in the summer of 1955 were hugely significant. Teenaged inside-forward Sam McMillan was acquired from Irvine Meadow and centre-forward Peter Price was signed from Gloucester City although there were reports that he had signed from Darlington. He was registered with Gloucester City and had merely guested for Darlington while posted in the area during National Service. Price is currently Ayr United’s highest scorer of all time and the only player to break a double century for the club. McMillan is the club’s second highest scorer of all time. With them both playing in the same team you will have correctly guessed that Ayr United were on the threshold of a boom time for scoring.
Season 1955/56: 118 goals in all competitions.
Season 1957/58: 114 goals in all competitions.
Season 1958/59: 139 goals in all competitions (club record).
At his peak Peter Price scored 105 goals over the course of consecutive seasons (1957/58 and 1958/59).
Neil McBain succeeded in getting the club back to the top tier for the first time since the war. Entering the season’s final fixture of 1955/56 one point was needed in order to go up with champions Queen’s Park. It was a Monday evening visit from Brechin City. In front of a crowd variously estimated between 12,000 and 15,000 Johnny Trainer and Sam McMillan scored in a 2-0 win.
For season 1956/57 the ‘A’ and ‘B’ Divisions were rebranded as the First and Second Divisions. Days before the season was due to start Neil McBain quit in order to manage Watford. Jacky Cox was quickly appointed in his place. Alas the First Division was a step too far. A 6-1 home win over Falkirk on 2nd January, 1957, meant leapfrogging into second bottom place at the expense of that club. Quite remarkably Falkirk not only escaped relegation but they won that season’s Scottish Cup. Also in January, Rangers were beaten 1-0 at Ayr. Such successes were fleeting. Finishing bottom compelled an instant return to the second tier.
At this time Alec Beattie was Ayr United’s longest serving player. On the Sunday morning of 7th July, 1957, he set out to drive from his home in Glasgow’s east end to Hillington in connection with his work as a scientific instrument maker. He suffered a fractured skull during a crash. After being in a coma for twenty-four days he died. It was simply devastating news.
Ayr United scored ninety-eight league goals in season 1957/58 yet contrived to finish fifth. How was this possible? The answer is simple. Eighty-one league goals got conceded. Results were crazy. There was a 7-4 win at home to Forfar Athletic, a 6-5 defeat at Cowdenbeath and a 5-4 win at Hamilton.
There was an apparent need for defensive stability. Goalkeeper Ian Hamilton was signed from Kirkintilloch Rob Roy and, following the failed attempt to sign Ian Ure from Ayr Albion, there was the consolation that centre-half Jim McLean was now available. He had been signed in March 1958 but had to remain at Baillieston Juniors because they were still in the Scottish Junior Cup. Jim ‘Tottie’ McGhee was another great signing. He was a winger acquired from Adrossan Winton Rovers.
At the halfway stage of 1958/59 there were fifteen league wins, two draws and one defeat. Sixty-two league goals had been netted by that point. At the season’s end the league goals total was 115 but this number swelled to 139 when taking account of the League Cup and the Scottish Cup. It need hardly be added that the Second Division title was won in style.
The recent memory of promotion and immediate relegation became all the more haunting when the first two league games of 1959/60 were lost, more especially when game two was a 5-0 hammering away to Third Lanark. The next fixtures were daunting in the extreme. These were at home to a much vaunted Motherwell at home then Rangers away. Ayr United 5 Motherwell 2 and Rangers 0 Ayr United 3 – this was a superb run of form. Seven weeks after winning at Ibrox a visit to Celtic brought a 3-2 win. The Celtic victory was hardly a shock since the completed league table would show Ayr United in eight place to Celtic’s ninth.
The club qualified for an Anglo Scottish French tournament comprising eight clubs from France and four each from Scotland and England. Qualification was made possible by the leading clubs qualifying for European competition and Kilmarnock having a clash of dates for the New York tournament. By use of a pun you may be told that it then came to light that Ayr United would have to withdraw because Somerset Park did not have floodlights. Lower-placed Celtic deputised and they were drawn to play Sedan home and away.