In the summer of 1960 relegation was considered to be an unlikely prospect for the season ahead. Realistically the expectation was to build on the relative success of 1959/60 or at the very least maintain it. Including League Cup ties it took until the thirteenth match to record the first win of 1960/61. It was a 1-0 league win at home to reigning champions Hearts. On Christmas Eve, Rangers, on course or the title, lost by the same scoreline at Ayr. Alas these great wins amounted to two of just five league victories. The outcome was the wooden spoon and relegation.
On 28th November, 1961, Jacky Cox resigned. Two days later he was replaced by Bobby Flavell who remained in the job for just seventeen days before quitting to manage St Mirren. Gerry Mays then became the next Ayr United manager but he was unable to inject life into a generally bleak season. Ninth in the Second Division seemed bad at the time but things were to get worse. Much worse!
On 4th December, 1962, Gerry Mays resigned. A promising start to the league campaign had disintegrated badly through October, November and into December. Neil McBain then began his second spell in charge at Somerset Park. Any notion he had of a revival got dashed by constant postponements in a seemingly eternal winter. On 8th December, Stranraer played a league game at Ayr. The club’s next home league match took place on 2nd March, 1963. Between those dates Somerset Park had hosted a Scottish Cup tie with Dundee United. Between playing at Forfar on 22nd December, 1962, and facing East Fife at Methil on 23rd February, 1963, winter’s grip was so strong that the Scottish Cup tie was the only game Ayr United took part in between these dates.
A comparative revival in the season’s closing weeks of an elongated season could not prevent a thirteenth-place finish. Fourteen players were freed. This was a ringing endorsement that radical action was needed. It defied logic that full points were taken off champions St Johnstone. The generally dire form would get even more dire.
Were there any positives in the summer of 1963? Well there was the form of twin strikers Sandy Jones and Johnny Kilgannon, both of whom deserved to be playing in a better team. Apart from Peter Price, Kilgannon would finish season 1963/64 with the highest number of league goals scored by any Ayr player since Malky Morrison in 1945/46. It must have been demoralising for such a player to appear in six consecutive league defeats in September. Goalkeeper John Gallagher consistently put in star performances in a defence that was all too often beleaguered. Left-back John Murphy was signed from Darvel Juniors in the summer of 1963. He currently holds the record for career span and appearances. Ayr United 5 Berwick Rangers 1 – the opening league fixture bore no indication of the eventual misery in store. Neil McBain resigned at the end of October. Bobby Flavell then returned for his second spell of management at Ayr, albeit that the initial spell had been lamentably brief.
In February 1964, while fourth bottom of the Second Division, a third round Scottish Cup visit to Aberdeen seemed ominous. There was no historical precedent for an Ayr United team beating a team from a higher league away from home in the Scottish Cup. Not that victory was remotely contemplated. Aberdeen 1 Ayr United 2 – the supposedly impossible happened. The next round brought a quarter-final at Dunfermline. In reverting to the default form for 1964 the tie was lost 7-0. After finishing fourteenth in the Second Division merely seven players were retained, one of whom was Johnny Kilgannon who opted to sign for Dunfermline Athletic anyway.
During the 1964 close season, Bobby Flavell signed sixteen players including Ally MacLeod, then a veteran winger, who would become the most influential character in the history of Ayr United after his expertise at coaching and management became apparent. Other signings included future greats such as over-lapping full-back Dick Malone, towering centre-half Eddie Monan, hard tackling wing-half Alex McAnespie and Arthur Paterson, a winger who could be mesmeric on his day. Hard man Adam Thomson was another recruit that summer. Striker Eddie Moore had joined from Beith Juniors in late March 1964 and had already proven to be a dangerous predator, most especially in the air. What could possibly go wrong in 1964/65? A lot! It turned into the worst season in our history. In finishing second bottom of the Second Division the club had to apply for re-election. The issue was created by a recruitment process which took minimal cognisance of experience. Still, at least the club existed. On 22nd November, 1964, the backstage headline in the Sunday Express was: “AYR UNITED MAY QUIT”. It was not mere sensationalism. The story was actually true. In early December, Bobby Flavell quit and he was replaced by Tom McCreath who had been coaching the reserves. Just after the turn of the year Tom McGawn bought the majority of Matt Pollock’s shareholding. Bob McCall and John Paton joined the board then McGawn became chairman on the resignation of William Paterson. The vice-chairman became former player Lewis Thow, a recent addition to the board. A further new director was Malcolm McPhail. These rapid developments saved Ayr United from going defunct.
During the 1965 close season, Tom McCreath said: “We have one ambition and that is to get back into the First Division.” This seemed like optimism on a psychotic scale. Having just come through the club’s worst ever season, only two summer signing were made. They were outside-right Johnny Grant who had been released by Hibs and inside-forward Ian Hackshaw from St Johnstone. Quite sensationally Ayr United were Second Division champions at the end of 1965/66. Mr McCreath was inexperienced in the world of senior football but Ally MacLeod was now proving his worth as a coach and in May 1966 he took over as manager.
Mr MacLeod quickly identified his signing targets. Alex Ingram, Stan Quinn and Dougie Mitchell would all become club greats. Unfortunately the sudden propulsion from second bottom to top had repercussions. The club was simply not ready for First Division football. 1966/67 became synonymous with negative statistics. Just one league victory was registered and it occurred on 8th April, 1967, when St Johnstone were beaten 1-0 at Ayr. The threat of completing the season without a league win had been real.
A mass clearout did not occur. Mr MacLeod still had faith in his players. His faith would gradually prove to be justified. Recruitment was light. When 1967/68 got underway the goalkeeper was Davy Stewart, a signing from Kilsyth Rangers. To put it succinctly he was brilliant. At this time there was some supporters who feared an immediate return to the First Division in view of the chastening experience of 1966/67. By March 1968, promotion hopes were non-existent so Mr MacLeod announced an intention to field occasional junior trialists at league level. One of them was Davy McCulloch of Kilsyth Rangers, a left-sided attacking midfielder of supreme quality. It was the start of a ten-year career at Ayr. A fifth-placed finish had some people claiming that the club had purposely eased up in order to avoid promotion. It was a nonsensical theory. Ally MacLeod had too much drive and enthusiasm for this to have been true.
That summer, forwards Jacky Ferguson (released by Southend United) and Bobby Rough (released by Dundee) were signed. In the quest for promotion Motherwell stood to be a most formidable for and, as expected, that club was on course to win the 1968/69 Second Division title. Promotion via the runners-up spot did, however, remain a realistic possibility. A 2-0 win at Stranraer in November was the first of eleven consecutive league wins. The eventual points total of fifty-three had been enough to win the title in 1966. Here in 1969 the same haul secured second place only yet it sufficed for promotion.
The trauma of 1966/67 remained haunting but the fears were needless. At the start of 1969/70 Cutty Young stepped up from Kello Rovers and made an immediate impact on senior football. Ayr United 3 Hibs 0 – the opening First Division fixture saw a brilliant performance. A fortnight later Rangers were beaten at Ayr in front of Somerset Park’s record crowd of 25,225. In October 1969 we had a 3-3 draw with Celtic in the semi-finals of the League Cup. The replay was lost 2-1 yet this Ayr team was forging a good reputation. It was the team that people today can still recite: Stewart, Malone, Murphy, Fleming, Quinn, Mitchell, Young, Ferguson, Ingram, McCulloch and Rough. An ultimate finish of fourteenth in the eighteen-club First Division at least allowed Ayr United to get consolidated at this level.