When season 1970/71 got underway Ally MacLeod was still fulfilling his job on a part time basis. In September 1970 he accepted a four year full time contract.
Nonetheless the players’ contracts would remain part time. It is a fact that Ayr United engaged solely part time players from 1939 until 1989. Significant summer signings in the close season of 1970 were fast-paced winger John Doyle from Viewpark Boys Guild and Davy Wells, a full-back from Auchinleck Talbot. Both were destined to wear the Ayr United shirt with distinction.
It was a handicap to lose Dick Malone to Sunderland in October. In November George McLean was bought from Dunfermline Athletic. Then, in the closing days of December, Alex Ingram was bought from Nottingham Forrest for £15,000. This was a year after he had gone in the opposite direction for £40,000. As the season progressed the club flirted with relegation but it was no more than a flirtation. Fourteenth out of eighteen – there was no change from the season before.
These were relatively safe times. 1971/72 brought a climb of two places but there was more to it than mere consolidation. The season was punctuated with some high profile wins. Rangers in particular felt the brunt. In the four seasons from 1969/70 until 1972/73 inclusive they lost all except one of their league fixtures at Somerset Park. Cutty Young was sold to Coventry City in the summer of 1971 and in early September part of the transfer proceeds got used to buy Johnny Graham from Hibs. Ground improvements were becoming visible too. A floodlighting system got installed in 1970 and the Somerset Road end was covered in 1971.
Season 1972/73 remains fondly remembered. In beating Partick Thistle 5-1 at Firhill the club reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup for the first time. At that stage a 2-0 defeat was suffered against Rangers on a waterlogged Hampden. Finishing sixth in the league was highly satisfactory. A negative aspect was the fear of transfer speculation. John Doyle was named in Willie Ormond’s 22-man pool for the Home Internationals and Davy Wells was constantly having his name linked to other clubs. A summer tour to Newfoundland was a reward for what had been achieved. Four games brought four wins and twenty-seven Ayr United goals.
In September 1973 Davy Stewart sold to Leeds United at which club he was destined to play in the 1975 European Cup Final. An incomer in the same month was striker Alex Ferguson who had been released by Falkirk. No one then could have envisaged that Ferguson would one day receive a knighthood for his services to football. The momentum of 1972/73 continued into 1973/74. A win against Dundee at Dens Park on 27th October, 1973, would have put the club on top of the First Division after nine games. After taking a second half lead the match was lost 2-1 yet it was clear that Ally MacLeod’s team of part-timers had the capability to challenge at the business end of the league. Somerset Park was proving to be a fortress. In the 1973 calendar year Rangers and Celtic were the only visiting teams to have league wins at Somerset Park. Even at that Rangers achieved their win with only two minutes to spare on the last Saturday of the year. In the Scottish Cup quarter-finals a midweek replay against Hearts attracted a Somerset Park crowd of 16,185. The match was lost 2-1 to a goal conceded five minutes before the end of extra time. At the conclusion of the league programme the club sat seventh, beaten for sixth place on goal difference only.
At the outset of 1974/75 it was known that league reconstruction would take place with effect from 1975/76. The plan was to convert from two leagues to three. To qualify for the new Premier Division it was required to finish in the First Division’s top ten. Had the status quo been maintained Ayr United would have entered 1974/75 looking to finish sufficiently high to qualify for the Texaco Cup or, just maybe, Europe. It was a sobering thought that eight clubs would fall from the top sphere rather than the traditional two. Some patchy early season form indicated that Ayr United would not make the cut for the top ten. The fears were groundless. Seventh place was achieved.
Since promotion in 1969 the prospect of relegation had seldom been considered but in 1975/76 two were destined to go down from ten rather than eighteen. Rangers were routed 3-0 at Ayr in October 1975 but there was a feeling of depression in early November when it was announced that Ally MacLeod had accepted the manager’s job at Aberdeen. His replacement was Alex Stuart whose first game in charge coincided with a visit of Mr MacLeod’s Aberdeen. It resulted in a 1-0 Ayr win. In December 1975 John Doyle was in the starting line-up for Scotland against Romania. In common with the rest of the Ayr United squad he was still a part timer and the inevitable transfer interest came to fruition when he was sold to Celtic in March 1976. The completed table for 1975/76 showed Ayr United to be sitting sixth yet anything other than a last match win against Motherwell would have resulted in relegation.
After the first ten league matches of 1976/77 bottom place was occupied although the club was not hopelessly cut adrift. However our county neighbours did become hopelessly cut adrift and they got relegated along with Hearts. It was the first relegation for Hearts in their entire history. Particularly impressive was a run of fixtures spanning March and April 1977. It comprised Rangers (away), Aberdeen (away), Dundee United (away), Hearts (away) then Motherwell (home). The outcome was a 1-1 draw at Ibrox then four straight wins.
By now Hugh Sproat was performing heroics in the Ayr United goal. At the other end of the field Walker McCall and Danny Masterton comprised a potent strike force. In early November 1977 Brian McLaughlin was signed from Celtic in a deal taking Joe Filippi in the other direction. To this day McLaughlin is fondly remembered as an Ayr United great. In season 1977/78 Celtic were beaten in each of the league matches they played at Somerset Park. However as the season unfolded it became a battle between Ayr United and St. Mirren to determine who would get relegated with bottom club Clydebank. The battle was lost. There had been top tier football at Somerset Park for the past nine seasons.
In that summer of 1978 there was a general confidence that Ayr United would make an immediate return to the Premier Division. It soon became apparent that the quality of the First Division had been underestimated. Merely four points were taken from the first six games whereupon Alex Stuart resigned. The ensuing events were quite remarkable. Ally MacLeod quit his job as manager of Scotland and returned to Ayr United. An instant transformation breathed life into the club. Unexpectedly Mr MacLeod accepted the position of Motherwell manager in December. His replacement was Willie McLean. Finishing fourth was acceptable when weighed against the turmoil of the season’s opening weeks. With managerial stability now restored there was reasonable hope that a promotion push could now be mounted.
When Stevie Nicol made his first team debut in October 1979 his defensive performance was solid but few would have anticipated is eventual elevation to the top level of the game. A run of sixteen consecutive league games without defeat came to an end at Clydebank on 12th January, 1980. This was one short of the club record from 1958/59. Unfortunately this run in 1979/80 was punctuated with too many draws. Third place was achieved rather than one of the two coveted automatic promotion slots.