Celtic 0 Ayr United 1 – 1980/81 began in headline grabbing fashion with this victory in the Drybrough Cup. Eight days later West Ham United, then the FA Cup holders, got a last minute goal to draw 1-1 in a friendly at Ayr.
The opening league fixture produced a 5-0 win at home to Motherwell. In a good League Cup run Premier League Hearts were beaten 7-2 on aggregate. Such performances augured well. A 4-3 aggregate defeat to Dundee in the semi-finals was a disappointment yet there was a realistic confidence that this team could kick on and get promotion. By November Ayr United sat just behind the top two of Raith Rovers and Hibs. In the run-in form degenerated. The season ended with a position of sixth and a 2-1 home defeat against Dumbarton played before 998 spectators.
Season 1981/82 ended in a similar manner to the preceding one. The last fixture was at home to Queen of the South and, although the game was won, merely 863 were there to see it. Again the final position was sixth and again the fans were unhappy. Stevie Nicol had been sold to Liverpool in October 1981 but the Ayr United squad was still rich in individual talent with such players as Robert Connor, Jim Fleeting, Ian McAllister, Derek Frye, Alan McInally and Gerry Christie. Losing at Alloa in the Scottish Cup was simply awful. Then, in February, a defeat away to East Stirling was the first of ten consecutive league fixtures without a win.
By late October 1982 promotion was no longer on the agenda. The prospect of relegation to the third tier was now real. In January 1983 Albion Rovers won at Somerset Park in the Scottish Cup. There was no organised boycott. Many fans simply drifted away of their own accord. The visit of Clydebank in March was won by a scrambled goal in the last minute but the crowd, if it could be called that, was a miserly 778. Relegation was avoided only because Dunfermline Athletic failed to win their final fixture. By this time Willie McLean had resigned. During the tense closing weeks of the run-in George Caldwell was in charge, his interim appointment eventually becoming a full appointment.
A last day escape tends to bring forth the response that such desperate scenarios should not be allowed to happen again. In 1983/84 the situation on the final day was even more desperate. The final league fixture was at Dumbarton. Anything less than a win would have sent Ayr United down with Alloa Athletic. Second-placed Dumbarton were already promoted but stood to win the league in the event of beating Ayr and Morton losing at home to Kilmarnock. Morton won anyway but the Dumbarton team was high on incentive. Dumbarton 0 Ayr United 3 – it was a miraculous escape from the brink.
1984/85 was embarked upon without Ally McInally (sold to Celtic) and Robert Connor (sold to Dundee). Then, on the eve of the season, Gerry Christie moved to Airdrie in a swap for Norrie Anderson. In general the public did not have a strong appetite for Scottish football. The malaise of poor crowds was suffered throughout the country. On the second Saturday of the league season our game against Kilmarnock drew a Rugby Park attendance of just 2,013. It could easily have been forgotten that this was a derby match in Scotland’s second tier. A 0-0 draw did little to improve the situation. As the season developed both clubs were haunted by the fear of relegation. From February onwards Ayr United pulled off some conspicuous results to emphatically banish those fears. Four wins out of the last five ensured a mid-table position of seventh.
In the summer of 1985 promotion was not a word in the vocabulary of Ayr United fans. The aspiration was safety. There was glorious atonement for taking just one point from the first three fixtures of 1985/86. Fixture four brought a 3-0 win at home to Kilmarnock with Kenny Ashwood scoring twice on his debut. When the clubs next met (at Rugby Park on New Year’s Day 1986) Ayr United won 2-1 yet this was a rare moment of cheer in an otherwise miserable winter. George Caldwell had quit in late October. His replacement was a man who was surely possessed of the ability to breathe life into a faltering campaign. Ally MacLeod was back. It is true that he would once more create a fondly remembered team but it did not happen in 1985/86. The fate was relegation along with bottom club Alloa Athletic.
In August 1986 John Sudden was brought from Airdrie for £5,000 having already been at Ayr on loan. This transaction might be described as a steal. Such as it was the money was more than recouped when David Irons was sold to Premier League Clydebank for £15,000 in September. Irons’ subsequent transfer to Dunfermline Athletic triggered a sell-on fee to Ayr United of £19,000. Winning at Kilmarnock in the League Cup did little to generate interest in the season’s opening weeks. League gates at Somerset Park were in three figures. The performances of young central defender Willie Furphy were conspicuously good but there were no redeeming features in a 3-1 defeat at Cowdenbeath in October. Mr MacLeod furiously accused his players of lacking enthusiasm. The team succeeded in rallying and on the final league Saturday some complex scenarios were faced. An Ayr win at home to Stirling Albion and a Meadowbank Thistle defeat at Alloa would bring the title to Ayr; An Ayr defeat together with a Raith Rovers win at Stranraer would promote Raith Rovers unless Stirling Albion were to win at Ayr by enough to overcome an adverse goal difference; A win for Stirling Albion would promote them in the event of a Raith Rovers defeat. Ayr United 2 Stirling Albion 3 – the outcome was fourth place. It was a crushing disappointment.
The signings of Tommy Walker and Henry Templeton were vastly more important than was realised at the time. The first thirteen league fixtures of 1987/88 saw eleven wins and two draws with thirty-nine goals scored for the loss of six. Walker, Templeton and Sludden were wreaking havoc. Crowd apathy had been a handicap in the recent past but that affliction was now cured. In early February 11,712 turned up at Somerset Park for a Scottish Cup replay against Dunfermline Athletic on a wet Wednesday night. A 2-0 defeat did nothing to derail the team from the aim of winning the league. The Second Division title was duly won with a club record points total (at two for a win) of sixty-one.
Could the attacking abandon of 1987/88 be replicated in the First Division in 1988/89? The hope failed to become a reality. A 3-1 win at home to Morton on 17th December, 1988, marked the end of a run of eleven consecutive games without a win. Beating Kilmarnock 4-1 at home on 3rd January, 1989, put the fans in joyous mood not just because of the margin of victory but also because of the manner in which it was achieved. Yet this highlighted an inconsistency. Safety from relegation was not achieved until the penultimate league Saturday. Our county neighbours got relegated with bottom club Queen of the South.
In the summer of 1989 the board displayed ambition when the announcement was made that players were being offered full time contracts with immediate effect. Since the declaration of war in September 1939 succeeding generations of Ayr United teams had been earning a living outside of football. A further sign of ambition was the construction of a stand extension on the Somerset Road end of the original structure. This took it a stage closer to Archibald Leitch’s 1920 vision of a stand running the length of the ground.
Full time football failed to make the hoped impact. The opening league fixture resulted in a 3-1 defeat against Albion Rovers at Airdrie’s Broomfield Park. Future results meant that it could not be written off as a blip. Defeats invariably brought complaints of bad pitches or controversial refereeing decisions. A 4-0 loss at Hamilton on 2nd January, 1990, was bad enough but it paled in comparison to a 6-0 demise at Airdrie on 10th February. Even with such adverse results the team managed to keep above the relegation area yet the tenth place finish in a fourteen-club league was considered unsatisfactory in view of the players no longer being part time.