In June 1990 Peter Weir was bought from St. Mirren at a cost of £66,000 (this figure includes the signing-on fee). He was followed in the door by giant striker Ally Graham who was purchased from Albion Rovers for £27,000. The prospect of him partnering Tommy Bryce (bought from Clydebank for £40,000 a year before) in attack was exciting. In early September another purchase was made when midfielder Sammy Johnston was acquired from St. Johnstone. To the club the total cost of the deal was £100,000. Together with the commitment to full time football a year earlier there was ambition in abundance. This expensively assembled squad reached the final of the Centenary Cup, a competition designed to commemorate the centenary of the Scottish League. After extra-time that final was lost 3-2 in front of an 11,506 crowd at Motherwell’s Fir Park. That was in November. At the beginning of December the club sat fourth bottom of the First Division. After a 3-0 defeat away to Raith Rovers, Ally MacLeod was told that his contract would not be renewed in June so he decided to make the break straight away. His three terms of management at Ayr totalled marginally short of fifteen years and included 214 league wins. On both counts he had no close contenders. His next and last job in management was with Queen of the South. The interim managership of Davy Wells gave way to the permanent appointment of George Burley in January 1991. A bonus was that Burley came to the club as a player also. Beating Kilmarnock at Ayr in the last league fixture was tempered by a league placing of third bottom.
Mr Burley had all summer to work on rectifying the wrongs. When season 1991/92 got underway there were strong indications that he was reaping the fruits of his labour, most especially in terms of fitness. A sequence of victories occurred in which late goals were prominent. For the first time since 1958/59 full points were taken from the first four league games. Wavering form then ensured only to be corrected by a 7-0 win at home to Meadowbank Thistle. The competition formerly known as the Centenary Cup was known as the B & Q Cup. Once more the final was reached and again the venue was Fir Park, Motherwell. This time it was the occasion of a 1-0 defeat against Hamilton Accies. At the season’s end we were left to reflect on the plain truth that the promise of the early weeks had not been fulfilled. More positively the sixth-placed finish at least banished even the remotest fears of the drop. Memories of life in the Premier League were gradually receding and would continue to do so.
Willie Murphy had a contractual dispute which could not be resolved and at the end of August 1992 it was announced that he had been released. This did not sit well with the fans but there was complete forgiveness when Malcolm Shotton was signed to replace him. He was hugely inspirational. Another central defender, Derek Allan, had a rapid rise to the top. Aged eighteen he made his first team debut for Ayr United in February 1993. Thirty-one days later he was sold to Premier League Southampton for £100,000. Only one defeat was suffered in the final thirteen league fixtures of 1992/93 yet the concluded table showed that Ayr United had the most draws in that season’s First Division. Therein lay the explanation for landing in mid-table.
Scotland had thirty-eight league clubs and it was agreed that two more would be added in the summer of 1994. The forty clubs would then be divided into four leagues of ten. The reconstruction plan meant that five clubs would be relegated from the First Division at the end of 1993/94 in order to help create the additional league. Ayr United required a minimum place of seventh in order to stay on the right side of the cut. In the 1993 close season Colin Calderwood moved from Swindon Town to Spurs for a fee which was later set at £1.25 million by a tribunal. It was little known that he was a former Ayr United Boys Club player who would gladly have signed an Ayr United contract. It was of no avail to reflect on what might have been. Adverse results caused a slip below the relegation cut-off point. In December a 6-1 hammering at Dunfermline caused great discontent. Then, following a 3-0 defeat at home to Falkirk, George Burley was dismissed. He was immediately replaced by another player manager, Simon Stained. Seventh place was achieved, just enough to stay on the right side of the split. Champagne was opened in celebration. This was a clear indication of the extent to which aspirations had dropped.
The lack of success in season 1994/95 can be encapsulated in just one statistic. Ayr United’s top league scorer was Justin Jackson with four, two of which were in the one match. The concept of the transfer window had not yet been imposed so there was no restraint on signing activity. Simon Stainrod was the first Ayr United manager to tap into the marker for foreign players. On each of the first two Saturdays in November, five foreign players were in the starting line-up. By the last game of the month the only one was Franck Rolling. The team by then had fallen into the relegation mire and there would be no rescue. On 2nd January, 1995, a 2-0 defeat at Stranraer was played to the accompaniment of demonstrations from fans. The situation was desperate. Relegation to the third tier took place along with bottom club Stranraer.
A decision was made that Ayr United would not operate a reserve team in 1995/96. It was also made known that full time contracts would be cut back. Bookmakers installed Ayr United as 7/2 favourites to win the Second Division title but it was not long before they revised their odds. On 2nd September, 1995, Berwick Rangers won 4-1 at Ayr. Then, on the Tuesday, Simon Stainrod resigned. In the summer of 1995 Gordon Dalziel had been signed as a striker. The departure of Mr Stainrod now left him in the position of interim manager, this appointment becoming permanent. When Stirling Albion won at Somerset Park in November the situation was perilous. However it was the last home defeat of the season and the danger receded. Signing activity remained relentless and there was a definite view that team building was already taking place for the following season. Sixth place in the third tier may not have looked appealing but there was optimism based on the momentum that had been building. In the season just finished forty-five players had been used in competitive action. This comprised a club record turnover although Mr Dalziel would eventually eclipse his own record.
The bookmakers misjudged Ayr United in 1995 and they did so again in 1996. From being overestimated we were now being underestimated. Ayr United, who would become champions, had longer odds to win the title than Berwick Rangers, the club destined to finish in bottom place. In 1996/97 big things were expected of twin strikers Stevie Kerrigan and Isaac English. Confidence was so high that there was even the expectation of victory in an early season League Cup tie at Kilmarnock despite the two-league gap. Surely enough the tie was won 1-0. Spanning September to November we had seven consecutive league wins in a title race now being shared with Livingston and Hamilton Accies. On 14th December, Isaac English suffered a broken leg at Livingston. In addition to a three-game suspension for Stevie Kerrigan in January there was a problem for striking options. To address this Robert Scott was signed from East Fife. The sparkling midfield performances of Alain Horace continued to enthral the supporters. On a day of joyous abandon the title was won at Berwick. The final points total of seventy-seven remains a club record but our previous title successes had been on the basis of two points for a win rather than three. There was only one defeat in the last nineteen league fixtures.
Promotion in 1988 had been followed by a season in which safety from relegation did not occur until the second last fixture. Promotion in 1997 was followed by a season in which the club went even closer to the precipice. It is perfectly logical that stepping up a league can be challenging and so it proved. There was a turnover of goalkeepers with Kevin Mcgeown, David Castilla, Henry Smith and Kristjan Finnbogason. Oddly enough David Castilla was a man of the match contender in a 6-0 home in against Airdrie in November. The match was more intensely fought than the result suggested. In February, Kilmarnock came to Ayr as Scottish Cup holders then went home beaten 2-0. On the same afternoon we dropped into the league’s bottom two because Morton won. The climax to the season was fraught with worry. With Stirling Albion already assured of relegation the question was whether Partick Thistle 0r Ayr United would go down with them. Compounding the tension was the fact that the endangered teams met each other in the final game. Partick Thistle needed to win for safety and for Ayr United a draw would suffice. Partick Thistle 1 Ayr United 3 – relief!
With a strike force of Glynn Hurst and Andy Walker in 1998/99 there were credible hopes that a fear of the drop would not be a consideration. Other good signings were Craig Nelson and David Craig. In early October, Gary Teale was bought from Clydebank for £85,000. In December, Mickey Reynolds was bought from Glynn Hurst’s former club Emley for £60,000. A 2-0 win at Airdrie in November comprised a sixth consecutive away win and put the club on top of the First Division. Another highlight of this season was beating Kilmarnock 3-0 at Ayr in the Scottish Cup. It was the third consecutive season in which we had put our county neighbours to the sword in cup competition. Again there was a sign of intent when Mark Campbell was bought from Stranraer for £90,000 in February 1999. It was impossible to stop Hibs from romping away with the league title. Ultimately we finished third.
The purchase of Alex Bone from Stirling Albion for £80,000 was the action of a club nursing hopes of progress. A planning application for the construction of a 10,000-seater stadium at Heathfield was another indication of a push for progress but the plan got choked in red tape until it became unworkable. Season 1999/00 was opened with an injury crisis. The irritation was compounded when a player was sent off in each of the first three league fixtures, neither of which were won. Four points were taken from the first five fixtures. Between October and December 1999 the team failed to score in four consecutive four home league games to equal a dubious record dating back to November until December 1917. A 1-1 draw at home to Falkirk in December 1999 marked ten consecutive games without a win (one League Cup tie and nine in the league). In the Scottish Cup, Premier League clubs Dundee then Motherwell were beaten in our path to a quarter-final in which the next victim was Partick Thistle. Our only previous Scottish Cup semi-final had been in 1973. Alas 1973 was replicated in a defeat to Rangers at Hampden. A league finish of seventh fell well short of expectations.