The summer signings in 2000 were beyond remarkable. Dundee had no shortage of interest for strikers James Grady and Eddie Annand but while other clubs pondered an ‘either or’ situation, Ayr United signed them both. From Hibs came John ‘Yogi’ Hughes, Pat McKinley, Paul Lovering and Michael Renwick. As in 1998 there was a pre-season tour to Sweden. Again there was an early season injury crisis but it did not prevent a credible promotion challenge. By the end of October sixteen points had been taken from a possible eighteen at home. In early December 2000 a 7-3 defeat at Inverness was concerning. This was redressed by a 6-0 win away to Morton on 2nd January, 2001. Glynn Hurst became the first Ayr United player to score five in a competitive fixture since Peter Price in 1955. Hurst responded by stating that he wished to return to England. He did not score for Ayr United again and was sold to Stockport County in mid-February. There was another 6-0 rout in March when Falkirk visited. It was a superb result against the third-placed club. Matches were being played in the knowledge that, even in the event of winning the league, promotion would not happen because Somerset Park was not compliant. Livingston won the league and therefore promotion. We were runners-up.
A defeat at Airdrie in August 2001 was only the club’s second league defeat since Christmas. Unfortunately this was not a blip. When Arbroath won 1-0 at Ayr in November it was our seventh league defeat of the season. Second bottom place was then occupied in the First Division. Not even the most wildly optimistic fan could have predicted that the club was on the brink of a transformation so dramatic that it would take Ayr United into previously uncharted territory. At this time we had reached the quarter-finals of the League Cup having beaten Stranraer and Kilmarnock. Since 1996 Ayr United had now beaten Kilmarnock four times in cup competition and the fans knew it. Beating Inverness Caledonian Thistle 5-1 at Ayr ensured a safe passage to the semi-finals. On the historic date of 6th February, 2002, Hibs were beaten 1-0 after extra-time in a League Cup semi-final at Hampden. The scorer was Eddie Annand. There was no historical precedent for an Ayr United team reaching a major final. On St. Patrick’s Day in 2002 we lost to Rangers in the final but six days later Ayr United returned to Hampden to contest a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic. Again it was defeat but there was a sense of the ‘big time’. In First Division fare the team recovered to finish third in the First Division. The defeat against Arbroath in November had been dark literally and metaphorically but they do say that night is darkest just before the dawn.
At the end of 2001/02 fourteen players got released. That list included John Hughes, Neil Duffy, Marvyn Wilson, Pat McKinley and John Robertson all of whom were experienced. A July friendly at home to Stranraer gave a clue as to the future direction of the club. The Ayr United squad contained fourteen teenagers. After losing the first two league fixtures of 2002/03 fears was allayed when the three remaining fixtures in August were won. By early November the red card count was seven (two in the Challenge Cup and five in the league). That same month saw an outstanding 2-0 win away to St. Johnstone. Four days later Gordon Dalziel stepped down as manager whereupon he was quickly replaced by Campbell Money whose background in youth development made him an eminently sensible choice considering the number of young players in the squad. Finishing sixth in the league table represented a drop yet there were few dissenting voices.
In the summer of 2003 departures included James Grady, Eddie Annand, Paul Lovering, Craig Nelson and Nelson’s goalkeeping understudy John Dodds. Ludovic Roy and John Hillcoat came in to fill the goalkeeping void. As anticipated 2003/04 was a season of struggle. The season’s first win did not occur until the last Saturday of September when a stoppage time goal clinched the points at home to Brechin City. On the last Saturday of 2003 intense pressure had to be withstood to cling on to a 1-0 lead at home to Raith Rovers. It was a very important score. It brought the club level on points with third bottom Raith who still had the edge on goal difference. Ally MacLeod died on 1st February. 2004. The attitude was ‘let us go on and achieve safety for Ally’s sake.’ Unfortunately the tough world of professional football pays little heed to sentiment. The outcome was relegation along with bottom club Brechin City.
In the summer of 2004 there was no broad opinion that Ayr United would make a quick return to the second tier. It transpired that five seasons were required. The third league fixture of the season was a 2-1 defeat at Stranraer. In the aftermath Campbell Money quit. It was still just in August. In time for the following Saturday, Mark Shanks was installed as manager. Gradually the team slipped out of promotion contention. On the first Saturday of December 2004 there was the ignominy of a 5-0 defeat at Brechin. It was striker Stewart Kean’s last game pending his sale to St. Mirren. Ultimately we would end the season with the worst scoring record in the Second Division. On 1st March, 2005, Mark Shanks resigned. Three days later, Robert Connor took over, initially as interim manager. It was too late to create an appreciable impact. Eight out of ten in the third tier had an adverse effect on morale. Eleven players were released and attempts to keep Marc Smyth, Ludovic Roy, Willie Lyle all failed while Andrew Ferguson honoured his pre-season contract with Dundee.
Full time football had been running since 1989 but for the start of 2005/06 it was at an end, at least in the meantime. Summer recruitment was prolific. It included seven players from Junior clubs. Early season form was at odds with the trepidation. In fact a draw at Gretna broke the club’s sequence of twenty-two consecutive home league wins. The midweek prior to this match saw a 2-1 away win against First Division Ross County in the League Cup. There was no league defeats until the eight fixture and even then it was merely 1-0 at home to a Morton team scoring in the 88th minute. By early November a run of three consecutive defeats (including 6-0 at Dumbarton) plunged Ayr United into third bottom place. A 4-0 win away to second-placed Morton on 25th March, impressive though it was, comprised the first win of 2006. This ended a thirteen-game winless run (eleven in the league and two in the Scottish Cup). Against a background of moderate expectations the fans seemed at ease with finishing sixth.
When the 2006/07 league season opened with a 3-1 win at Stirling there was elation amongst the fans. Contrasting emotions were in evidence the following Saturday when Cowdenbeath won 4-0 at Somerset Park. It was indicative of an early season pattern. On 23rd September, 2006, a 2-0 victory took the points total to thirteen, all of which had been won away from home. There were criticisms of a 4-5-1 formation being deployed, even in home matches. Then a player burst onto the scene who considerably enlivened matters. That player was Ryan Stevenson. Initially he was on loan from St. Johnstone and then he was purchased from that club. His debut was in a 1-1 draw at Cowdenbeath. His home debut was in a 5-0 win over Forfar Athletic. Yet the Forfar result created a false optimism. On 26th February, 2007, Robert Connor resigned. At this time we had only won one of the previous fourteen league games and even that was by courtesy of a stoppage time goal at home to Stranraer. A temporary management team was put in place comprising of goalkeeper Mark McGeown, central defender Brian Reid and director Alex Ingram. Within a month Neil Watt was named as the new boss. After sitting perilously close to the drop zone there was enough of a recovery to finish fifth.
During the close season of 2007 Mr Watt acquired a number of players whom he had formerly worked with at Stranraer. They were David Hamilton, Michael Moore, Murray Henderson, Barry John Corr, Stephen Swift and Craig Higgins. The re-acquaintainceship got severed when Mr Watt resigned on 22nd October, 2007. On the following day Brian Reid became the new manager. Two days before the resignation Ross County had won 4-1 at Somerset Park. It had been 4-0 by the 31st minute and the reaction by the fans was ample testimony to the prevailing mood. After losing 4-1 at home to Cowdenbeath on 1st December, Mr Reid pledged to enter the transfer market in the January transfer window. Losing 5-1 at Brechin on the last Saturday of the year reinforced that pledge. His signings were Iain Anderson, William Easton, Neil McGowan, Paul McLeod (loan) and Mark Staunton (loan). Six away league wins were gained from the last seven of the season. This was a close challenge to the club record of seven consecutive away league wins in 1958/59. In the context of 2007/08 it was a mercy that this run did not occur. There had been a danger of finishing second bottom then getting drawn into a play-off to avoid relegation. In the event fourth bottom was acceptable for now.
In opening league fixtures at home Ayr United have had a 0-0 draw three times – 1924, 1966 and 2008. Each time the gap has been forty-two years. Ayr United 0 Raith Rovers 0 could have been foretold at the beginning of 2008/09. However it was not foretold that Ayr United and Raith Rovers would be vying with each other for the Second Division title. A home win against Arbroath on 16th August was our first home league victory since 26th January. The placings at the top were tight. So much so that an away defeat to East Fife on 27th September meant dropping from top place to third. There was little margin for error. On 31st January, 2009, Raith Rovers visited Ayr for a game billed as a six-pointer. The visitors were 2-0 up by the ninth minute but a potentially catastrophic situation was avoided due to a fightback for a 2-2 draw. We therefore remained five points behind top-placed Raith with two games in hand. On 14th March the teams resumed hostilities at Stark’s Park for another six-pointer. Raith Rovers 0 Ayr United 1 – we now had a three-point lead over second placed Raith. In the run-in a 1-0 defeat at Brechin meant that we dropped to second place. There was now a two-deficit with three games left. It proved insurmountable but on a memorable day at Airdrie promotion was achieved via the play-offs. Defeat in the play-off final would still have secured promotion due to Livingston’s enforced relegation to the Third Division over financial misdealing. Ayr United were unbeaten at home in the league all season.
In preparation for season 2009/10 the Ayr United squad went to a training camp in Austria. Irrespective of the thoroughness of the preparations the First Division proved to be very testing. A 1-1 draw at home to Ross County in November was enough to lift Ayr United off the bottom. However any attempt at headway was soon thwarted by the severe winter. On 5th December, 2009, Dunfermline Athletic were beaten 1-0 at Ayr. The club’s next home league match took place on 6th March 2010. Between those dates Somerset Park hosted a Scottish Cup tie with Brechin City. The January transfer window was extended to 1st February because the 31st was a Sunday. On that Monday Ryan Stevenson was sold to Hearts. Nonetheless the team rallied sufficiently to create hope of avoiding relegation. That hope was emphatically crushed when eight of the last nine league fixtures were lost. This run included a 7-0 loss at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Bottom place meant straight relegation in the club’s centenary year.