Back to the Foot-Ture — E6

What a time to be alive on the West Coast. The buzz around Rugby Park is palpable even walking into the ground at 4am on a Monday. As I go through to the dugout (to search for a lost coat) I realise this buzz is around 20 youths that have broken in to play on the hallowed rubber turf. I stand and watch for 5 minutes as they run around in the January darkness illuminated by the lights of their phones. I chuckle and give them 5 minutes before firing up the floodlights and scaring the living shite out of all of them as they scatter.

It’s another busy week in the office as I try to find a move for Stokesy after his transfer fell through when the window opened. I get a phonecall from an unknown number and when I answer, its the dulcet tones of none other than John Terry. He’s been parachuted into Tynecastle and given a silly amount of money to spend.

He offers me 250k for Stokes and I counter and ask for 500k — “Sold!” he says “And while your at it I’ll take that Polworth geezer you have…same dough?!”. If I didn’t know better I could swear I hear him counting notes in the background. Whatever he’s counting, I’m having it. It’s a ludicrously good outcome for us. Cardiff match the Polworth offer the following day and Liam tells me he’s taking a few days to decide. But I’m a million quid up and can smell the transfer market waiting for me.

Before I can splurge, we welcome Dunfermline to Rugby Park. It’s a filthy day in Ayrshire, with a cutting breeze blowing in. I wear 3 hoodies as I step into the dugout and tells Catts he’s on touchline patrol. I want a nap and 3 points. After his impact off the bench in the last game, George gets his first start with Scotty moving up front.

Scott Fraser gets us started with his first goal for the club in the 6th minute,but we lose Liam Gordon and Big Kev by the 17th minute, meaning a major reshuffle of personnel and some anxious looks from some of our staff. Not to worry though as Scotty gets a brace and George Byers caps a great half of football with a goal leaving us 4–0 up at half-time. Scotty scores from the spot not long after the restart and we coast through in 2nd gear to the full-time whistle.

Kev is out for 2 weeks and Liam out for 3, but I look at the squad and decide against burning cash for cover. Liam Polworth rejects the overtures from Gorgie to head down to Wales and join Cardiff for 500k, and suddenly we are cash rich again with a healthy £1.3m budget to spend. I just hope John Terry doesn’t come here any time soon wondering where Liam has gone.

Its a long trip up to 2nd placed Inverness the following Saturday and we are missing Liam Gordon, Big Kev along with Ikechi and Peter Grant who got injured in a training ground collision giving them identical two-week shoulder absences. I shuffle the pack and can only name 6 subs, but nonetheless I’m confident. I’ve promised the team and Loch Ness Monster keyring for each of them if they win and I’ve never seen Liam Scales so excited.

We take a the lead through Scott Fraser on 35 minutes with a header from a Donnelly cross, but they equalise 2 minutes later and probably have the better of the half. Tony Watt gets hooked on the hour and we go back to the shape of the game before with Byers further forwards but they continue to frustrate us. In the 79th minute, Walker makes a great save from Billy Mckay, but the resulting corner sees Manny Duku leaping like a salmon to head in and give them a 2–1 lead that we can’t recover from. Our first defeat in our 24th League game.

I try not to be too hard on the players and stop short at telling them all that they don’t deserve to live. I give the players the week off and we meet at the ground on the Friday to travel up and stay overnight before our cup tie against Montrose. They are third in League 1 and have a couple of good players. I go with a similar lineup to last week out of necessity, but Fraser starts on the left and Hope Akpan comes into the centre to reform his early season partnership with Melker. Scotty gets a rest as we try to unlock the undoubted potential of Tony Watt.

Its a far better performance than the scoreline suggests. We have 3 goals disallowed from Melker, George and Tony and dominate proceedings more-or-less throughout. In the end its Melker’s early goal that gets us through to the next round and it’s no less than we deserve.

We get our draw for the next round the following day, which is a trip to St Johnstone. I’m pleased with this as its a good test to see how we match up against a Premier League side that have similar resources to us. By the time it rolls around we should have everyone back to full fitness as well which makes it an even more intriguing tie.

The final day of the window rolls around and I make an extremely reluctant phonecall back to Edinburgh to ask about Peter Haring’s availability. John is incredibly reasonable and asks for 500k and I offer 250k which he immediately accepts…the man has the negotiation power of a heroin addict at a heroin addict convention. However Haring has no interest in joining us bizarrely which puts a kaibosh on my final piece of the jigsaw and sends me scrambling back to the transfer list. I’m incensed when he then accepts a pre-contract to join Falkirk in the summer and put his name on my ever increasing shitlist.

Luckily for me, a solution in part isn’t far away. As we say goodbye to Swiss Alain Wiss for 160k, we welcome Adam Jackson and Conor McGrandles in a double swoop from Lincoln.

Both of them are excellent squad additions and McGrandles continues our trend of bring Scottish players back north of the border. Both come into the squad for the 3rd Ayrshire derby of the season as we travel back to the “Shitehole” to face Jim Duffy’s men. I arrive to the ground late as I’ve concluded negotiations with another Bosman for the summer, adding some more international pedigree and flair. Big Kev is fit to return and Adam Jackson makes his debut on the right hand side of defence. George plays off Scotty up top.

Ayr very nearly open the scoring in the opening minute but Walker saves smartly from Adeloye. We miss chances from Byers and Melker before Marsh-Brown drives at the defence and puts the bastards 1–0 up in the 22nd minute. Furious, I skulk up to the touchline and tell Scott Fraser to “Get it fucking sorted” and that he does, first getting the equaliser with a header and then linking up with George to set up Robbo to turn it back to 2–1. I’m happy with the turnaround, and this turns to ecstasy when Byers is felled by Fjortoft and Robbo slots the penalty home to make it 3–1 at the break.

Straight from kick-off we attack and Melker gets on the end of a loose ball to slot home for 4–1 but Marsh-Brown gets one back 5 minutes later. It’s an incredible game for the neutral but even better to be a Killie fan when Robbo gets his hat-trick with a terrific curling effort from another Byers assist. The Sloshnan breaks out in the stands and we should make it 6 but the referee chalks off Scotty Fraser’s late shot — cue much booing and cries for the referee to take his face for a shite.

That said, there’s clearly only one team in Ayrshire and they are wearing Blue and White!

Believe me when I tell you that Monday rolls around and the vast majority of the squad are still drunk. After a rollocking Saturday night, we have a golf day on the Sunday involving various forfeits relating to being over/under par, out of bounds, or breathing. It’s an interesting training landscape to navigate but we get a good week behind us ahead of the visit of Raith to Rugby Park. Curiously, in the week I get a 500k bid for 34 year old Ikechi Anya from Rangers. I ask them for 750 but even then I’m reluctant. I’ve really grown rather fond of him.

Saturday rolls around and I have a fully fit squad to choose from for the first time in weeks. Peter Grant returns to skipper the side from DMC but otherwise we roll again and at half-time we are 2–0 yet again thanks to Robbo and Melker. A reply from James Keatings (playing for his 73rd Championship club in 7 seasons) makes it interesting but we win a penalty and Tony Watt steps up to open his club account and give us a final score of 3–1.

And now to the big one…St Johnstone away in the 5th round of the cup. I try to get Liam Gordon to give us the lowdown on them but he’s mysteriously absent. That is until I realise his loan deal expired 2 weeks ago…I phone Callum Davidson and say something about mulligans and Liam is back for Monday morning.

We arrive at McDiarmid Park early and are forced to sit in the bus for an extra hour as they haven’t opened up yet. We watch the first 2/3rds of “Blackball” before eventually getting the go ahead to enter the changing rooms. We bring back Liam to face his parent club, and Big Kev drops into the engine room. Scott Fraser moves right and Ikechi comes back in on the left as we slightly modify our shape.

For the first time this season, the boys seem nervous. Arguably, with St Johnstone 6th in the Premiership they are favourites but the media are rightly talking us up. I tell the players this is their time to send a message that we are Killie,and we are fucking back with a pool cue and a broken pint glass. They roar with approval and tear out onto the turf in freezing, damp conditions. Lovely…

Yet again we’ve been tied into a game that is more like spot the difference. I’m excited when an attacker opens up space early on and shoots, only to realise that Sam Walker has saved it. I’ve been watching the wrong team as they’re in blue with yellow trim and we are blue with white.

We have a decent chance when Melker shoots straight at Zander Clark and they counter with a chance for Liam Craig. He takes a shot which is cleared away and Murray Davidson tries to put in a cross, which he inadvertantly puts in the far corner, dipping and swerving over Sam Walker. Fuck. We huff and puff for the remainder of the half but no luck. We don’t even get a shot on target.

I move Kev back into midfield and give the boys a well placed bollocking. St Johnstone have been 50 shades of beige and have scored with a trick shot John Virgo would have been proud of but I am not having this. We are winning this tie.

Straight from kick-off Big Kev drives forwards towards the box. He shapes to pass wide to the advancing Fraser but instead plays a gorgeous ball through the lines to Robbo, who shoots low across the keeper whilst half the fans are still making their way back to their seats! 1–1!

They have the better of the next 20 minutes and I push Big Kev back again, mostly to counter the threat of the annoyingly prominent Gavin Whyte. The game gets increasingly cagey and with 10 minutes left a promising Saints free-kick goes nowhere. I turn to Callum Davidson and he eyeballs me and mouths the word ‘pitching wedge’. This next ten minutes is all or nothing. I bring on Tony Watt for George Byers.

Straight away he is into the action and flashes a header wide from a great cross by Robbo, and he then charges down a clearance to give us possession and a chance falls to Stevie in the box…WIDE! We press for a winner and win a corner in the 90th minute — which is headed away by the impressive Jamie McCart. 1–1. Replay at ours.

The good news for us (and for the wordcount of this fucking episode) it is that its an immediate replay on the Wednesday. We get our draw for the next round (should we get through — Livingston at home — winnable) and then its straight to focusing on the task at hand. Trying to turn over the Saints. I decide that given we are at home I’ll start with Kev in central midfield rather than the engine room, and I give Tony a start with Robbo playing off him. Rugby Park is bouncing as we walk out, as is the sleet off the stands. I stand resolutely in the dugout in my novelty Wenger coat. Here we go.

Straight from kick off we get up the pitch as Melker finds Robbo. He lays it into the path of Scotty Fraser who puts in a wicked ball to the back stick for Ikechi steaming in…WIDE! So close to an opener. And two minutes later we have one as Tony Watt repays my faith, grabbing the ball just outside the box, turning Efe Ambrose inside out and firing low beyond Clark. 1–0!

They attack straight away, but we look right up to the task and a strong challenge by Grant sets us away again. Scotty gets us moving up the left and a flick on from Robbo finds Tony Watt, who has a speculative effort that flies past Clark to make it 2–0 after 10 minutes!

And just a minute later, Ikechi gets some space to go on a mazy run down the left. He feints in and out and sends Efe Ambrose to Tillicoultry and back, only to be brought down savagely by Zander Clark for his endeavour. Penalty! And you can bet Tony Watt steps up to make it 3–0 after just 12 minutes!

We nearly have a 4th through McDonald on 14 minutes which is chalked off for offside, but this is rampant stuff. We should be 5 up by half-time but we remain at 3–0 at the break, with their only riposte being a strike by Hasselbaink which hits the post and goes wide.

And beautifully, the second half is a fucking non-event. At this point I’m mainlining Bovril and jogging up and down on the spot to keep warm. Scott Fraser forces a save from a fre-kick but otherwise we stay compact, keep the ball, and give ourselves a great draw in the next round.

What a team. What a result. I’ll celebrate it after I thaw out my toes. Rugby Park in February is no fucking joke.

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Writing about Championship Manager 2001–02 with no regard for my own personal sanity.

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@CMOnTheRocks

Writing about Championship Manager 2001–02 with no regard for my own personal sanity.