Something in the Ayr

by Daniel Gray

Last Saturday both Ayr United and Greenock Morton were eliminated from the Scottish Cup. Despite millions taking to the streets of Cairo in protest, these seismic events failed to make the main evening news.

During the research for my book Stramash: Tackling Scotland’s Towns and Teams (always best to get the plug out of the way quickly, as anyone with an overflowing bath will tell you), I visited the homes of both clubs.

At Somerset Park and Cappielow respectively, I stood on beautiful terraces and remembered that football, despite all its gluttony, could still be life-affirming; you just had to dig deep and move down the divisions. And, down here, the advertising hoardings were better: ‘Watch Out: Chlamydia’s About’ read one at Ayr. 

Just as part of Stramash is the social history of the towns I visited, so too is part of it the footballing histories of teams like Ayr and Morton. Their eliminations allowed me to mentally revisit better cup days I had first encountered while pouring over old newspapers and archives.

Those days included a Saturday in 1890, and a Scottish Cup tie between Ayr FC, one of the two clubs who later amalgamated to form United, and Hearts. Keeping goal for the home side that day was Fullarton Steel, an eccentric prone to entertaining the crowd by making saves with his feet alone. After Steel made one such stop, opposition forward Davie Russell thrust a boot into his chest.

A scrap broke out between the two sides, and home fans jumped the rope around the side of the pitch to launch an attack on Russell.

Pursued by this mob, the petrified forward sprinted for the safety of the main stand and jumped in. He then borrowed a coat and hat, and watched the rest of the match incognito as a petrified spectator.

In that era’s match reports, journalists ranked facts and statistics a poor second behind evocative prose and off-pitch observation. Witness this, from the Ayr Observer, ahead of another Ayr cup tie, this time in 1909 at Peebles:

 The good people of Peebles must have thought their ancient town invaded as they saw the force, three hundred strong, making its way under a banner, which, by its torn appearance, might have done duty at Flodden, up the station road and across the bridge over the Tweed into the town.

Up until World War II, the now familiar and cliched magic of the cup did not last only until heroic defeat in the latter rounds; anyone could win the thing. In 1922, Morton did just that.

In the season leading up to their Scottish Cup Final against Rangers, George French had scored 37 goals. A town’s hopes were vested in his golden boots, and when it was announced that injury would prevent him from playing, Greenock went into shock and the local paper bemoaned French’s withdrawal as an event ‘like the loss of a Wellington before Waterloo.’

Leaving the melodrama for others, the Morton team took the lead through a Jimmy Gourlay free-kick and then matched the Blues in every department, including the one named GBH.

With Waterloo still on the mind, the Greenock Telegraph depicted the bloodbath:

In blunt plainness it was evident that nothing would be permitted to keep Rangers from securing a coveted goal in the second-half. And thus one after another the Morton players suffered more than inconvenience and more than once the referee had to make a few judicial remarks to individual players. But there were incidents he didn’t see. [Morton goalkeeper] Edwards came well out of the scrimmage at goal when it looked as if he were not only to be killed, but also buried.

Even without their Wellington, Morton held on. After the last whistle blew, the ’Ton players danced their way from the pitch singing ‘When the Stormy Winds do Blow’ and set about liberating some champagne from the Hampden cellar.

There was to be no triumphant night out in Greenock as the club’s board had kindly arranged a fixture with Hartlepool for early the next week. So it was that Morton came to celebrate their victory in a north-east town which hadn’t seen such commotion since its infamous monkey hanging.

That might all seem irrelevant, and frankly it is. But its uselessness is beautiful, and just imagine if the Hartlepool bit comes up in a pub quiz.

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