AYRSHIRE will witness a mass migration east at the end of January when Kilmarnock and Ayr United face each other in the highest-profile showdown in the history of their long and often bitter rivalry.
It now remains to be seen how far supporters of both clubs will have to travel to witness the battle for the right to face either Celtic or Falkirk in the final of the Scottish Communities League Cup. Immediately after yesterday’s semi-final draw at Hampden threw up the mouth-watering clash, Scottish Football League chief executive David Longmuir admitted to doubts over whether it will go ahead at the national stadium.
A smaller venue such as Fir Park, which would certainly be filled to its 14,000 capacity, will come under consideration while Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels has even called for the tie to go ahead in Edinburgh at either Tynecastle or Easter Road.
“We will have to discuss it with both clubs and the police,” said Longmuir. “It’s going to be a big movement of fans from Ayrshire on the day. We will take their travelling considerations into account. It just depends on whether you want to take two Ayrshire clubs further away than Glasgow or the Lanarkshire area. That’s the big question. Hampden with less than 20,000 in it doesn’t generate the best of atmosphere. Could there be more than that for Kilmarnock against Ayr? I’m not sure. I’ve had a chat with both managers and they are both bullish about what the size of the crowd might be. We will have to discuss it with both clubs and the police.”
The ties will take place on Saturday 28 January and Sunday 29 January, with all four clubs earning an equal share of gate receipts and television revenue. “It’s good that the games are on Saturday and Sunday afternoons now,” added Longmuir. “There is no evening game, which is a big help. Last year, between the two semis, there were 65,000 fans at Hampden. Both of the Old Firm clubs were involved then and I’m not saying we’ll get anything like that this time. But we could certainly get a big crowd for an Ayrshire derby. We will have to wait and see which of the semis the BBC want to televise live and whether that will be the Saturday or Sunday. It will have to fit in with Sky Sports and ESPN commitments that weekend.”
Despite the additional travelling expenses a trip to Tynecastle or Easter Road would entail for supporters, Kilmarnock manager Shiels insists Edinburgh could provide the most suitable venue.
“The two Edinburgh grounds look good to me,” said Shiels. “St Mirren Park is not big enough and Motherwell are at home that weekend in the SPL. So it is Easter Road, Tynecastle or as a last resort Hampden because I think 20,000 at Hampden would be swallowed up. It would deflate the atmosphere. That is a personal opinion. Everyone says there could be 30,000 at this but I do not know. Tynecastle would be great I think. I know that would be two teams from the west of Scotland travelling to the east but that in itself might add to the whole occasion of it and make it a day out.”
Ayr United manager Brian Reid, whose First Division part-timers have already knocked SPL trio Inverness, Hearts and St Mirren out of the tournament, was equally content with the draw as he bids to lead the Somerset Park club into the final for the first time since 2002. “I was kind of expecting it and I’m reasonably pleased with it,” said Reid. “We’ve got to believe we can win it. We have beaten three SPL clubs already. To be one step away from a major final with a club like Ayr United is fantastic. They got there in 2002 but that was when they were throwing money about in the Bill Barr era. They were full-time and on big wages at the time. It’s a far greater achievement with a young squad who are part-time.”
Kilmarnock captain Manuel Pascali colourfully labelled the tie as Ayrshire’s answer to El Clasico. “I will never experience Barcelona against Real Madrid as a player,” said Pascali, “but that’s what this is to the people of Ayrshire.
“It means every bit as much. I played against Ayr in the Scottish Cup in 2009, we beat them in a replay after a draw at Somerset Park, and they were fantastic. All of the fans told me it didn’t matter if we got relegated that season, so long as we didn’t lose to Ayr. This is maybe the biggest Ayrshire derby ever and will be the biggest game of my career.”
The other semi-final will see Falkirk manager Steven Pressley seeking a hat-trick of shock results against his former clubs, having accounted for Rangers and Dundee United in earlier rounds. He is bullish about his young side’s prospects of adding Celtic to their impressive collection of scalps. “If we prepare properly, then an upset is always possible,” said Pressley. “We will genuinely believe that we can cause an upset. We need to be well-organised and play to our game plan and really play to our optimum level to beat Celtic.”
Pressley expects to be crossing swords with his former Celtic team-mate Neil Lennon when the semi comes around in January, despite the current pressure on the Parkhead manager. “I don’t just hope he is still there, I think it’s a certainty,” said Pressley. “The problem with the Old Firm is that there is no breathing space and it is such a difficult job. It’s important that Celtic remain strong with [Lennon].”
Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final draw:
Falkirk v Celtic
Ayr United v Kilmarnock
Ties to be played on Saturday 28 January and Sunday 29 January