At 65 minutes, we dared to dream.
Earlier, a nudge in the ribs at around 25 minutes with the ominous pronouncement that “this lot’s just not going to score today” was met with shushing from all around. But it was clear we were all thinking it.
By that stage in the first half, Killie were bossing it: the tactics were working. A few heart-stopping moments early on with silly wee square passes – across the front of the goal!! – had given way to some nice but fairly ineffectual football. By 30 minutes though, we were wearing Celtic down, even forcing them to make mistakes and spending more time in their half than in our own.
That first half was a great advert for Scottish football – few fouls, no cards, end to end stuff. Willie Collum, despite what Neil Lennon said rather unsportingly in the immediate aftermath, had a great game. He kept it clean and used a light touch. A few scrappy moments at the start of the second half were sorted out quickly and authoritatively. He allowed the football to flow, to everyone’s benefit.
The interval though, has to be the most boring half time I have ever witnessed. A film played on the big screens with appalling sound levels (it’s a Hampden problem, get it sorted!). A nice wee penalty shoot out, a heartfelt presentation to a child off to get potentially life-saving treatment in the US thanks to the generosity of football fans, and that was it. Nae choons, nae atmosphere. Sorry, but we deserve better.
And generally, the Killie fans did deserve better. Squashed into a corner of the ground, all the better to give the best view to the “big team” who presumably deserved to be there and whom the authorities clearly expected to win. How else to explain the shocking decision to have the Cup ceremony square in front of the main stands, watched by no-one, instead of moving it to where the Killie fans were corralled?
You can tell who’s used to winning. When we scored – oh boy, when we scored – the Celtic fans started heading for the exits. By the time Kilmarnock went up to collect the cup there was only a handful left in the ground. Yet, I recall on the two previous League Cup Final occasions when Killie got a doing, insisting to the Big Chicklet that we stay to the bitter end and we applaud our team for their efforts and when they collected their runners-up medals. Most other Killie supporters did the same.
That’s the difference when you support a team for whom winning is an occasion. Not only do you savour every moment but you always travel more in hope than in expectation, and behave accordingly.
But yes, by 65 minutes we dared to dream, albeit with our hearts in our mouths. Celtic certainly dominated the last 15 minutes and at times, it seemed like Cammy Bell was on a one man mission to keep us in the game. He was outstanding.
Our boys didn’t give up, and over the 90 minutes, we probably had as many shots on target as they did. The difference came through an inspired substitution by Kenny Shiels, who deserves plaudits for tactics which involved taking the game to the big boys.
A great cross in and bang. I’d like to say I was on my feet as soon as van Tornhout struck the ball with his heid but actually, we were all on our feet by that stage anyway. It might have been over in a flash, but all day the exact move has replayed in my mind – and no doubt will continue to do so for many years to come. It was a great cup-winning goal actually; a just reward for a real team effort.
And lo, Killie were in the lead. Celtic 0 Kilmarnock 1. Followed by the longest ten minutes of our lives.
We cheered, we jigged, we waved the flags and shouted ourselves hoarse. Cmon the Killie!! Scarves in the air and a rendition of Paper Roses, the fans’ anthem adopted by Killie supporters like the late Danny Coffey and John Dearie as a rejoinder to all the hate and violence that blighted Scottish football in their youth. Yep, it’s nonsense but it’s our nonsense. Then, at last, the final whistle.
There have been three times in my life I have been deliriously happy – the first two involved the birth of my children. And no, that’s not an exaggeration. To understand, you need to have followed a team through more dark days than light, through relegation near-misses and all the way through the doldrums of season after season playing for very little, bar the odd decent performance and uplifting, surprise win. Fifteen times Kilmarnock has tried to win that cup and it’s fifteen years since Killie won its last silverware; that’s how meaningful this triumph is.
Arrival in Kilmarnock to join the celebrations was met with the awful news that Liam Kelly’s father had died of the heart attack he suffered in the stands. Folk were stunned and talked of little else: a terrible tragedy for him, his family and indeed, the whole Killie family.
Everyone set it aside for a short while to celebrate the victory with an open-top bus parade all through the town and on to Rugby Park. It was lovely to stand in exactly the same spot as I did after the 97 Scottish Cup win to watch it all, seeing the famous John Finnie Street once again thronged with exultant supporters and townsfolk, only this time to be with my boys and to watch their faces as they joined in the celebrations. These memories last a lifetime.
Rightly, attention today has turned back to Liam Kelly’s loss, for this will always be a triumph tinged with sadness. Football often wears its heart on its sleeve: this is one of those occasions. Condolences have poured in from all around, with the most poignant comments from Kenny Shiels, the Killie manager.
Killie will celebrate and savour its triumph – it’s too important and too rare not to. But the Killie family will also rally round and look out for one of its brightest young stars and his kin: it’s not for nothing that the club motto is “confidimus”.