The Cup Winners’ Cup campaign had given Killie and their fans a taste for European football in what was a high point in the club’s fortunes.
The 1997/98 season ended with the club in fourth place in the SPL and qualifying by right for the following season’s UEFA Cup (a first since it had replaced the old Inter Cities Fairs Cup).
The club had, with the backing of Jim Moffat, put together an exceptional squad with the likes of Gordon Marshall, Pat Nevin, Ally McCoist and Ian Durrant having been added to the roster.
The bad news was that Killie would face two Qualifying rounds before the draw proper. And there was great excitement – or was it trepidation? – when the draw sent Killie to Sarajevo in Bosnia which had been ravaged by the horrific civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
Their opponents were FK Željezničar and the first leg was to be in the Asim Ferhatović stadium on 22 July.
It seems scarcely credible to write but, between 1991 and 1995, Bosnia had been the scene of a savage war following the partitioning of Yugoslavia into the independent states of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia.
Bosnia was populated by a multi-ethnic mix of Muslim Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. The Bosnian Serbs declared their own independent state and proceeded to annexe Muslim land, while the Croats similarly invaded Bosnian territory.
The war was characterised by “ethnic cleansing” – the mass slaughter, rape and deportation of Muslims by Serb regular and irregular forces under Ratko Mladić – in the face of NATO impotence, and the laying waste of Muslim villages, towns and cities, not least the sustained bombardment of Sarajevo. An estimated 11,000 citizens were killed during the four-year siege of the city alone. It was only when NATO intervened militarily that the conflict ceased.
This is a gross simplification of the conflict but is merely intended to put into some context the significance of Killie travelling to play a football match so soon after a war which – at the end of the 20th century on European soil – saw the massacre of civilians on no grounds other than nationality and religion. Shameful.
Manager Bobby Williamson and Secretary Kevin Collins made a reconnaissance trip to Sarajevo before the tie. Whether his reported statement that “Playing there would be like playing in Castlemilk” was an attempt to reassure the players and their families or a crass trivialisation, you can be the judge. But it was not without some fears that the players flew into Sarajevo, the thousands of crosses marking recently dug graves being visible on approach.
Despite the difficulties in reaching what had recently been a war zone, the Killie footsoldiers were present as ever!
Those who were present can give a better account of the match than me but the summary would be that it was played before a loud and enthusiastic crowd of 22,000, Kevin McGowne gave Killie a 1-0 lead in the 55th minute and this was cancelled out in the 66th minute.
The Željezničar officials presented their opposite numbers with an engraved shell case, an appropriate memento of the most poignant match in Killie’s European history.
The return match was one week later on 29 July. A huge crowd of 14,512 turned out prompted by reduced pricing of £8 and £2 although I was posted missing, being on holiday in Finland.
Killie took 31 minutes to break down the Bosnian defence through a diving header by Alan Mahood. Thereafter, Killie proceeded to protect their lead without much difficulty and the Željezničar players left the field and the tournament to a heart-warming ovation.
The UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Round saw Killie drawn against SK Sigma Olomouc of the Czech Republic with the first leg away on 11 August.
Olomouc is a small, picturesque university city in the east of the Czech Republic on the Morava River, situated 150 miles from Prague. With no direct flights from the UK and two and a half hours by rail from Prague, I couldn’t get the time off work. For those 250 or so who made the journey though, it was probably one of the best of Killie’s second European era.
The match was played in the afternoon heat, estimated at 90 F, and Killie were always going to have a tough task against a Sigma team which would finish fourth in their domestic league that season. Killie were without Pat Nevin, John Henry, Dylan Kerr and the ineligible Ally McCoist.
Sigma were kept at bay until the 26th minute when Krohmer scored. Before a crowd of only 3,669 in the small Andrův stadium, Killie came more into the match in the second half and looked on the verge of taking a good result back to Scotland before Konig doubled the Czechs’ lead in the 78th minute.
The second leg was played at Rugby Park on 25 August. Hoping to get the backing of a big crowd to help annul the two-goal deficit, the club reduced admission prices to £8 and £2 once more. They were rewarded with a good crowd of 11,140 but, alas, the tie was soon killed as a contest by goals from the outstanding Marek Heinz and Mucha inside the first 20 minutes.
Killie plugged away and fashioned a few chances but the game was up long before Alex Burke was sent off near the end for a second yellow card.
Had Killie won, they would have returned to the south of France, to Marseille who comfortably defeated Sigma in the First Round.
When the SPL ceased for the winter break, Killie were in second place, only four points behind Rangers and six ahead of Celtic, with only three defeats in 21 matches.
The break came at the worst possible time for Killie who were flying and they only added sixteen points from the 15 matches post-break to finish in fourth place. To add insult to injury, the Scottish Cup Third Round draw sent Killie back to Somerset Park where they were comprehensively beaten 3-0.
However, overall, the club’s fortunes were still very much in the ascent and, due largely to the charismatic McCoist, media interest in the club had rarely been higher, evidenced by a “Gotcha!” prank at Rugby Park by Noel Edmonds in his top-rated House Party tv programme and Robert Duvall filming a “straight to DVD” film – A Shot At Glory – with McCoist
First Qualifying Round
22/07/98 – FK Željezničar 1 (0) Kilmarnock 1 (0) (Att. 22,000)
29/07/98 – Kilmarnock 1 (1) FK Željezničar 0 (0) (Att. 14,512)
Second Qualifying Round
11/08/98 – Sigma Olomouc 2 (1) Kilmarnock 0 (0) (Att. 3,669)
25/08/98 – Kilmarnock 0 (0) Sigma Olomouc 2 (2) (Att. 11,140)