NEUTRALITY was no hardship at Wembley yesterday, but at Ibrox on Saturday they had better bar me from the press box and put me in the ranks of the prejudiced. Kilmarnock are in the Scottish Cup final for the first time in 37 years and as a minibus-load of our family makes the 20-mile journey from Ayrshire to Glasgow for the game, journalistic objectivity will be dumped somewhere on the Fenwick Moor, bound and gagged with a blue-and-white scarf. If my professional habits were meant to hold out against hometown loyalties, surely they would have been given more practice. Killie haven't won the Cup in my lifetime.
They are odds-on favourites now in a betting market shaped by the fact that their opponents, Falkirk, were relegated from the Scottish Premier Division last year, having lost three of their four fixtures against Kilmarnock on their way down to the First Division. But more complicated omens are in play.
When the same clubs met in the final of 1957, (right) Falkirk were outsiders but took the trophy after a replay. They have contested only two finals but won both, whereas Kilmarnock have just a couple of victories to show from seven appearances dating back to 1898.
Not once since that collision 40 years ago has the national showdown brought together two teams from unashamedly provincial towns. When the intervening matches were not being monopolised by Rangers and Celtic, they involved at least one club from Edinburgh, Dundee or Aberdeen. It is the supreme attraction of the occasion that there is no Goliath around this time, unless it is the Falkirk centre-half, Kevin James, who stands 6ft 7in.
Many in Scotland are naturally welcoming this final as a wholesome respite from the bitter intensity of the Rangers-Celtic rivalry, a day when children will be taken to Ibrox without fear of exposing them to hooliganism or obscene chants. The youngest in our committed (some might say committable) contingent will be eight years old. The eldest? Well, even a reporter is allowed to be coy sometimes.
Kilmarnock competed in the first tie ever played in the Scottish Cup on October 18, 1873 (Kilmarnock, Dumbarton and Queen's Park are the only clubs to take part in the initial tournament that are still in existence today) but had to wait until 1920 for the thrill of carting the silver back to Ayrshire. Albion Rovers were their fairly modest victims but when they repeated the triumph nine years later it was with a 2-0 defeat of Rangers, who were - as David Ross gleefully recalls in his excellent official history of the Kilmarnock club - 16 points clear of Celtic in the League and widely considered unbeatable in the Cup. Their astonishing demolition ensured that in 1929 there were people in Sauchiehall Street as well as Wall Street who felt themselves drawn to high window ledges. Killie supporters were never likely to get carried away as a result of that upset (intoxicated yes, carried away no - in the town that produces Johnnie Walker they have pride about such matters) and their sense of proportion these days is helped by reminders from Glasgow that Rangers beat them in the finals of 1898, 1932 and 1960.
By that last date, I was working as a sportswriter with The Scotsman but perhaps I'll be forgiven for admitting that memories of the action are less vivid than images from the Real Madrid-Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup final that displayed the wonders of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento on the same Hampden turf a month later. Three years before, when Falkirk did us in, I was a news reporter with the Daily Express but I had only recently left the Kilmarnock Standard and my involvement with the cause was total.
Since moving to London more than 30 years ago, and becoming concerned with chronicling the activities of the big battalions in the south, my awareness of events around Rugby Park has grown more vague. But what has never faded is the sense of the warmth and self-deprecating humour that pervade the old town's affection for its team. The locals may tell you that if you have a grudge against a man you should give him a greyhound or a Kilmarnock season ticket, but the communal loyalty is deep and persistent.
Sometimes it can be a little fierce. That was the case when Tommy Burns, who (from unpromising beginnings as a player-manager) had brilliantly raised them from the Second to the Premier Division, defected abruptly to Celtic. It was unreasonable to ask that Burns, given his Celtic roots, should resist the overtures from Parkhead and anybody who suggests that his recent eviction from the manager's job there was poetic justice deserves chastising with that celebrated item of traditional headgear, the Big Kilmarnock Bunnet. Alex Totten, who took over for a spell after Burns's departure, is in charge of Falkirk and that will bring an extra edge to the proceedings when the present manager, Bobby Williamson, leads his men out on Saturday. With victories in the League lately over Rangers and Celtic, Williamson has grounds for confidence, especially if the wide players he has nurtured since he was a coach with Kilmarnock's youth squad, Alex Burke (19) and David Bagan (20), perform at their penetrative best and the experienced and skilful striker, Paul Wright, recovers from the injury inflicted by an opponent's studs.
As he surveys a town bright with visual and loud with verbal declarations of support, and marvels at the clamorous eagerness with which all 23,500 tickets allocated to the club were bought up, Williamson knows how much this final means to a proud community that has suffered grievously in the past few decades.
Kilmarnock was once blessed with such a rich diversity and reassuring balance of industries that, among Scotland's medium-sized towns (the population is slightly under 50,000), it seemed just about the safest bet to escape the worst ravages of unemployment and urban blight. But the industries have thinned out alarmingly and the signs of joblessness and poverty were obvious in the streets when I went home for my latest, brief visit last week.
Adding to the pain, there is the constant evidence of the havoc wreaked on the fabric and the very personality of the place by planners whose philistinism is a crime that should have led to prosecution.
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