(Tennants Scottish Cup Final, Ibrox, May 24th 1997)
IT WAS entirely fitting that 25,000 Kilmarnock supporters cavorted for half an hour after the end of the 112th Scottish Cup final to the tune of their adopted anthem, Paper Roses. This was the season when - for the first time since 1929 - the trophy went country and western, borne off to their market town in the heart of rural Ayrshire by a Kilmarnock side who merited an end to their 68 years of exile from success in this tournament.
It was a homespun affair in more senses than one. Apart from the fact that none of the Scottish cities was represented, for the first time in 40 years, there was no exotic contingent of Brazilians or Italians on display as there had been at Wembley a week previously. Aside from Dragoje Lekovic, Kilmarnock's Yugoslav goalkeeper, and Dylan Kerr, born in Valetta, the teams were composed of native talent.
Perhaps the match lacked the personalities who had been at Wembley a week earlier. Perhaps the quality of play did not match up to the highest standards, But the game had drama and controversy and commitment and, in the end, Kilmarnock gained revenge for the defeat they suffered against the Brockville team 40 years ago when they last met in the final.
The sight of the respective managers, Bobby Williamson and Totten, being interviewed on television beforehand, arms around each other's shoulders, evoked the flavour of an era when the game still comfortably accommodated the aspirations of gentlemen.
The dictates of modern coaching were soon in evidence once play got under way, however. Organisation is the hallmark of Totten and since each team has spent half of this season under his tutelage the game proceeded in tight patterns.
Falkirk quickly began to work their favoured ploy of Gray orchestrating set-piece play for the benefit of James, the tallest man in Scottish football. For all his height - 6ft 7in - the 21-year-old James is gangly rather than imposing and he found it difficult to win the physical contests against Ray Montgomerie or Kevin McGowne.
Kilmarnock, by contrast, were making more versatile use of their young talent, springing David Bagan down the right touchline and Alex Burke along the left. It was Burke who made the more significant inroads, reinforced by Kerr and by the end of the first quarter of the game he had begun to direct a stream of telling crosses into the Falkirk penalty area. Nelson, the Falkirk goalkeeper, was clearly discomfited by this development and could not get to the ball through the press of bodies.
After 21 mins the breakthrough arrived which allowed Kilmarnock their goal and their glory.
When James conceded a corner kick rather unnecessarily - he had time to put his clearance into the main stand - Falkirk found themselves exposed again. Mark Reilly took the corner, curling towards McGowne, who glanced it on towards his head. Jim McIntyre drew back his left foot to strike it on the drop but he was beaten to it by Paul Wright, who steered it into the net just inside Nelson's right hand post.
Falkirk had been punished for a rare moment of defensive negligence. That two opposing forwards had been able to attack the ball unchallenged at the same moment was one sign of a lapse in concentration. The other was the absence of a covering player at the post. Andy Seaton had acted as sentry there at previous corner kicks but the teenager was elsewhere on this occasion.
Wright did not seem to connect cleanly with the ball. But from that range the shot was still good enough to cross the line and eventually send the Scottish Cup to Rugby Park for the first time since 1929.
Said Wright: "It wasn't the best goal of my life. I pulled away from my marker well enough, but then I sclaffed my shot. However, it went in and that's all that mattered to me at that moment."
It must have been difficult for the first division men to accept that they had been beaten. In the second half they dominated the game and the towering figure of Kevin James, a cult hero at Brockville, brought menace whenever he moved into the Kilmarnock penalty box, which, in the second half, was all too often for the Ayrshire team's comfort.
Twice the giant centre half might have saved the game for his team. Once he was thwarted by a magnificent goal-line save by Dragoje Lekovic (left & right) and then, five minutes from the end, after one of his headers had set up the opening for Neil Oliver, whose clean strike gave Lekovic no chance however Falkirk’s frolics were halted when the linesman on the main stand side, Archie Roy of Aberdeen, flagged for offside. And while they argued about the decision at the time, TV evidence later proved the Falkirk 'scorer' had been offside. Roy was vehemently jeered by the dark blue legions and Alex Totten, the Falkirk manager, prudently pulled himself back from further remonstrations with the official. Nevertheless, Roy was correct because Oliver had peeled behind the advancing Kilmarnock back line just a shade early and was quite definitely offside as James knocked his header on.
So the contest hung on a single goal, as so many had predicted.
Yet if the game was not by any means a classic, this was a final of Corinthian demeanour. With a dismal Scottish spring having at last given way to balmy sunshine the crowd was in shirtsleeve order as though arrayed for Centre Court or the Oval. The favours displayed around the ground, in dark blue and light blue, brought the Boat Race to mind.
James said: "I could not believe that the keeper reached the ball. I was so sure that it was going over the line. When I saw him hold it down at the post I began to think that it was not going to be our day. When I flicked the ball on from another of Andy's throw-ins towards the end and saw the linesman's flag go up then I knew these feelings were right. After being able to knock Celtic out in the semi-final at the same venue we all felt t hat we could win again. All we needed was a break on the day, but it never came."
Later, Kilmarnock manager Bobby Williamson explained how his defenders had been able to play Oliver offside so close to the goal-line. He said: "We worked out a strategy to try to cope with Kevin James' ability in the air, knowing it was almost impossible to match someone who is 6ft 7in, we tried to concentrate on the second ball, the ones he was liable to knock down. "They were the ones we dealt with, either by coming out quickly, as we did when they had the ball in the net near the end of the game, or trying to read where he was going to put the ball and have a defender there to deal with it." It worked well for Williamson and his players for the most part, although these two second half moments might have handed Falkirk the lifeline their performance merited after half time.
The Kilmarnock manager was swift to admit that his opponents had controlled that period of the game. By then the Rugby Park players had lost the verve and the invention they had displayed in the first half. The goal they had scored through Paul Wright in the twenty-first minute began to seem more and more precious to them as the game wore on and, instead of the flowing attacks they had used to such good effect up to the goal - and even immediately after it - they dropped back and allowed the initiative to move in the direct ion of their opponents.
At the final whistle, Totten was dignified in defeat, shaking hands with each Kilmarnock player in turn. In response, the Kilmarnock supporters applauded Falkirk as they made a disconsolate tour of the pitch. The sport on offer was unmemorable but the atmosphere was far removed from the rancour and triumphalism associated with the Old Firm's contribution to these occasions.
Then it was on to the celebrations and both sets of supporters acclaimed both sets of players and the Falkirk fans gave us all another moment to remember as thousands of them remained to cheer Kilmarnock as they went on a lap of honour with the trophy. For many cup final veterans like myself, that was a reminder of better, more civilised, times, when supporters mixed together on the terracings and the loutishness of today had not scarred the game.
May 24th 1997 will live on for ever with every live Killie fan on the planet.....bar none!
Kilmarnock: Lekovic, Kerr , McGowne, MacPherson, Montgomerie, Reilly, Holt, Burke, Bagan, (Mitchell 88 mins) McIntyre (Brown 82 mins) & Wright (Henry 77 mins).