Despite having reached the Semi-final of the Fairs Cup the previous season, Killie didn’t qualify for Europe in 1967/68 or 1968/69.
They did though, in the summer of 1969, return to the USA; not, as before to New York but to St Louis where they represented that city in a precursor to a proper North American Soccer League. Their opposition was Aston Villa, West Ham Utd, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Dundee Utd, each representing nascent NASL franchises.
I don’t know what financial benefits the club may have gained but such exercises in the past had shown their value in building team-work. Long-time trainer Walter McCrae had succeeded Malky MacDonald in March 1968 and had enjoyed a successful first season: a fourth-place finish had ensured passage into the Fairs Cup again.
In April 1969, the club had celebrated its centenary in elaborate fashion with a friendly match against an Eintracht Frankfurt side containing World Cup stars Jurgen Grabowski and Bernd Holzenbein.
McCrae had built a very useful side around the younger members of the championship-winning side – King, McGrory and McLean – and had a highly-potent strike force in Eddie Morrison and Ross Mathie. The midfield scheming role had passed from Davie Sneddon to Tommy McLean’s older brother, Jim, who signed from Dundee. With Billy Dickson a marauding full-back supporting the tricky Jim Cook on the left flank and the intelligent John Gilmour with the elder McLean in central midfield, this was a team well equipped for European football.
The draw for the first round paired the club with FC Zurich, with the first leg away on 16th September. The Swiss were a strong side, being regular league champions in the 1960s and they had even reached the semi-final of the European Cup in 1963/64, losing to Real Madrid.
Although it did not stage the first Weltklasse meeting until 1973, the Letzigrund Stadium was very much geared for athletics as much as football in 1969 with a running track ringing the pitch.
Killie made a dream start with Jim McLean (1) and Mathie (14) netting but the Swiss side hit back strongly and, by the 47th minute, they led 3-2. Not a disastrous outcome given the “away-goals” rule but Killie must have rued not having consolidated their early lead.
The return match was on 30th September and a very decent crowd of 13,500 attended. Manager McCrae left the visitors under no illusion as to what to expect in his programme notes:
“There was some criticism by the official observer about rough play in … the first leg but I think our Swiss friends realise the Scottish game is hard and physical but not necessarily dirty.”
My memory of the match is that it was a tense affair, with every sign that Killie’s campaign would end then and there. One moment changed the course of the match and it was, in a way, unique!
Centre-half Jackie McGrory played 476 times for the club and he chose the 42nd minute of this match to score his one and only goal! Killie were making hard work of breaking down the defence until McGrory ambled forward and, from open play, scored the goal which levelled the aggregate score.
Having been given that boost so close to half-time, Killie quickly consolidated through Morrison immediately after the interval. Zurich pulled back a goal on 63 minutes but Tommy McLean put the tie beyond them in the 74th minute. It had been a rousing night with that special atmosphere of a European night at the old Rugby Park.
Killie’s next opponents were to be ZSK Slavija Sofia from Bulgaria. A top side by Bulgarian standards, they did not seem to be the sternest of opponents. Their top player was the quaintly named goalkeeper Simeon Simeonov, who went on to win 34 caps.
The first leg was at home on 19th November and was to be one of Killie’s easier European matches. Killie had made an indifferent start to the league campaign, lying eighth out of 18 but they were joint top goalscorers with Celtic. With the attack-minded midfield of Gilmour and Jim McLean, Cook and Tommy McLean on the wings and Morrison and Mathie scoring prolifically, Killie were set up to score goals, as the Bulgarians discovered.
Little was known about Slavija as McCrae had not been able to see them in action before the tie but goals by Mathie (6) and Cook (11) finished off incisive moves to put Killie in charge.
Mathie made it 3-0 in the 75th minute and, when the Bulgarians played the restart back to Simeonov, the keeper’s poor kick landed at the feet of Gilmour who lofted it into the empty net from near the half-way line. Cue Rugby Park delirium!
The visitors were down and out although they pulled back an 88th minute consolation.
Killie travelled to the Bulgarian capital the following week full of confidence but all was not to go smoothly. In the country where every surname seems to end in “ov”, Killie were almost “seen ov” as the hosts raced into a 1-0 lead in the first minute and led 2-0 after 24 minutes.
The good ship Killie was steadied however and a narrow 4-3 aggregate win achieved.
If we thought Sofia was near the eastern limits of Europe, we were in for a shock as the third round draw was to send Killie to the foothills of the Carpathians to face Dinamo Bacau of Romania.
Not be confused, as I have sometimes done, with Baku in oil-rich Azerbaijan, Bacau is 150 miles from Bucharest and is a modest city which was even more modest in 1969 when Romania toiled under the oppressive and brutal regime of the maverick Communist president Ceaușescu.
Given some of the alternative opponents – Arsenal, Southampton, Newcastle Utd, Ajax Amsterdam, Anderlecht, Internazionale, Rouen, Vitoria Setubal, Hertha Berlin – it seemed that Killie had been handed the most inhospitable draw. Or maybe not – I forgot Dunfermline Athletic!
And it was to be the archetypal “Tie From Hell” for Killie. The team was still scoring goals – Mathie had 15 and Morrison 12 in mid-December – but conceding almost as many. But the emphatic home wins over Zurich and Slavija persuaded us that the unknowns would be a minor obstacle on the way to the quarter-finals. They had eliminated only modest opposition – Floriana of Malta and Skeid Olso –albeit without conceding a goal. This was to be their only foray into European competition (one Intertoto aside) and they have still never finished higher than fourth place in the domestic league.
In fact, their main claim to fame around that time was that their striker Emerich Dembrowski would go on to score for Romania against Brazil at the 1970 World Cup finals! But he was the only Bacau player in the squad.
The first leg was played at Rugby Park on 17 December and the unattractive opposition and cold weather restricted the crowd to fewer than 8,000. Far from being a pushover, the visitors coped fairly easily with the Killie attack and it was the 50th minute before Mathie put the hosts ahead.
But hopes of progressing were dimmed when the Romanians equalized in 73 minutes and held out comfortably. There was no disguising that, with a dangerous journey lying ahead, this was a dreadful result.
The following Saturday, Killie lost the ageing but still influential Frank Beattie to a broken leg (right) at CelticPark. An indifferent season had taken a downturn and the club lay in eleventh place when they travelled for the away leg on 13 January.
Contemporary photographs show the Municipal Stadium in Bacau to have been a large but very shallow oval bowl, uncovered save for a tiny grandstand. But it was on the surface that, even allowing for tabloid hyperbole, the conditions in Bacau sounded inhospitable: the pitch was described as being rutted and covered in ice.
Killie had made the surprise signing of Crookedholm born and bred Hugh Strachan on a free transfer from Morton in the previous close season as an apparent understudy to Beattie. Given the captain’s injury, Strachan was thrust into the spotlight and this match also saw a debut for Ronnie Sheed.
Before a – no doubt – “hostile and frenzied” crowd, Killie fell behind to a goal in the 28th minute by Ene. And “ene” hope they had of squaring the tie ended when the same player scored in the 79th minute.
The defeat was to be expensive for the club which was struggling to maintain the cost of full-time football as Dinamo were drawn in the quarter-finals against Arsenal. The Gunners shot down Dinamo 7-1 on aggregate before going on to defeat Anderlecht in the final.
Being realistic, Killie had probably done well to reach the last sixteen but it was frustrating to have lost to such moderate opposition. The season ended with the club in sixth position in the league and disappointingly losing a Scottish Cup semi-final against eventual winners Aberdeen.
Desperate for cash, the board agreed to tour Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the close season, in the face of international sanctions against that country.
INTER CITIES FAIRS CUP
16/09/69 – FC Zurich 3 (2) Kilmarnock 2 (2) (Att: 13,500)
Scorers: J McLean, Mathie
30/09/69 – Kilmarnock 3 (1) FC Zurich 1 (0) (Att. 9,593)
Scorers: McGrory, Morrison, T McLean
19/11/69 – Kilmarnock 4 (2) ZSK Slavija Sofia 1 (0) (Att. 9.535)
Scorers: Mathie 2, Coook, Gilmour
26/11/69 – ZSK Slavija Sofia 2 (2) Kilmarnock 0 (0) (Att. 12,000)
17/11/69 – Kilmarnock 1 (0) Dinamo Bacau 1 (1) (Att, 7,749)
13/01/70 – Dinamo Bacau 2 (1) Kilmarnock 0 (0) (Att. 20,000)