The 1970/71 season had seen Killie humiliated by Coleraine in the First Round of the Fairs Cup and the season continued in the same vein. Relegation to the Second Division happened in 1972/73 and, while promotion was gained at the first attempt, the squad was increasingly made up of part-time players and the club yo-yo’d between divisions before eventually reaching the foot of the pile on the opening day of the 1989/90 season, with an opening day Second Division defeat at home to Brechin City. The club had gone from the peak of 1965 to being the bottom club in Scottish football in one generation.
Change was inevitable but it was achieved bitterly and only with the finance of local self-made millionaire Jim Moffat and the Chadwick Family, American in-laws of Bobby Fleeting, the charismatic front-man for the syndicate. Promotions followed under the influential Tommy Burns, first as player then manager, until the club was restored to the Premier League in 1993. Fleeting had fulfilled this promise and another, that of a rebuilt Rugby Park, but a third – the return of European football – was not to be achieved under his tenure. It would not be long delayed, however.
It had been almost seventy years since Killie had lifted the Scottish Cup but victory over Falkirk in 1997 at Ibrox – Hampden Park was being reconstructed – sparked memorable scenes and assured entry to the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Having played their last tie against opposition from the Emerald Isle, there was some irony and symmetry in the Qualifying Round draw against Shelbourne of Dublin.
The first leg was at Rugby Park on 14 August and a good crowd of 9,041 turned up in highly confident mood, the lesson of Coleraine having not been passed to a new generation of fans.
Backed by the largest travelling support for a League of Ireland club at the time and with a certain Pat Fenlon in their ranks, Shelbourne duly poured cold water over the optimism with a brisk start and a goal after only twelve minutes. That is how it remained until half-time and beyond before Paul Wright converted a 65th minute penalty kick after a foul on Alex Burke. Killie were desperate for a lead however slender as the dread thought crossed the minds of the support that Killie’s latest European adventure might end like the last one, at the first attempt on Irish soil.
Thankfully, Wright scored the winner in the final minute of the match to the relief of all in blue and white.
The huge Killie support in Dublin may have been apprehensive inwardly but, outwardly and bolstered by the “black stuff”, there was little evidence as they made their way to Tolka Park on a pleasant summer evening. An early goal was vital in determining the balance of the tie and both sides went for it. But it was Killie who got the first goal after 20 minutes when Jim McIntyre bludgeoned in a shot from the corner of the penalty box.
Leading on aggregate by 3-1, Killie should have been in control but, in the 39th minute, Shelbourne equalised on the night after a shocking blunder by keeper Dragoje Lekovic.
Another Shelbourne goal would have sent the tie to extra-time and it was a long and nervous second half before the Killie hordes could finally relax and head back into the city centre pubs.
If Dublin, despite its proximity and obvious attractions, was a slightly disappointing venue for Killie’s return to Europe, their next opponents took them to one of the most glamorous locations in Europe – Nice!
Although OGC Nice were the French Cup holders, they were in the Second Division, having been relegated the previous season. They did have a fair European history, having had two good runs in the European Cup in the 1950s. This wasn’t the clubs’ first meeting as they had crossed swords in New York of all places in 1960 when the result was a 1-1 draw.
The sight of Killie fans in full regalia on the Promenade des Anglais, ogling the topless sunbathers, is an abiding memory! The weather was beautiful and it was still warm as we made our way up the hill behind the city to the Stade du Ray. We could see from a distance that the Nice ultras were already in position behind the city-end goal with their huge flags and flares. If the seaside ambience and summer weather had lulled us into a holiday mood, there was no doubt that the locals were up for the match.
Although the Stade du Ray was not filled to its 18,500 capacity, the atmosphere was torrid with the large Killie support corralled in a corner of the ground. Nice went on the attack from the start and Killie struggled to keep their goal intact. In the 13th minute, the German Kohn headed home from a corner and it was to be crosses which would be Killie’s undoing on the night.
Goalkeeper Lekovic was injured and Colin Meldrum deputised to indifferent effect. At one point in the second half, manager Bobby Williamson appeared on the touchline with Lekovic, apparently contemplating a rare tactical goalkeeper substitution.
Kohn scored with another header in the 48th minute and the 2-0 lead in no way flattered Nice. Killie could make no inroads on the home goal. Fortunately, though, Paul Wright “won” a penalty kick – similar to that at Broadwood on the way to the Scottish Cup final – in the 78th minute and converted it himself to throw a lifeline.
However, a replica of Nice’s second goal, this time by Rol, restored their two-goal lead almost immediately. The final score of 3-1 in no way flattered Nice and Killie’s first competitive match on the Cote d’Azur had been a stern lesson.
The sides resumed hostilities two weeks later on 2 October before a hopeful crowd of 8,402. However, Killie’s form was not good coming on the back of successive 0-3 home defeats to Rangers and Hearts.
The necessary two-goal victory margin was halved in the 30th minute with a rare goal by Mark “Mavis” Reilly. With all to play for, Killie plugged away at levelling the aggregate but were undone by Milinkovic’s equalizer in the 76th minute. With Killie needing two more goals to win the tie, the match fizzled out.
Killie missed out on another fan-friendly tie against Slavia Prague, which Nice lost on the “away goals” rule.
One interesting footnote – a used substitute for Nice in both legs was Pierre Aubameyang, father of Willy (and perhaps more notably of Pierre-Emerick of Borussia Dortmund)!
It was not a prolonged return to European competition for Killie but there had been two very enjoyable away trips and most were confident that the club’s upswing in fortunes would result in more such adventures. How right they were!
EUROPEAN CUP WINNERS’ CUP
14/08/97 – Kilmarnock 2 (0) Shelbourne 1 (1) (Att. 9,041)
Scorer: Wright 2 (1 Pen)
28/08/97 – Shelbourne 1 (1) Kilmarnock 1 (1) (Att. 8,100)
18/09/97 – OGC Nice 3 (1) Kilmarnock 1 (0) (Att. 10,812)
Scorer: Wright (Pen)
02/10/97 – Kilmarnock 1 (1) OGC Nice 1 (0) (Att. 8,402)