“I had no idea what it means,” said Manuel Pascali, the Kilmarnock captain, of the Ayrshire derby, “until some fans told me: ‘Look Manu, you can be relegated if you like, but don’t lose to Ayr’.”
The clubs being drawn together in the semi-final of the Scottish Communities League Cup was both anticipated and refreshing; a game of such local concerns projected on to the national stage.
The two teams met most recently last season, in a testimonial at Rugby Park for Garry Hay, the Kilmarnock defender. Even then, in an exhibition match, there was an edge to the encounter.
Pascali played in the derby game after they were drawn in the Scottish Cup two years ago, when the teams drew 2-2 at Somerset Park, then Kilmarnock won the replay 3-1. The energies of the crowd, the uncontainable passion for the occasion, were central to a rivalry that is kept at bay by Ayr United’s presence in the first division.
“Unfortunately, I will never experience Barcelona v Real Madrid as a player,” Pascali said at Hampden, where the draw was made yesterday. “But, for me, that’s what this tie is to the people of Ayrshire. I don’t know if it’s the biggest Ayrshire derby in history, but in many ways it will be. I know how it will be for the supporters when their team loses. They will have to watch their great rivals playing in a cup final. Maybe they would be better off going to the cinema that day instead.”
If there was some hyperbole in Pascali’s assessment, then perhaps it was merited. This tie, to be played on Saturday, January 28 or Sunday, January 29, will empty Ayrshire, but also provide a wider fascination for a competition that is often overlooked, until the final at least.
If the two games are scheduled in the right way, a Saturday afternoon kick-off could draw a substantial crowd to Hampden for the derby. The BBC will decide whether to broadcast Ayr v Kilmarnock or the other tie, Falkirk v Celtic, live on the Sunday, but that would diminish the audience that the former would bring.
“We’ll need to consult both clubs and the police, because it’s going to be a big movement of fans on the day,” said David Longmuir, chief executive of the Scottish Football League. “But it’s a nice dilemma to deal with.”
The other options would be Ibrox, which is slightly smaller in capacity, or Fir Park. Moving it beyond the west coast would place a travelling burden on the supporters, and also a complication for the police, since the two sets of fans would be following the same routes across the country by rail or road. Yet Tynecastle would appeal as a venue to Kenny Shiels, the Kilmarnock manager, for the intensity it generates in its tight spaces.
“Twenty thousand at Hampden would be swallowed up,” he said. “It would deflate the atmosphere. Everyone says there could be 30,000 at this but I don’t know. Tynecastle would be great. I know that would be two teams from the west of Scotland travelling to the east, but that might add to the whole occasion and make it a day out. What a day it would be through there. It may come down to how many tickets the SFL think the clubs can sell.”
The economics will always make the most pressing case, but also the least heartfelt. Players, and supporters, take their value from the sense of occasion. Hampden lays claim to tradition, too, in being the customary venue for semi-finals and finals.
The place itself has meaning, and the players in particular want to experience that, to take something of it for themselves.
Jonathan Tiffoney, a 20-year-old defender who was a youngster at Queen’s Park but never graduated from Lesser Hampden to the main ground, is an improving player for Ayr.
Standing in the stadium where he once worked part-time while trying to make his way in the game, he made an eloquent case for returning there to play the semi-final.
“The boys deserve to go to Hampden,” he said. “We’ve worked hard, we’ve beaten three SPL sides in this competition, and that’s all the players want, to play at Hampden in front of an Ayrshire crowd.”
Even without those victories -- over Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Hearts and St Mirren -- Ayr United would have no reason to be intimidated.
They have won three, and lost only one, of their last six meetings with their neighbours and even knocked them out of the 1998 Scottish Cup, when Kilmarnock were the defending champions. Yet as much as this semi-final will enliven both clubs, it seems of most worth to Ayrshire itself.
“If we played it down at a public park,” said Brian Reid, the Ayr United manager, “it would still be a great game for the supporters.”
FALKIRK v CELTIC
AYR UNITED v KILMARNOCK
Ties to be played weekend of January 28/29