RECREATION PARK, Darvel FC. A couple of workies are surveying pallets filled with red bricks at the pitch’s perimeter. Earmarked for a fundraiser, there are plans in place to lay a thousand of them, but foundations have been dug for many more.

Metaphors are rarely more apt. Darvel have been putting building blocks in place for some time. If you are a frequenter of social media, you can’t have missed the club’s activity on Twitter in recent weeks. When it was announced they had signed 27-year-old midfielder Ian McShane, previously of Ross County, St Mirren and Falkirk, they had more than 125,000 views of the tweet.

Those figures have been bolstered further by an aggressive spending spree. In June alone, visitors to their channels surpassed 2.1m. Over the course of the past year, Jim Wylie, the de facto general manager, and Michael Kennedy, the first team manager, have signed a slew of impressive names from senior football.

These aren’t just veteran journeymen merely winding down their careers in the lower reaches. The age of the new arrivals has raised eyebrows. They are late twentysomethings, some with top-flight experience, and all with plenty of mileage left on the clock.

If McShane is the biggest ticket item, there are others with similar pedigree. Former Scotland Under-21s Ross Perry, who made 35 appearances in the Rangers first team, and Jason Marr, who began his career at Celtic before making a name for himself at Alloa, were signed last season. Jordan Allan, recently named in the League 1 team of the year, has arrived from Stranraer while Jordan Kirkpatrick, boasting top-flight experience from his time at Hamilton and St Mirren, is another new face. Paul Paton, recently released by Dunfermline, has held preliminary talks and, well, the list goes on.

Come October, Darvel will start in the penultimate tier of the Scottish football pyramid following the formation of the West of Scotland League but this is a club on the rise. There is that pre-season feel in the air on a warm summer’s day in East Ayrshire as Kennedy, who won the Scottish Amateur Cup three times in four years at previous club Colville Park, talks about his plans for the campaign.

They are expected to be among the title challengers when the season finally gets underway in October but, for Kennedy, it’s about “managing expectations” among a squad and in a town that is beginning to bubble with anticipation.”

Wylie, Darvel born and bred, is among those who can’t wait for the season to start.

“We are excited about the players that Michael has brought in, ” he says. “Now that we have joined the pyramid, the plan is to be in the Championship in the next 10 years. We want to do a Salford but we know we have a lot of work to do to get there.”


Before coronavirus brought a halt to proceedings, they led the way in the now-defunct SJFA West Region Championship, eventually earning their place in the newly formed West of Scotland Football League, where they will battle for promotion with the likes Auchinleck Talbot, Pollok, Irvine Meadow and Kilwinning Rangers.

They will do so with a squad capable of challenging for League 2, never mind the sixth tier of the pyramid. This promises to be the future for Scottish football at this level, one of upwardly mobile teams backed by investors keen to take advantage of a perceived stasis in the SPFL’s lower reaches.

Fittingly, in Darvel’s case, the man providing the dough is John Gall, the owner of Brownings the Bakers. He has not so much prised open the biscuit tin for Wylie and Kennedy as emptied out the whole cookie jar.

Gliding past Recreation Park’s 19th century main stand, the groundsman is pushing a £12,000 lawnmower that looks and sounds more like a vacuum cleaner brushing up carpet pile than a grasscutter slicing blades. It’s the same type of machine used by Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Gall drew a line at that kind of outlay so the committee members raised the funds themselves. There is no expense spared here. Jealous onlookers say this is a Gretna in waiting but it is a claim dismissed by Wylie, who points out that contingencies are in place should Gall ever lose interest one day.

“John funds the club and the major things but, trust me, the rest of the stuff [is done by the committee]. We have a lottery with nearly 300 members paying a tenner a month, we have over a hundred advertising boards round the park, we do all sorts of things with regards to funding. John has said for the last two or three years – and he has funded it to begin with – we need to be self-sufficient. We’re in a really good position and hopefully if John ever decides to walk away, I’ll still be in a position to carry on.”

“Michael knows the budget and he can’t go over it. We won’t go like Gretna because he knows what he’s got to spend for the season. That’s basically how the club works, it is very, very tightly run.”

Sometimes Wylie, who also runs his own mortgage business, has to pinch himself. He admits change sometimes feels as if it is moving too fast. He remembers a different era in Darvel.

His father, Jim Sr, spent 56 years as player, manager, committee man, and president at Darvel, before he fell ill with cancer. His son started taking him to games as a promise to his mother. He had long since drifted away from the club he captained as a young man and Saturdays with the family had become preferable to watching a team that had slid to the depths of the Junior game. He only returned properly when Gall, a former classmate at Loudoun Academy, asked him to help out when he arrived at the club in 2014.

“There was nothing about the place and it was painful for me to watch as an ex-Darvel player. I used to say to my dad ‘I don’t know how you can do that’. But that was his life. He would never criticise anybody, that’s just the type of guy he was.”

In truth, success has rarely been in evidence around these parts, notwithstanding a Scottish Junior Cup final appearance in 1976 (they lost 3-0 to Bo’ness United) and, more recently, an Ayrshire District League crown in 2016.

“My dad was the manager who took Darvel to Hampden in 1976,” recalls Wylie. “I was 12 years old then. It was just a remarkable day for the whole town. I think the official attendance that day was something like 22,000. My dad spoke to the chief of police after the game and he said there wasn’t one less than 35,000 at the game. That’s how big an occasion it was. I told my dad when he was dying ‘I’ll bring those days back’. That’s my ambition.”

“He died in the February [2016] and in the April of that year Darvel won the Ayrshire District League and were promoted into the Championship. My brother and I were standing on the sidelines with the tears rolling down our cheeks. My dad never saw Darvel win anything, not a thing. But I think we have the right guy now who can take us through the leagues.”

When Wylie was a player at Recreation Park in the mid-80s, Rangers visited to mark the club’s centenary. He lined-up against Davie Cooper when the fabled winger made his last appearance in a blue jersey.

“I was captain that season,” recalls Wylie. “We played Rangers on the Sunday and Davie Cooper was captain of Rangers and I was captain of Darvel. It was actually Davie Cooper’s last game for Rangers. Tommy McLean signed him for Motherwell on the Monday. He played at outside left and I played at right-back and after about an hour of the game, he tapped me on the shoulder and he said ‘look, son, these people are here to watch me’.”


Gall’s floury fingerprints are all over Recreation Park. Naturally, the club bar stocks Brownings’ award-winning Kilmarnock Pies, but there are more obvious monuments to his investment, such as the state-of-the-art home dressing room which abuts the one Wylie used to get stripped in when he was captain of the club during the 1980s. Blue and green atmospheric downlighters illuminate the first-team shirts hanging from hooks around individual changing areas; when Wylie flicks a switch, the main lights reveal facilities on a par with the best in Scotland and beyond.

“My son-in-law is Craig Bryson, who plays for Aberdeen. He says the changing rooms are better than Wembley,” says Wylie. “He said they put Rangers, Celtic and Hampden to shame.”

“Nowadays we can bring [potential new signings] down to the dressing room and, as soon as they see it, you know they are going to sign. We’re better run than most senior clubs. All these guys need to do is bring their boots, everything else is provided for them. What’s happened to the club over the last three or four years is nothing short of remarkable.

“Fair play to the chairman for allowing us to do the work that’s needed. There are floodlights going in, new away dressing rooms, new away dugouts, away terracing, and there is going to be a tarmac path all around the park.”

Meanwhile, those red bricks at the front entrance will soon surround the Sammy Cox Garden. Cox, one of Darvel’s most famous sons, played more than 200 times for Rangers and was a treble winner in Bill Struth’s all-conquering team of 1948-49.

Rangers have already agreed to email their 12,000 affiliated worldwide supporters clubs to canvass interest. At £50 a brick, you get the sense that Darvel are here to stay for some time and that Jim Wylie Sr will be looking on with a contented smile on his face.