GETTING their cinch Premiership campaign off to a winning start at Rugby Park this evening will be a tall order for Kilmarnock and then some.

Derek McInnes’s side will take on the new-look Rangers team which Michael Beale – who has brought in the likes of Jack Butland, Jose Cifuentes, Danilo, Cyriel Dessers, Kieran Dowell, Sam Lammers and Dujon Sterling at a cost of nearly £15m this summer – has assembled in their opening league fixture.

Yet, their chances of causing an upset against the Glasgow giants, who are expected to challenge their city rivals Celtic strongly for the Scottish title in the coming months, in front of the Sky Sports cameras will be aided considerably once again by having the majority of the crowd inside the stadium behind them.

Would the high heid yins at the Ayrshire outfit have made the difficult call to restrict away fans to just one stand back in 2018 had it not been for the influence of The Killie Trust?

Cathy Jamieson, the former Labour MP and MSP and lifelong Kilmarnock supporter who has been the trust’s representative on the board for the past five years, believes it is just one positive development which the organisation, who are now the third largest shareholders, have helped to implement.

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“It was something our supporters were adamant about,” said Jamieson. “They were very clear. People who had seats in what is now the family stand were having to move whenever the Glasgow clubs came to play us. That should be their place.

“It was primarily about listening to our supporters and trying to do something for them. It is fair to say I was able to put forward the supporters’ view and the other directors listened and agreed. We made the decision collectively.

“We took the view that, while we might lose out on some income on those individual days, over the piece we would have more fans coming along to matches and would recoup that money. That has proved to be the case. We are certainly not planning to go back. We are sticking with it.”

An increasing number of clubs in Scotland are now fan owned and no fewer than three top flight sides – Hearts, Motherwell and St Mirren – operate successfully in that manner.

Billy Bowie, the local businessmen who ended a protracted period of conflict between supporters and controversial former owner Michael Johnston when he joined the board in 2013 and invested £1.3m of his own money, still holds the biggest stake in Kilmarnock.

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Jamieson, though, knows from personal experience that Bowie and managing director Phyllis McLeish listen to the opinions and wishes of those who cheer on Kyle Vassel and his team mates on a Saturday afternoon and feels their structure benefits both the club off the park and the team on it.  

“We haven’t gone for an all-out fan ownership model because we have got a very good major shareholder in Billy and an excellent managing director in Phyllis as well,” she said. “But I would say we work quite cooperatively. There are only three directors so the trust have got quite a big say in all aspects of the club.

“It is no secret that I have been supportive of clubs which have moved towards fan ownership for what I think have been the right reasons. They had people involved who ultimately fans didn’t feel had the best interests of the club at heart.

“At times, fans may disagree with the decisions of the board here. But I don’t think there is anybody who would question our intentions. We have a local businessman in Billy who has invested a huge amount and Phyllis, who has also invested and who works very hard. I am also very hands on.

“We have got that link with the fans, who are also collectively prepared to invest. Essentially, we have turned things around. At one stage not so long ago, there wasn’t a good working relationship between the board and the fans. We have a better approach now. We involve the local community and really promote ourselves as a family club. I think it works.”

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Jamieson added: “We are not run by a faceless organisation or an individual with no real connection to the area. There is nobody here who came in thinking: ‘I am going to make a quick buck’. Quite the opposite. We are involved because we care.

 “What we have got at Killie is pretty unique. Billy and Phyllis get the fact that the board members are simply the custodians of the club for now and understand the fans are the lifeblood of the club. The club was here before us and will be here when they are gone. Our job is to take care of it and leave it in a better state than we found it.”

Limiting the number of away fans who are allowed through the turnstiles, a move that was made shortly after Jamieson was appointed a director, on match days is just one of a number of changes which the trust have helped to oversee.

The rail seating areas which are now in place in the East Stand and the Moffat Stand – and Kilmarnock were the first club in Europe to put a family safe standing section in place – were made possible by Trust in Killie funding as was the new disabled viewing platform.

Just this week bike shelters outside the Frank Beattie Stand and Chadwick Stand, built with the help of backing from Cycling Scotland which the trust helped to secure, were unveiled ahead of the UCI World Championships.

The improvements which have been made to the match day experience and the ground would not have been possible when there was friction between supporters and the previous regime. However, it has still taken time to win over the sceptics. 

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“The trust wasn’t, like a few others, borne out of a crisis,” said Jamieson. “I was involved with the trust in various things over a period of time which enabled us to get to the stage where we were able to make that £100,000 investment that got us a seat on the board.

“There were certainly issues at the start. Some supporters were a bit sceptical. They felt that fans would be signing the players and picking the team. They got completely the wrong end of the stick. It took a good number of years to try and get the message across that we didn’t want to create havoc or cause problems. Having a trust member as a director on the board gives fans a voice, an input.”

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Jamieson served as the Deputy Leader of the Labour party in Scotland as well as the Minister for Education and Young People and Minister for Justice at Holyrood and then as the Shadow Economic Secretary to the Treasury at Westminster.

However, she feels she can do just as much for her local community in her current role at Kilmarnock as she did in those positions.

“When the football club is doing well, even last year when we got to the League Cup semi-final at Hampden, it creates a buzz,” she said. “Local businessmen and politicians will all tell you that when the club is doing well there is that feelgood factor. It is really important when people are dealing with the cost-of-living crisis and are perhaps feeling a bit down about the world in general.”

MSPS at Holyrood are set to debate appointing an independent regulator for Scottish football next month after being presented with the results of a fan-led review of the game in this country which was carried out by the Scottish Football Supporters Association.

Does Jamieson, who has worked extensively in both politics and football, think it would be a good thing to follow the example of England?

“There are a lot of good ideas in that,” he said. “But what does it look like in practice? I know that it is easy to pass legislation, it is difficult to change cultures, attitudes and approaches. Ultimately, what we need to think about is how we help football from grassroots right to the very top. If a regulator can add value to that, all good and well.

“Across all the political parties, there are people who are genuine football fans. The difficulty comes when people who aren’t attach themselves to the game because they think it will be good for their profile or image. Fans can see through that. But if we can capture the genuine interest and work together it can only be for the good.”

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There has not been a huge amount for Kilmarnock supporters to cheer about of late.

They have had four different managers, Angelo Alessio, Alex Dyer, Tommy Wright and McInnes, since Steve Clarke departed for Scotland back in 2019.

They suffered a painful and costly relegation to the Championship two years ago. Their bounced straight back but their return to the Premiership last term proved challenging and they finished third bottom and narrowly avoided the play-offs come May.

However, Jamieson has seen it all before and will take her place in the directors’ box at Rugby Park before the Rangers game this evening hoping that better times lie ahead this term and determined to play her part in them.  

“I’ve been supporting Kilmarnock since I was in primary school back in the 1960s so I have seen the ups and downs, from us winning the Scottish title to us going right down to the Second Division, over the years,” she said.  

“It can be difficult keeping my composure on match days at times. Sometimes I have to literally sit on my hands. I have to represent the club as a director and can’t be jumping up and down. But my passion for the football club is there and has always been there.”