Editor MARK GODFREY examines of the history of Auchinleck Talbot, the kings of Junior football thanks to two inspirational managers.
Ayrshire has long been associated with football. While its picturesque coastline is the home of Royal Troon – the host of the 2016 Open – and Donald Trump’s fairly recently acquired Turnberry course and luxury resort, the genteel game of golf can lay claim to just a small portion of the county’s sporting heart.
Forged in the fires, furnaces and foundries of the industrial age, football’s popularity – both playing and supporting – exploded; and nowhere more so than amongst the men who braved the grime and danger of the Ayrshire coalfield.
In places like Annbank, Cumnock, Kilwinning and Glenbuck, miners barely clean of the black, all-pervading evidence of their everyday toil congregated to kick a ball about for enjoyment. This inevitably led to the formation of teams and leagues to satisfy the human need for competition, and very rapidly, scores of towns and communities were represented by a local club. If the last of those aforementioned villages seems familiar, it should. Glenbuck is the birthplace of the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, as well as his four brothers and two uncles who also played professional football; brother Bob was also a top manager.
Although Ayrshire now boasts just two Scottish League clubs – Ayr United and Kilmarnock – its Junior clubs, one of a few Scottish equivalents of non-league football, are among that sphere’s most successful and well-established across the various regional and national competitions. No club epitomises that high standing more than Auchinleck Talbot.
Auchinleck is located in the very heart of the now vanished East Ayrshire coalfield. A village of barely three and a half thousand inhabitants, its pit industry was decimated, like so many others around the United Kingdom, in the 1980s although remnants of the old mines still remain including the former Highhouse Colliery engine house and head frame. The listed building had been earmarked by the landowner for demolition until the local council and the Scottish government got involved in early 2016 to save this rare piece of industrial heritage.
The engine house stands just a few hundred metres, as the crow flies, from Beechwood Park – home of ‘The Bot’ as the club are known to its supporters.
Auchinleck Talbot were founded in 1909 and gained their unusual name of ‘Talbot’ from Richard Talbot, 5th Baron of Malahide who inherited Auchinleck House, the ancestral home of his first wife Emily Boswell, upon her death in 1898. Legend has it that when Lord Talbot granted the club use of the field which became Beechwood Park, he did so at an annual rent of £5 (which he never collected) to ensure that the grounds were always available to the people of the village for the purpose of sports and recreation.
Like so many small town and village clubs in Scotland, club finances were often precarious in their fledgling years; indeed, they were disbanded in 1916 before being reformed a few years later and have faced down dire straits on many an occasion right up until the 1970s. In spite of such turmoil off the field Talbot were regular winners of silverware both locally, in the Ayrshire league and cup competitions, and also nationally – they won the first of their record 11 Scottish Junior Cup titles in 1949. Yet, you must fast forward to the late 1970s to recall Auchinleck Talbot’s first golden period.
It began with the resignation of manager Jimsy Kirkland in 1976 and the appointment of Willie Knox in 1977. Knox had played league football in both Scotland and England for Raith Rovers, Forfar Athletic, Barrow, Rotherham United and under Bob Shankly at Third Lanark before turning his hand to management in the Junior game.
At the end of his first season at Beechwood, the Bot took the League Cup and League title; the first two of almost fifty honours won during Knox’s reign. The West of Scotland Cup, which included the Glasgow teams, was an almost permanent fixture in the trophy cabinet having been won nine times between 1978 and 1989. In the same success-drenched period the Ayrshire First Division was captured nine times between 1978 and 1992. The crowning achievement, however, of Knox’s time in charge was his record in the Blue Riband competition – the Scottish Junior Cup. Having experienced semi-final defeats in 1983 and 1984, Auchinleck returned with a vengeance in the latter half of the decade winning three in a row (’86, ’87 and ’88) and another double in 1991 and 1992. It is the most coveted of prizes in Junior football, where the heavyweights – and the not so heavyweight – of both east and west (usually separated into regional league and cup formats) are drawn against each other to prove which is the stronger. During those heady days, the answer to that was glaringly obvious.
A Junior Cup win is not just a fans day out at a big venue with a shiny trinket on offer for the winners, it represents the pride and assertions of small towns and villages around the country. It became as synonymous with Auchinleck as coal mining was, in much the same way Berry Gordy made Detroit as famous for soul music as it was for its production of automobiles.
The good times continued throughout the 1990s after Knox departed the club in 1992. For all he accomplished with Auchinleck Talbot he earned the most exalted of nicknames – ‘God’ – albeit a fallible one. Knox controversially crossed the great divide to take up the managers post at their closest and fiercest of rivals, Cumnock, but still managed to keep a smile on the face of ‘Bot fans in the process – he got Cumnock relegated.
Those glorious footballing days of the late 80s and early 90s would have come as a stark contrast to the economic picture in and around the village with the demise of coal mining and other industries signalling what could have been a terminal downturn. Wullie Baxter, who has been a fan of the Bot since 1972 when he climbed over the fence at Cumnock’s Townhead Park to witness his new team thumped 11-0, experienced both the halcyon days of Willie Knox and the contemporaneous decline of the area’s industrial heartbeat.
“Auchinleck Talbot are really important, not just to the village itself but the surrounding villages as well.”
The club’s success and growth in the face of such adversity for its locale has inspired many beyond Ayrshire, with supporters’ clubs springing up as far afield as Africa.
Baxter waxes lyrical about Knox’s abilities as a manager: “The teams he produced all played for each other and would never say die. The best example would be the Scottish Cup final win of 1986. The game was barely underway and we were down 2-0, many a team would have hit the panic button; not Wullie Knox’s boys though. They regrouped and went on to destroy Pollok 3-2. The rest is history and the three in a row run was underway.”
Thirty years on, the names come readily to mind for Baxter as he recalls the players who starred for Knox: “There was George Gemmell, Kenny Patterson, Hughie Lyden (what a left peg he had) Wullie Young, Dennis Gray, George Rattray, Tam McDonald, Ross Findlay, to name but a few. Everyone played their part. Although players at this level now are certainly fitter and more professional, some of the guys from Knox’s time were a joy to watch. If they were here now and playing at Beechwood, I can only fantasise about how good they would be in today’s game.”
For all those men are worshipped by the Auchinleck faithful for their achievements of the past, the current team are in the happy position of not needing to dream of their reinvention to bring about further success.
Tommy Sloan – affectionately known as Tucker – took up the reins at Beechwood in 2003, and alongside his assistant Allan McLuckie, he has engineered a period of dominance every bit, if not more impressive than that of Willie Knox.
The Scottish Junior Cup has been won on five occasions to add to the five West of Scotland Premier Division titles – the last four of which have been successive and came after suffering just 10 league defeats across all four campaigns. Indeed, Sloan’s side went two years unbeaten between 2012 and 2014. Rightly, they are feared in whichever competition they take part. The 2013 Scottish Junior Cup final proved to be Talbot’s coronation as the modern day kings of Junior football. Going for the league and cup double and an unbeaten season, the Bot faced Linlithgow Rose of the eastern region at Livingston’s Almondvale Stadium. It was an eagerly anticipated, televised clash of the titans, especially given Linlithgow were also unbeaten all year and going for their own double. Although the game itself was a tight, tense affair that barely lived up to its billing, Auchinleck claimed the Cup – and the right to call themselves the best – thanks to a late goal by David Gormley.
Talbot have also made inroads in the senior Scottish FA Cup in recent years, narrowly losing to SPFL opposition in Stirling Albion (1-2, 2009/10), Stranraer (2-3 replay, 2013/14) and eventual winners Hearts, 0-1, in the fourth round in 2011/12.
This ability to mix it with Scottish League clubs coupled with their sustained success at Junior level has repeatedly raised the question of whether the club could, or should, concentrate efforts on gaining entry into the league system. Firstly, with the current set up, that would require them leaving the Junior structure and joining the Lowland League, where – along with the Highland League – clubs can now earn a place in League 2 via the end-of-season play-offs. The financial implications of such a venture for clubs the size of Auchinleck Talbot are prohibitive, as Brora Rangers realised when they were on the verge of winning a spot in League 2 in 2015; they stated well in advance that even if they had beaten Montrose in the play-off, they would have turned down the invitation to the Scottish League.
The appetite for League football amongst the supporters is seemingly lacking too, as Wullie Baxter explains: “Personally, I just don’t fancy a Monday night trip to Brechin in the middle of January. We have a lot of players who could play at a higher level, no problem, but this issue of finances and travelling are probably the reasons they don’t. If we decide to step up I’m pretty sure we would find it a bit more difficult attracting players. Also, the guys who run the club all do it on a voluntary basis. It’s a big ask to commit to becoming a professional set up.”
The reluctance on the part of the players to step up to a higher level is confirmed by Talbot’s full back William Lyle, who joined the club from Stenhousemuir in 2012 having made almost 300 Scottish league appearances in a career that spanned 12 years at Ochilview Park and also for Ayr United, Raith Rovers and Stranraer: “I grew up watching Talbot as a kid so I've always taken an interest in the club even when I was playing senior football. I live five minutes away from the ground so I knew what I was getting when I joined. I had just had a wee girl with my wife Lynne as well so training and playing more locally was a big factor in my decision.
“But in my opinion, the top junior teams could compete in the lower divisions, no problem. There are some good players and the standard shocked me in my first season at Auchinleck.”
From the players’ point of view, what is it that makes Sloan stand out as the game’s top boss? Lyle was effusive in his praise of the man he’s played under for the past four years: “Tucker is different from any other manager I've worked with; he is very set in his ways. He rarely diverts from the way he wants us to play. He is a good character as well, not one for shouting and bawling, yet he certainly lets you know when he's not happy! Every time the Ayr or Stranraer job comes up he gets linked with them but he has never left, which is a surprise. He is a legend at Talbot, he's had so much success so maybe he's happy doing what he does for Auchinleck.”
Being the benchmark team for others to strive towards means that you constantly have to up your game accordingly, and while Lyle believes that Talbot are still top dogs in Junior football, the pack are doing their utmost to hunt them down: “The teams around us are closing the gap but our hunger and desire to win games is a big factor. We have a great team spirit and a winning mentality – we hate getting beat, so we try our best to make sure it doesn't happen often. In my opinion if we play to our potential, then nobody can knock us off our perch.”
Sitting atop that perch for so long obviously makes Talbot a target for opposition fans just as much as players, as Wullie Baxter is happy to point out: “Are we disliked by other clubs? Of course, but that’s what happens, it’s a problem we all enjoy and long may it continue. Banter on the terraces at Junior games is second to none though, and I can certainly recommend to anyone to get along to a Junior game and sample it.”
So, after decades of sustained success – barring the odd, relatively fallow period here and there - the burning question is how does Baxter compare Willie Knox and his modern day successor Tommy Sloan?
“That’s a tough one! Obviously, these are different times and different circumstances. However, I’d have to choose Sloan. In my opinion he is more successful. Knox is a legend who turned our club around and worked wonders with the teams he produced. Tucker and McLuckie, his assistant, have a knack of bringing in a full back and turning him into a striker or vice versa, the man can spot talent and knows just how to develop them into better players.”
Auchinleck is a place rightly proud of its history. Only now shrugging off the effects of post-industrial recession, the people have had very little to shout about for a generation or more. The village’s football club has not only been the exception, but they have consistently been exceptional – as both their admirers and opponents can only too readily testify.
MARK GODFREY – EDITOR