BY WILLIAM HEANEY
Despite more than a century of competitive football, there have been only 18 occasions when Scotland’s league championship has been won by a side other than Celtic or Rangers (including Dumbarton sharing the title with Rangers in 1891). Whether it be Hibernian’s golden era of the late 1940s and early ‘50s, or Dundee United’s first and only title in 1983, any temporary halt to the Glasgow giants’ dominance is warmly welcomed by the wider Scottish football community.
Normally, any prospective challenger would need to step over at least one of the big two in order to reach the top of the domestic pile. However, season 1964/65 was a remarkable one: the traditional powerhouses were also-rans, both finishing the campaign outside the top four – a set of circumstances not witnessed before or since.
Instead, it was Hearts and Kilmarnock who fought out an enthralling battle for the league title, with the lead changing hands a number of times over the course of the season. This was no freak occurrence however, with both challengers being of considerable pedigree.
Hearts were in the closing stages of the most successful period in their history. Under the tutelage of Tommy Walker, the Jam Tarts had won the league in 1958 and 1960, as well as the Scottish Cup in 1956 and the League Cup on four occasions. While the legendary ‘Terrible Trio’ of Alfie Conn, Willie Bauld and Jimmy Wardhaugh had moved on, Walker could still call on two impressive attacking talents – Willie Wallace would later win the European Cup with Celtic while Alan Gordon had the distinction of not only playing for Hearts and Hibs, but also turned out for both Dundee clubs.
While the side from the capital were used to experiencing that winning feeling, down in Ayrshire it was a different story. Kilmarnock were Scottish football’s nearly men – four times in the previous five seasons they had finished league runners-up, including Hearts’ triumph in 1960. As if that wasn’t painful enough, Killie had also lost three domestic cup finals during the same period.
Nowadays, a team of sports psychologists would work overtime to find the missing ingredient which would help a clearly capable team to take that final step. One thing that wasn’t lacking though was determination, with Kilmarnock once again in contention as winter turned to spring in 1965.
Willie Waddell had enjoyed a distinguished playing career with Rangers and, in his first managerial role, built an impressive side including young goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson (later of West Ham and Scotland), captain and club legend Frank Beattie and prolific striker Jackie McInally (father of Bayern Munich striker Alan McInally).
Hearts looked as if they had done enough when they managed to open a three-point lead at the top. However, a draw with Dundee United left the door slightly ajar and, going into the last round of matches, the contenders were separated by two points. Thanks to a wonderful piece of scheduling, the sides would go head-to-head at Tynecastle on the final day.
On a glorious April afternoon, Hearts and Kilmarnock took to the field to contest their very own duel in the sun. More than 36,000 people were in attendance to see if the championship trophy would spend the year in Edinburgh, or if it would reside in Ayrshire for the first time.
To describe the fixture as winner-takes-all wouldn’t be entirely accurate: the hosts had the luxury of knowing that any victory, draw or even a single goal defeat would still be enough for them to be declared champions on goal average. The visitors meanwhile, knew that a minimum winning margin of two goals was required. It’s also worth noting that had goal difference been in operation, Hearts’ vastly superior ratio would have rendered the final match as virtually meaningless.
In the opening moments, what started out as an uphill struggle for Kilmarnock could have become an insurmountable mountain, had Ronald Jensen’s shot gone inside the post, rather than against it.
Perhaps buoyed by that early let-off, the away side played themselves into the match and after 26 minutes they took the lead – Davie Sneddon was at the far post to meet Tommy McLean’s cross and his header gave the away side renewed hope.
Determined to make the most of their advantage, Kilmarnock then turned the game on its head just a few minutes later. Taking the ball on his left foot, Brian McIlroy drilled a shot past Jim Cruikshank in the Hearts goal. Suddenly, the outsiders were in the driving seat.
Unsurprisingly, Hearts came to life. Despite being on the receiving end of Kilmarnock’s double salvo, they knew that a single goal would still be enough to win the title. However, while they made chances either side of half-time, the visitors held firm and indeed, could have extended their lead.
Hearts’ last chance came in the closing minutes – Gordon met a bouncing ball, ensuring he kept it down and it travelled towards the opposition net. However, after years of near misses, it seemed that Waddell’s players had decided that this was going to be their day. Ferguson – who had made his first-team debut earlier in the season – made a stunning save to confirm an outstanding victory and a historic first championship.
Although they have won both domestic cups since then, that 1965 triumph remains Kilmarnock’s only league championship win. The following season they entered the European Cup, winning a preliminary round tie against the Albanian side, 17 Nentori Tirana. Unfortunately, their opponents in the first-round proper, Real Madrid, had too much quality for their Scottish opponents: not only did the Spaniards progress to the next round, they went on to win the competition for a record sixth time.
Willie Waddell had a remarkable career: as if guiding a provincial club to their first league title wasn’t enough, he won numerous titles with Rangers as a player and returned as manager, leading them to their 1972 European Cup Winners Cup triumph. However, arguably his greatest achievement was his part in the redevelopment of Ibrox stadium, following the disaster in 1971 which claimed the lives of 66 people.
Hearts haven’t won a league title since, and have suffered further last day devastation. After being top of the table for most of the season, two late goals conceded at Dundee handed the 1985/86 title to Celtic. Ironically, had goal average still been in use, they would have been champions.
The 1964/65 season was one of those rare occasions where Scottish football wasn’t all about the ‘Old Firm’. Kilmarnock’s championship win should therefore be celebrated, as such triumphs have been all too infrequent over the years.
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