Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
With the exception of golf at isolated coastal settlements, football is the main sport in every town and city in Scotland. Except Ayr. Ayr has horse racing. It has the most revered racecourse north of the border, it has the Scottish Grand National, it has the Ayr Gold Cup.
It also has Ayr United. The flagship football club of this respectable resort has rarely had the nationwide attention given to its four-legged pursuits – the odd cup semi-final, a League Cup final in 2002, runs in the top tier in the 1970s and before the war – but is most notably associated with the colourful career of manager Ally MacLeod.
MacLeod, later of 1978 World Cup fame, took Ayr from post-war mediocrity to top-flight respectability. It has been more than 40 years since those heady days.
Football came to Ayr around the same as the railway began to bring workers, then holidaymakers to its sandy beach and esplanade. Ayr United weren’t the town’s first club – the Honest Men were an amalgamation of two previous amalgamations.
First, in 1872, came Ayr Academy and Ayr Thistle, who both played at the Low Green, a recreation ground for Victorians tucked behind the Esplanade. By 1875, enough damage had been done to the turf that the council banned football there. Thistle moved to Thistle Park, parallel to the new railway lines, then Robbsland Park, where they put together a string of 1-0 wins to reach the Scottish Cup semi-final of 1877. Vale of Leven then stomped Thistle 9-0, before winning the trophy three times in succession.
In 1876, Ayr Academy merged with Ayr Eglington, who had been playing at the Old Racecourse for a year, to form Ayr Academicals. First based at a cattle show field then Springvale Park, Academicals merged with Thistle to form Ayr FC.
The town’s first club in the Scottish League, Ayr FC almost made promotion to the top tier in their 13 seasons in Division Two. They were also the first Ayr club to win the Ayrshire Cup, otherwise dominated by Kilmarnock.
The second were Ayr Parkhouse, a year later in 1902. Formed in 1886 and named after the farm where the players trained, Parkhouse moved into Beresford Park after Ayr FC vacated it for Somerset Park in 1888. The two established Ayr’s first local rivalry – although Parkhouse had only a fleeting stay in the Scottish League, held back by their resolute amateur stance. It is thanks to Ayr Parkhouse dropping out that Aberdeen joined the league.
Parkhouse turned professional in 1905, too late to prevent star player Alex Bell from leaving to win two league titles at Manchester United – although they did accept the huge sum of £700 for him.
As football in Ayr moved from amateur to professional status and the game gained more traction, Beresford Park and Somerset Park staged a string of Ayrshire Cup finals. Nearly 4,000 gathered for the clash of the two local rivals in 1906, then 5,000 for the same derby in 1910, both won by Ayr FC.
The team who won the trophy in 1912 were Ayr United. With Ayr FC constantly missing out on promotion to the top flight and Parkhouse out of the league altogether, the two decided on one final merger in 1910.
Based at Somerset Park ever since, it main stand and clubhouse brought over from Beresford Park, the new club also adopted Ayr FC’s colours of red and gold. After 16 seasons, United at last made the top tier, shortly before World War I.
Arriving in town, local transport and timings
The nearest airport to Ayr is Prestwick, 16km (ten miles) away. Over a walkway from the terminal, a train leaves every 15-20mins for Ayr (10min journey time, £2.40), the main station right in town. Somerset Park is slight closer to Newton-on-Ayr station, on the same side of the river – one stop before Ayr, served by every other train from Prestwick.
Similarly, from Glasgow Central, every other train to Ayr (every 15-25mins, 50min-1hr journey time, £8) stops at Newton-on-Ayr. From Edinburgh, change in Glasgow, total journey time 2hrs-2hrs 30mins, £18 single, off-peak return £23.
Local buses are run by Stagecoach (Dayrider pass including Prestwick Airport, £3.70).
Ayr Taxis (01292 870 840) are based in town and offer airport transfers.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
Tourist-friendly Ayr has plenty of pubs to choose from – traditional ones, gastro ones, contemporary ones, football-friendly ones, stretching out from the station to the centre of town, and over to the river on South Harbour Street. Those on the waterfront are pretty convenient as pre-match haunts, but not as handy as the ones in another cluster just over the bridge on the stadium side.
By Ayr station, the first pub you’ll find is Drouthy Neebors, formerly O’Brien’s, an honest place for Honest Men, full of sporting banter, local characters and action on the TVs. Nearby Rabbie’s Bar also goes big on TV football (eight TV screens) and the Bard of Ayrshire, Rabbie Burns, born in nearby Alloway, while the Twa Dugs by Burns Statue Square is a great live-music pub with a big screen for match action.
Five minutes away on the High Street, the Tam O’Shanter Inn is a cosy, thatched-roof kinda place named after the poem by Burns. Opened in 1749 and Ayr’s oldest pub, it prioritises TV sport and live music over history.
Attracting a younger, smarter clientele, Smiths has Sky and BT Sports, a full menu, a beer garden and sun terrace, and a late licence at weekends. Heading towards the river, modern McCabes across the road from the bus station fills with match-watchers and West Kirk is the local Wetherspoon that fills a mid 19th-century church.
Just before the river, Willie Wastle’s provides the post-work crowd with wines and pints, and TV screens if needed.
Three venues line South Harbour Street overlooking the water. Darts superstar Robert Thornton was a member of the team at the revered Anchor Bar 1 South Harbour Street, fierce rivals of its counterparts at lively Smugglers alongside. One along from there, the Rusty Nail is where to come for premium beers, and mince and tatties.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the ground and around town
Note that lodgings get booked up for the Scottish Grand National in April and Ayr Gold Cup in September – particularly near the racecourse, which is close to Somerset Park.
The nearest accommodation to Somerset Park is the Afton Villa, a lovely family-run B&B, with a cooked breakfast in the room rate. Also close is the Western House Hotel, a four-star with 49 rooms and a popular choice for weddings. Down Craigie Road from there, the Craigie Guest House consists of just two rooms in a late Victorian building, run by a friendly couple.
Town is ten minutes’ walk away.
Also close-ish, but on the other side of the stadium from town, the Travelodge Ayr does what Travelodges do, a mile or so straight along the A719 from the racecourse. It’s on the Nos.43/43a bus routes that serve town and stadiums – though stuck in a no-man’s land of car showrooms by a roundabout.
To stay by the beach, the only hotel on the Esplanade is the Horizon, family-run since 1980, with sea views from its recommendable restaurant. Again, a cooked breakfast comes with the rate. Tucked in from the seafront, the Fairfield House Hotel is a quality four-star containing 44 tastefully furnished rooms and an award-winning bar and grill. A pool, spa, sauna, steam room and gym complete the picture.
Just behind it, on Racecourse Road, the Glenpark Hotel is a great find, partly because of its two-star, 22-room accommodation, partly because of its location, close to beach, town and station, partly because of its restaurant (with the best burgers in town) and, mainly because of its bar. A destination in its own right, it’s an outlet for the Ayr Brewing Company, based on-site.
These establishments are close to the No.43/43a bus for Ayr Racecourse – setting off from Miller Road, it should take 10min. Right by the bus stop, Miller House, seven comfortable, affordable rooms set in a striking Victorian building, with free off-site parking.
At the corner of Miller Road and Beresford Terrace, with more bus options across the river, the Ayrshire & Galloway is a comfy home-from-home, its restaurant a stand-alone recommendation in itself.