Can Ayr win promotion to the Scottish Premiership?
Background image: Martin Le Roy CC BY 2.5.
For the second season on the run, it seemed Ayr United could pull off the unimaginable; promotion to the Scottish Premiership. For a little club like Ayr, playing in a small seaside town in a stadium with a mere 1,600 seats, top-flight football would be a dream come true. They’ve not played at the highest level since 1978. Regular games against the Old Firm, as well as local rivals Kilmarnock, would bring a huge income boost, SPL status would reinvigorate club and community while European qualification would be within their grasp.
Fresh off promotion from League One the previous season and led by prolific forward Lawrence Shankland in 2018/19, the Honest Men stormed up the table, only to falter in the second half of the term; winning only two of nine home games after New Year before crashing out of the play0offs 4-2 on aggregate to Inverness CT.
Not to be deterred, Ayr started this season in fine form, storming up the table and leaving the fans hopeful that this would finally be the year. Things fell apart abruptly in September when manager Ian McCall opted to depart Ayr, taking up the vacant Partick Thistle managerial job. McCall’s assistant, Mark Kerr, was chosen as his replacement; a sensible decision perhaps to allow a man seemingly crucial to the club’s success the chance to take the hot seat. But Kerr’s early reign was nothing short of a disaster. From his first ten games in charge, the club won only three games. A stark fall for a club who had been in touching distance of top spot before McCall’s departure.
With the turn of the year, form has gradually improved. Ayr won their first league game in over a month in early January, beating Dunfermline Athletic 1-0, following that up with a Scottish Cup 4th round win over Ross County. Form is definitely stabilising, but automatic promotion is now surely out of reach.
League leaders Dundee United maybe only two places above Ayr in the table, but they are 21 points ahead. Ayr will need to rely on the playoffs. They will solidify their place and then need to build confidence.
Kerr may not have impressed in his reign so far, but now the transfer window has opened and the manager has taken the chance to reinforce his squad. Forward Aaron Drinan has joined on loan from Ipswich Town and made his debut in the cup win over Inverness. Kerr stated Drinan had immediately brought a new dimension to the team, offering something similar to what Lawrence Shankland had in seasons past.
It’s a good start for Drinan, but despite the hyperbole from Kerr, a single loan signing is unlikely to rescue the team. Kerr will need to reinforce across the park, bolstering his leaky defence and lacklustre midfield. This is an area where his inexperience may cost him dearly. Like most Scottish clubs, the Honest Men’s funds are limited and will need to rely on free agents and loan signings to flesh out their squad. Kerr is having a tough enough time on the pitch and his lack of contacts off it may be the final nail in the coffin for Ayr’s promotion charge.
But Kerr is learning. A young coach in his first manager’s role, he has improved slowly after a terrible start. If the team can build on their form and solidify their play-off position and gain some confidence on the way, perhaps things will start looking up. Anything can happen in the play-offs but finishing in a good spot will at least give them a good base for another go next season, especially with the mighty Dundee likely to have been promoted. For Ayr, it could be a case of third time lucky.