2020/21 in Review – Ayr United

After another summer with wholesale changes throughout the team, Ayr United remained in the Scottish Championship by the skin of their teeth. Jack Donnelly takes a look back at the last season at Somerset Park.

Ayr faced a lot of battles in the 2020/21 Championship season and will be grateful to be playing second division football after the summer. (Photo Credit – Dundee FC)

Season Overview

The 2020/21 season will be one that Ayr supporters will want to erase from their memories as soon as possible. After a fairly positive start, positive results became far too evasive for The Honest Men and after chatter began to circulate of a potential playoff push, that same chatter transformed into murmurs of worry as Ayr faced a very real possibility of finishing in the relegation playoff place in the Scottish Championship. Thankfully for the Ayrshire club, they did just enough to survive the drop, with a 2-2 draw with Inverness on the final evening securing their Championship status for another season.

After a summer window that saw some more of Ayr’s best players leave, most notably Alan Forrest to Livingston, Daniel Harvie to MK Dons and both Ross Doohan and Stephen Kelly returning to their parent clubs after successful loans, it was another period of rebuilding the squad. Ayr secured yet another loan goalkeeper as Viljami Sinisalo arrived from Aston Villa, forward Cammy Smith arrived from Dundee United, Tom Walsh and Dario Zanatta were drafted in to bolster Ayr’s wide options and Jack Baird came in from St. Mirren, with the defender taking the captain’s armband. Other summer arrivals included Joe Chalmers, Michael Miller and Scotland under-21s international Patrick Reading, while the likes of Corrie Ndaba, Jamie Barjonas and Josh Todd all joined the club on loan at various points in 2021.

It’s been a season of significant change for Ayr, not least in terms of the ownership of the club. David Smith, a lifelong Honest Man, took charge in January of 2021, planning on establishing a long-lasting infrastructure and legacy within the club. His first big decision came about very quickly, as he dismissed player-manager Mark Kerr, alongside assistant Mick McCardle, from their positions in late February. Kerr, who had been in the position since October 2019, had gone through a torrid run of form in the Championship, only winning twice in 11 matches, with both wins coming against bottom side Alloa.

Former Greenock Morton manager David Hopkin was the man to replace Kerr, tasked with securing Ayr’s survival in the Championship. On the whole, he did his job, but it looked as though he would fail to do so – Hopkin only managed one win in his first nine league games with the Ayrshire side. Given the increasingly bleak situation, fans began to consider whether Hopkin would stay past the end of the season, but now that Ayr are confirmed as a Championship club for another season, Hopkin has already begun looking ahead to next season with a big rebuild planned.

This campaign will likely be remembered for its negatives more than anything, if it is to be remembered at all. The summer ahead will be crucial in establishing how realistic David Smith’s ambitions for the club are – with a manager who can now impose his vision on the team and an owner who has big plans for the club, Ayr fans should have a bit of hope as they head towards the summer months. Before that, though, let’s take a look back at what the 2020/21 season threw up for The Honest Men…

Player of the Season – Aaron Muirhead

For many Ayr fans, the 20/21 playing squad lacked the fight and character that would have avoided the fear of dropping into League One, but Aaron Muirhead showed an expected level grit and determination throughout the campaign that left him standing well ahead of his teammates in the supporters’ estimations.

“Aero” was initially deployed alongside Baird in Mark Kerr’s back four, often making his voice heard above the rest as he did as much as he could to marshal a leaky defence. Muirhead often showed his strength, aerial dominance and confidence on the ball, with the latter becoming more apparent when he stepped up into midfield under Hopkin, where he would be a permanent fixture alongside one of Chalmers, Andy Murdoch or Barjonas. Muirhead shone ahead of his midfield colleagues when drafted into the role, providing a much-needed presence in the middle of the park that had been otherwise missing. As one of nine first-team players contracted into next season, Hopkin should lean on Muirhead’s ability and leadership throughout any rebuild process.

Young Player of the Season – Viljami Sinisalo

The on-loan Aston Villa goalkeeper was crucial in keeping Ayr up this season, as he stood out as one of the highest-performing goalkeepers in the league. (Photo Credit – Ross MacDonald/SNS via Getty Images)

Ayr only survived a place in the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, but had it not been for the goalkeeping efforts of Viljami Sinisalo, the club could well have faced automatic relegation, let alone the playoffs.

The young Finn arrived on loan from Aston Villa in the summer transfer window and played 22 of a possible 23 games in the Championship season, missing a home defeat to Arbroath through a groin injury and being recalled from his loan after a subsequent injury, missing the final four games of the season. His athleticism, sharp reflexes and dominance in the box were sorely missed as Ayr’s season drew to a close. Despite conceding 29 goals across his 22 matches, Sinisalo kept seven clean sheets, the fourth highest in the Championship. While Sinisalo cut quite a divisive figure among the fans, his contributions were crucial in keeping Ayr up and the club now face a return to the transfer market to find another starting goalkeeper, be that on loan or as a permanent member of the squad…

Signing of the Season – Cammy Smith

A strong case can rightly be made for Sinisalo to win this award as well, but for all of the keeper’s efforts this season, you don’t win games without scoring goals. Considering that Cammy Smith finished as Ayr’s top Championship scorer with six, the decision to bring the forward to Somerset Park was a clever one.

Smith arrived on a free from Dundee United in the summer and was deployed anywhere across the front line in Mark Kerr’s 4-2-3-1 setup. He formed a fairly fluid relationship with Luke McCowan and Tom Walsh – as a result, Smith would often pick up the ball and drive through the middle of the park behind the striker. Smith’s pace allowed him to knock the ball past opponents with ease, while his direct approach was a crucial component in advancing Ayr’s attacking play. As with every player who’s shone at Ayr recently, rumours of a move away began to circulate in early 2021, with Smith touted for a move to America at the end of the season. Smith did agree to move to second-tier side Indy Eleven at the end of the season, but due to COVID-19 guidelines, the move had to be brought forward and Smith left the club prematurely. Again, like Sinisalo, Smith’s contributions were crucial in ensuring Ayr’s Championship status for the 2021/22 season and it was a real shame that Ayr went without him for the final few games.

Underperformer of the Season – Andre Wright

With goals increasingly hard to come by despite the loan signings of both Bruce Anderson and Innes Cameron, Ayr went looking for a striker in January. Andre Wright joined the club from Irish side Bohemians, having scored 16 goals in 35 appearances. A tall, strong forward, fans were hoping to see Wright fire the goals in on a regular basis. What they got in response was completely and utterly underwhelming.

Wright only made five appearances across the 15 Championship games that took place after he signed, failing to score a single goal. A groin injury kept him out of action eight of those fifteen, to be fair, but his contributions (or lack thereof) resulted in David Hopkin leaving him on the bench for the final two games of the season. Wright won’t be appearing in black and white again, as the club announced that the striker would not be offered a new deal for the upcoming campaign. I can’t imagine too many Ayr fans will be too disappointed with that news.

Goal of the Season – Mark McKenzie vs Dundee (A)

Considering that his first goal in the match was also the first of his professional career, Mark McKenzie’s second strike against Dundee was that of a striker many years McKenzie’s senior. (Photo Credit – David Young/Action Plus)

A part of me wanted to automatically give this award to Josh Todd for his Championship-securing goal in Ayr’s 2-2 draw with Inverness, but Mark McKenzie’s strike to seal the points against Dundee in February stands out the most.

Ayr were loving life at Dens Park – McKenzie had scored his first senior goal earlier in the first half and Smith had scored a rebound to put The Honest Men further in front. Given that this was only David Hopkin’s second match in charge, things couldn’t have been going better for the former Morton boss. Five minutes before full time, McKenzie picked the ball up 25 yards from goal, turned and laced it right into the top corner past a helpless Adam Legzdins in the Dundee goal. The goal – and the result – left Ayr three points outside of the playoff places and seemed to suggest that results would come much easier under Hopkin than they did under Kerr. Things turned out differently…

Moment of the Season – Staying Up

In a season with very little to cheer about or celebrate, securing survival on the last day rings clear as the best moment of an otherwise bleak year for Ayr United.

Three teams could finish in the playoff place, with Arbroath and Morton also at risk. They were playing each other, while Ayr faced a trip up north to play Inverness. Ayr were sandwiched in between Morton and Arbroath and had the same goal difference as Arbroath, who sat above them in the table, while Morton sat below Ayr on the same points, but had worse goal difference. All Ayr needed was a draw to confirm their status as a Championship side for another season, but when Daniel Mackay opened the scoring for Inverness after just six minutes, fears slowly started to become reality. Ayr clawed their way back into the game just before half time, after Aaron Muirhead dispatched a penalty past Mark Ridgers to level the tie – with Arbroath vs Morton also level, Ayr were safe.

That was the case, until Ayr conceded a penalty of their own two minutes into the second half, with Sean Welsh putting Inverness back in front. With the Somerset faithful complaining about a lack of grit and passion in the squad throughout the season, many may have consigned themselves to the playoffs already. Thankfully, loanee midfielder Josh Todd was able to net the final goal of the game, and the goal that would save Ayr, 20 minutes later. Receiving the ball from a knockdown in the Inverness box, Todd lashed it back across goal and found the bottom right corner, much to the relief of everyone associated with Ayr. Easily the best moment in a turbulent season – fans will be hoping that there’s more to celebrate next year…

Moment to Forget – Humiliation at Gayfield

An unexpected result for sure, but when Ayr were ripped apart by Arbroath in March, with the Red Lichties running out 4-0 winners, fans lost any hope of survival and heads went down.

In what was a must win game, Ricky Little opened the scoring with a close-range header after just 11 minutes, giving Ayr plenty of work to do despite a fairly bright start. Their work would be doubled 15 minutes later, as Ben Williamson poked the ball past the onrushing PJ Morrison. Before Ayr had the chance to respond, Arbroath delivered a sucker punch in the form of a third goal, as Jack Hamilton met a Nicky Low corner to head the home side even further in front. Dale Hilson added to Ayr’s misery in the 65th minute as he ran onto a throw in from the left before firing a vicious strike into the bottom left corner. At 4-0 up, and given league positions, this victory essentially saved Arbroath – for Ayr, however, it was more likely than ever that they would be fighting for their lives, most likely in the playoffs. David Hopkin will likely be working diligently throughout the summer to make sure results like this are a thing of the past.

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