2021/22 Season in Review – Ayr United
Jack Donnelly takes a look back at the latest campaign for Ayr United, as the Honest Men secured Championship survival on the final day for the second season in a row.
Ayr United came into the 2021/22 season having survived by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the season with a 2-2 draw against Inverness Caley Thistle. Fast forward a year that had just about everything a football season could throw up, and Ayr were in the exact same position – battling to avoid the relegation playoffs on the final day.
This would suggest that not much had changed at Somerset Park, right? Wrong.
Turbulent is perhaps the best word to use when describing the last 12 months of footballing activity in Ayr, with a wild whirlwind whipped up by the revolving door in the dugout. Four different managers spent time at the helm of the black and white ship, with David Hopkin the first man to tread the waters of the 21/22 season. Hopkin joined the club in March 2021, winning just one Ayr’s final nine games as they barely stayed afloat in the Championship. As fans returned to stadia across Scotland, the Ayr faithful had the chance to watch Hopkin’s brand of football in person for the first time – suffice to say, they were less than impressed by the incessant long balls pumped up the field with no real target.
Hopkin lasted just four league games this season, in which Ayr picked up a solitary point from a possible 12, with losses against Inverness, Raith Rovers and fierce rivals Kilmarnock. Jim Duffy took interim charge and eventually replaced Hopkin permanently, with the former Hibs manager having joined the coaching staff in the summer. There were definitely signs of improvement, as the Ayrshire side lost just once in Duffy’s first five league matches, but after a 2-1 win over Queen of the South in mid-October, Duffy wouldn’t win again before his dismissal in late December. The biggest grievance that fans had was the lack of shift away from the long-ball football Ayr had played under Hopkin, despite the fact that in the wins accumulated under Duffy, Ayr looked more fluid and inventive as they kept play on the turf, rather than in the air.
Ayr’s Head of Youth, Davie White, took interim charge before Lee Bullen was brought in from Sheffield Wednesday’s Under-23s. Bullen arrived in Ayrshire in the first week of January, and instantly made an impression as he secured a vital victory over league leaders Arbroath less than 48 hours after signing on.
Ayr looked the best they had all season under Bullen but would often find themselves rueing their missed chances in draws or defeats. Furthermore, a startling lack of consistency allowed for a much more nail-biting conclusion to the season than first thought when Bullen came in. Back to back wins away to Killie and Inverness were undone by a meek 1-0 home loss to Queen of the South. A rampant 4-0 win away to Raith Rovers was forgotten after a disastrous result against Killie at home – Ayr wouldn’t win again until the final day of the season against Partick Thistle.
There was also significant changes in the Somerset Park boardroom over the course of the season. Graeme Mathie (formerly of Hibernian) and Martin Tocker were recruited as Managing Director and Commercial Director respectively, with owner David Smith making the necessary steps to “create an infrastructure for the future”, as was his initial desire for his boyhood club.
As always, the summer ahead poses the possibility of a completely different playing squad stepping out onto the pitch come the Premier Sports Cup group stages in the summer, with the likes of Jack Baird and Aaron Muirhead already moving onto pastures new. The main difference, though, is the fact that there seems to be a real sense of optimism in the Somerset Park terraces, with fans eager to see what happens over the summer months ahead of the new campaign.
Player of the Season: Tomi Adeloye
At the end of every season, it’s always fair to assume that a team’s top goal scorer will be in contention for their Player of the Season award. Few would be more deserving than Tomi Adeloye, however, as without his goals, Ayr would have been doomed to be relegated long, long ago.
Adeloye arrived at Somerset Park in the summer, having spent some time in Scotland with East Kilbride before the Lowland League was suspended at the beginning of 2021. The striker penned a one-year deal and now, fans are crossing their fingers that their leading man will sign on for another season of Championship football.
The 26-year-old bagged 14 goals in all competitions, with 11 of those coming in the league. The striker is much more than just a finisher, however, with this perhaps being most evident in Ayr’s final league game against Partick Thistle. Running the Jags’ defence ragged all evening long, Adeloye headed through Jamie Sneddon’s legs to score Ayr’s second of the night, which came between Aaron Muirhead’s two penalties – both of which he had been hauled down for.
Adeloye has been critical of his own performances this season, claiming that he should have found the back of the net even more. With that hunger to improve, and Ayr’s similar hunger to develop and climb further up the Championship table next season, it would make sense for Adeloye to re-sign at Somerset to feast next season.
Young Player of the Season: James Maxwell
This was potentially the most contentious title to award, considering that the average age of Ayr’s squad for the season stood at just 24.2 years old. Paddy Reading and Jordan Houston had fairly consistent campaigns in both full back positions, but Rangers loanee James Maxwell stands head and shoulders above the rest as the brightest young spark in this squad.
The 20-year-old arrived at Somerset Park after having spent a season in the second-tier last year with Queen of the South. The move acted as a homecoming of sorts for Maxwell, who grew up in the seaside town and played his first club football in Ayr’s youth ranks, before his family relocated.
Maxwell found himself played all over the park as he was managed by four separate managers throughout the campaign but found the greatest success on the left-hand side, either as a left back or further up on the wing. The youngster notched five goals in 33 appearances, including a brace in a 4-0 rout of Raith Rovers and Ayr’s first in the Ayrshire Derby victory away at Rugby Park – something he has been dreaming of since childhood.
It’s a testament to Maxwell’s contributions that the Somerset Park faithful have been clamouring for him to extend his stint in South Ayrshire. At the time of writing, it seems as though Maxwell is set to bid farewell to his boyhood club, but few will argue that Maxwell left a real impact during his time at the club.
Underperformer of the Season: Daire O’Connor
Ahead of the 21/22 campaign, Hopkin’s squad was in dire need of some creativity, some flair, and some showmanship. There was a shortage of wingers at the club, with Mark McKenzie – a natural striker – perhaps being the best wide option. Enter Daire O’Connor.
The then 24-year-old, who had previously held the nickname of “The Irish Messi”, seemed to be exactly what Ayr’s squad needed. Dynamic, pacey, creative… it seemed like O’Connor would be the perfect fit, and his short cameo in Ayr’s opening league game against Kilmarnock was potentially the only positive from an otherwise dour performance.
The little glimmer of hope that O’Connor could be the answer to Ayr’s prayers was unfortunately snuffed out. With various injuries and an inability to lock in a starting spot under any of his four managers this season, the winger wrapped up his season with just one goal and two assists in 27 appearances (all competitions).
The higher-ups at the club, along with Bullen, see something in the Irishman, despite a fairly underwhelming freshman year in Scotland. O’Connor has penned a deal to remain on the west coast for another year, with an option of a further year. There are certainly signs that suggest that O’Connor can solve plenty of problems for Ayr – a consistent run in the team and an improvement in his end product could see the Somerset faithful enamoured with their wide man.
Goal of the Season: Kerr McInroy vs Hamilton (H)
As has been fairly commonplace, Ayr’s season was set to come down to the wire, with their final five matches against fellow middling to lower league opposition. The first of these five final face-offs came against Hamilton on April Fools’ Day, and after Andy Winter put Accies ahead after six minutes, those feeling the most foolish were stood in the Somerset Road End.
The rain lashed down throughout what would have been an utterly miserable 90 minutes of football, if not for Celtic loanee Kerr McInroy. The midfielder swapped Parkhead for Somerset in the January window and brought a real injection of quality into Bullen’s ranks.
McInroy had scored his first goal in black and white in the final Ayrshire derby of the season (more on that later) a couple of weeks earlier, but this strike meant even more, as it kept Ayr afloat against the likes of Dunfermline and Queens near the foot of the table.
A Jordan Houston cross was flicked on in the air by Michael Moffat, with young prospect Fraser Bryden knocking the ball down towards the edge of the box. Steve Lawson stumbled while moving to clear the danger, which allowed McInroy to set himself before lashing a first-time effort from 20 yards into the side netting, well out of reach of Ryan Fulton. Not to mention, this fantastic effort came in second half stoppage time, when all seemed lost. Not the worst way to rescue a point!
Moment of the Season: Maxwell and Reading at Rugby Park
Was it really going to be anything else?
The third Ayrshire Derby of the season played out at Rugby Park in early February, having previously been scheduled for January 2nd. With crowds set at a maximum of 500 on the fixture’s original date, both clubs agreed to postpone the match in order to get more fans along. With only home fans being permitted to the first derby of the season on the opening day, this match would see Ayr fans at Rugby Park for the first time since the League Cup in 2014. And their patience was duly rewarded.
It seemed as though it would be the same old story after Fraser Murray put Killie in front after just seven minutes, however. A painfully reoccurring theme to Ayr’s season was their tendency to concede early and give themselves a mountain to climb. The load for that climb was lightened significantly when Maxwell found the back of the net with a clever flick in the 14th minute, sending the away section delirious.
The rest of the first half proved to be a cagey affair, with Killie perhaps just edging things in terms of overall control of the match. However, Ayr were a different animal in the second half, completely dominating proceedings and creating chance after chance. The midfield unit of McInroy, Murdoch and Ben Dempsey won everything in the middle of the park and were slick in their transition out wide to Maxwell and Mark McKenzie.
Pressure continued to mount until the 80th minute when the dam finally burst. A fantastic pass from the outside of Maxwell’s left boot found McInroy in space on the left-hand side of the box. Chris Burke dropped back to close the midfielder down, giving Paddy Reading a pocket of space to arrive in and collect the ball from McInroy. The left back took a touch on his right before rifling the ball into the bottom right corner to put Ayr ahead and cause pandemonium in the away end.
This moment stands head and shoulders above the rest for any Ayr fan this season. Having waited for the best part of a decade to bring the noise at Rugby Park, only for COVID to deny any supporter presence on the opening day of the season, this victory and the celebrations felt like a release for many in the away end on that Wednesday night in early February.
Moment to Forget: 16 Minutes of Hell
Unfortunately, there always seems to be more options for this section of the season review than any other when it comes to Ayr. There was the disqualification from the Challenge Cup after fielding an ineligible player against Rangers B. There were 4-0 drubbings, home and away, against Partick Thistle. There was a 2-1 loss away against fellow relegation candidates Dunfermline when a win would have all but guaranteed safety. I could go on.
However, the worst moment of the season came against an all-too-familiar foe in the form of Kilmarnock, as they secured their third derby win of the season, taking advantage of a truly torrid 16-minute spell.
Rather than setting up in the 4-2-3-1 that had worked so well against Killie at Rugby Park, Bullen employed a traditional 4-4-2, with Sam Ashford supporting Adeloye up front. That had already caused a bristle among the Ayr faithful, with issues then exacerbated by Killie taking the lead after just three minutes, with some paltry defending allowing Rory McKenzie to fire past Aidan McAdams.
There were early signs that The Honest Men were looking weak at set-pieces and Ayr fans suffered another dagger to the heart less than 10 minutes after the opener. Some suspect marking at a corner allowed Oli Shaw – who scored the winner in Somerset Park’s last derby – to ghost in and volley past McAdams, putting his finger to his lips to silence the Somerset Road End.
Jack Sanders made it three four minutes later, taking full advantage of Ayr’s inability to defend set-pieces. As the corner came in, the English centre back lost his marker and glanced a header homeward to effectively seal the points for Killie just after a quarter of an hour had been played.
Incensed by his team’s performance thus far, Bullen made changes after just 20 minutes, hauling Maxwell and McKenzie off for Dempsey and Markus Fjørtoft, the latter of whom made a real impression in his stint on the park.
Not long after entering the action, the defender went on a storming run up the right, cutting in past two Killie men before bending a shot destined for the top corner, only to be denied by an excellent save from Zach Hemming. Moments later, the Norwegian tugged on Shaw’s shirt before he could get a clean run on goal, sending him to the floor and seeing himself sent off just 10 minutes after coming on.
McInroy did manage to pull a goal back before half time, but the damage had already been done. Even with an improved performance in the second half, those opening 16 minutes condemned Ayr to a horrid defeat and turned Somerset Park into a cauldron of toxicity for the remainder of the evening.