Less than 100 days ago, Ayr United were enjoying an unbeaten start to the league campaign and sitting proudly atop League 1. But when manager Mark Roberts was relieved of his duties on Monday with the Honest Men having sunk to ninth, the overriding feeling was that the decision was long overdue.
Roberts’s departure was not so much about the team’s miserable run – Ayr had taken three points from a possible 30 and suffered six consecutive home league defeats – or their lowly league position, but a two-and-a-half-year reign marked by underachievement, dissatisfaction and, latterly, deep discontent amongst the club’s supporters. Just 646 hardy souls witnessed the final act of Roberts’s tenure at Somerset Park – around half of United’s average attendance this season. Maybe it was the stark economic reality of the situation that jolted chairman Lachlan Cameron into action.
Roberts joined Ayr as a player from Partick Thistle in January 2009. He was brought to the club by his predecessor Brian Reid at a time when the team were locked in battle with Raith Rovers for the Second Division title. Although Raith went on to clinch the championship, the veteran striker inspired United to promotion via the play-offs (and would repeat the feat again in 2011). Roberts’s playing career started at Kilmarnock and, by his own admission, he had failed to fulfill its potential but “Marko” would enjoy an Indian summer at Somerset Park, becoming a popular figure on the terraces (despite his origins). “Oh Marko Roberts! He used to be a Killie but he’s alright now!” sung the fans.
As club captain, Roberts scored 24 times in season 2010-11, including an archetypal effort that knocked Hibernian out of the Scottish Cup and the equaliser in the play-off final second leg victory over Brechin City. However, having gone straight back down to Division Two in 2010, United were once again unable to consolidate their position in the second tier and when Reid departed in May 2012, Roberts was immediately promoted to manager on a two-year deal.
Following the conservative Reid (whose achievements at the club, for some supporters anyway, were besmirched by two relegations and a pusillanimous performance against Kilmarnock in the League Cup semi-final), Roberts sought to differentiate himself as a more attack-minded manager by promoting a more attractive standard of play. The appointment of the David White, formerly the head of the club’s youth academy, as his assistant was also intended to widen the access into the first team for a clutch of talented youngsters.
And so impressive were Ayr in pre-season that they were installed as the bookmaker’s favourites to win the Second Division – they drew with a full-strength Bolton Wanderers XI and then thumped Champions League-bound Motherwell 4-0. A radical overhaul in the team’s shape and style of play brought a more possession-based approach, passing the ball short and at speed, and Roberts’s recruits (almost an entirely new team was was brought into the club over the summer) appeared to be a perfect fit for his vision.
There were still come concerns with certain areas of the side – defence remained an anxiety (particularly goalkeeper Ally Brown), there was a lack of width in the team (although this was countered by the offensive play of Ayr’s full backs), and size of the squad was relatively small – but the attractive and attacking football had a feel-good factor envelop the club.
It was to quickly dissipate.
A humiliating 1-3 Challenge Cup defeat away to East Stirlingshire in Roberts’s first competitive fixture was tempered by a tantalising demonstration of the way it was supposed to work when Clyde were routed 6-1 in the League Cup the following week. But after conceding a last-minute equaliser to Stenhousemuir at Somerset Park on the opening day of the league campaign, Ayr went on to lose their next four league matches. A 0-2 reverse at Stranraer saw the Roberts and his players return to the sight of Somerset Park decorated with a banner giving a blunt assessment of their efforts.
Sixteen points from the next 21 available turned down the heat but performances failed to convince: two of Ayr’s five wins in the sequence – against bottom sides Albion Rovers and Stranraer – came courtesy of last-minute penalties. Even a 3-0 win over Brechin (Jim Weir’s final game in charge and achieved with ten men), could be downplayed by the paucity of the opposition. Ayr, for all but the briefest of glimpses, struggled to recreate the football demonstrated in the summer.
The loss at Albion Rovers was the season’s nadir – after the match, Roberts became involved in a heated exchange with a fan
The season’s nadir came at Cliftonhill on Boxing Day 2012. In themselves, the surroundings served as a sobering reality check but nothing compared to the performance on the field. A lethargic, hapless rabble took to the pitch in white shirts, seemingly without a strategy to break down such limited opponents. Ayr were meant to have “turned the corner” but the 0-2 defeat represented a fourth consecutive loss and, just three points from the foot of the table, Roberts was compelled into doleful self-examination. In hindsight, this was the afternoon in which things began unravel – at full-time he became embroiled in a heated exchange with a fan and from that point onwards, the once-popular player endured a difficult relationship with the club’s support.
The defeat – and the aftermath – seemed to force the club into contemplation. The manager called for supporters to rally round but warned them there would be no quick fix. “We’re not one of those clubs that can throw £500 at a new player… I do not want to moan about budgets though,” Roberts cautioned.
However, one month later and chucking money at new players was exactly what the manager was doing. A £7500 sponsorship from the club’s “development partner” was augmented by an additional £20,000 (and rising) thanks to the fundraising efforts of supporters (including sizeable donations from Lachlan Cameron and sponsors Bodog).
Ultimately, it was all squandered. United comfortably avoided relegation but ended the season in seventh, 51 points behind champions Queen of the South and 13 outside of the promotion play-offs. Roberts accepted his inaugural year in the dugout was unacceptable but appeared to be at a loss as to why things went so wrong. “Whether [it] was down to mistakes made by myself I don’t know but I think the players have to take responsibility for their inconsistency,” he said.
Inconsistency was certainly a factor in Ayr’s lowly league position. Nine of their 12 league wins were immediately followed by defeats and only when the side won three games in a row (a run of unbeaten fixtures they matched just once) at the end of September were they able to record back-to-back wins. Another failing was the alarming frequency of throwing away league points: ten games saw the Honest Men drop a total of 26 points from a winning position; it was the division’s worst record.
Much was made of Roberts’s recruitment of former team-mates and “friends” from within the game – experienced campaigners such as Austin McCann, Marc Twaddle and Ryan McStay – but the manager appeared to criticise them for the club’s poor campaign at the end of the year. January’s cash windfall allowed him to bring in Graeme Smith, Neil McGregor, Chris Smith, Scott McLaughlin and Liam Buchanan – all renowned performers in the third tier and above – but there was little improvement in results and no evidence of the attractive, attacking football promised at the season’s start.
It was difficult to pinpoint any positives. The emergence of 18-year-old midfielder Robbie Crawford from club’s vaunted football academy was an encouraging sign, but that he was United’s star performer underlined how the squad’s senior players had failed to pull their weight.
Roberts’s second year in charge was undoubtedly an improvement but it was, all-in-all, no more than average with familiar failings still unresolved. The league campaign started well with a six-match unbeaten run that set the platform for the team to remain in the top four for the entire season, but like so many aspects of Roberts’s managerial reign it was only a qualified success.
Going into the seventh game, away to Dunfermline Athletic, Ayr were without a win in four after consecutive draws and they were comprehensively dismantled by the Pars, losing 1-5 despite taking the lead. The game encapsulated a frustrating season. The Honest Men performed well enough against the sides outside the promotion play-offs in the first half of the season (it was the middle of January before they lost to a club below them in the league table) but results against Dunfermline and Stranraer were poor: 3-6 and 0-4 defeats home and away to the Blues, and 2-4 in the return fixture against the Pars.
The failings against these two sides served to highlight the shortcomings of Roberts’s management. A rigid 4-4-2 formation struggled against more fluid opponents while makeshift centre-backs alongside Alan Lithgow brought no improvement to the defence. They continued to drop points from leading positions (22 in total) – an indication of Roberts’s inability to make positive changes during a match.
There was also little improvement in the team’s style of play. Initially, perhaps influenced by Andy Millen joining the coaching staff in the summer, the team’s work-rate, shape, discipline and attitude looked immeasurably better than in the previous season but the signing of Kevin Kyle in September failed to have a positive impact on the side. Quite the opposite, in fact. While Craig Malcolm showed little in front of goal to suggest he would match the 18 strikes he netted for Stranraer the previous season, his endeavour and hold-up play was proving a fine complement to the excellent Michael Moffat. When Malcolm was dropped in favour of the big striker, the side’s focus, by accident or design, switched to playing long ball after long ball; in turn, Kyle’s focus appeared to be on haranguing referees. The contrast in industry between Malcolm and Kyle was stark and with the latter up front, United’s performances regressed.
Ayr lost twice as many games, ten, in the second-half of the season as they did in the first, including four-in-a-row between February and March. Although many considered a play-off spot to be an outside bet at the start of the season, they ended up stumbling into the top four with just four points in their final six games. Ayr became the first side to qualify for the First Division/Championship play-offs with less than 50 points. United may have ended three places and eight points better off than the previous season but it had been unconvincing; Cowdenbeath easily dismissed them in the semi-finals.
At that juncture, many felt it was time for Roberts to move on but, tucked away beneath a match report on the club website it was announced that his contract had been extended for the season ahead. Such was the maelstrom of opinion that Lachlan Cameron was stirred to subsequently draft a lengthy statement. The case for keeping Roberts on for a third season was reasoned – Cameron gave him the target of reaching the promotion play-offs (indeed, the Honest Men held a top-four spot all season) but the article also hinted at the chairman’s dissatisfaction and made clear Roberts’s aims for the forthcoming season: winning promotion; increasing youth development; improving discipline; and playing attractive football. The most unequivocal, and perhaps relevant, part read: “Relegation or a sustained period in the wrong half of the table would result in termination”.
With Michael Moffat lured away to Dunfermline, Roberts re-imagined his side over the summer. Significant experience was added to the squad: Jon-Paul McGovern and Peter Murphy, both 33, joined after long careers in England; full-backs Kevin McKinlay and Nicky Devlin were signed up after their release from Stenhousemuir; and Ryan Donnelly was given a chance after failing to make his mark at Brechin. There was no obvious replacement for Moffat but a more nuanced, less direct approach was intended to make up for the departure of talismanic striker – it was now a case of collectivism over individualism.
Despite the upheaval, Ayr started this current campaign in remarkably similar fashion to last season. After nine games they boasted the same points tally (13) and occupied the same position in the table as they did 12 months previously. Bouncing back from a woeful defeat at Clyde in the first round of the Challenged Cup, United eased past East Stirlingshire in the League Cup to set up a derby against Kilmarnock before catapulting themselves to the top of the League 1 table with three straight wins.
After narrowly losing 0-1 at Rugby Park, however, performances and results have been less impressive.
Roberts favoured a 4-4-1-1 formation, with initially Jon-Paul McGovern and then Brian Gilmour playing in behind the hard-working Ryan Donnelly. The manager even went as far as claiming that team wasn’t good enough to play with two strikers (before doing exactly that away to Peterhead). The approach had some success on the road: a comfortable, exhilarating victory over Stirling Albion saw Alan Forrest at his best and hard-fought victories at Brechin and Greenock Morton deserved praise, but the issues started at home.
Where visiting sides sat deep and played compactly, Ayr were failing to create enough chances. Defeats to Stranraer and Airdrieonians stand out as particularly unsatisfactory and the final ten minutes against the Diamonds (where the visitors scored two late goals to win 3-2) was reminiscent of some of United’s worst performances under Roberts.
Coinciding with poor results was an alarming number of injuries. When fully fit Ayr’s first-choice defensive unit is stronger than last season’s but it has been disrupted by injury far too often. Martyn Campbell, the peerless Peter Murphy, and third choice centre-back (and first-choice left-back) Kevin McKinlay have all been troubled by various ailments – but that should come as no surprise. Indeed, Roberts’s reliance on Campbell – who has missed over half of United’s matches in the past nine years through injury – undermined his defence in each of the past three seasons. Try as he might, an adequate understudy just could not be found.
“If the fans don’t like me then tough, I’ve got enough pals”
When at full strength, Roberts insisted, his side was a match for any in the league but even with key personnel available, the whole thing looked fractured and disjoined. Confidence had drained from the players – goalkeeper David Hutton in particular has been culpable for some dreadful errors in recent weeks – and the team and their manager looked like beaten men in the end. His relationship with supporters disintegrated after a number of ill-advised barbs. Following yet another home defeat to Peterhead, Roberts said: “If the fans don’t like me then tough, I’ve got enough pals”.
Defeat to Stenhousemuir on Saturday plunged Ayr into the relegation play-off position and constituted “a sustained period in the wrong half of the table”. True to his word, Cameron terminated the manager’s contract. It was a relief to all. Roberts too, probably.
In the build-up to Ayr’s League Cup semi-final against Killie in January 2012, Roberts candidly admitted: “I know I’ve made an arse of my [playing] career, to a certain extent… I wish someone had taken me by the scruff of the neck because I was good enough. But I was to blame. I regret those days… I should have done so much better”. He might think the same about his managerial career but in truth it is difficult to identify any potential unfulfilled.
Gerry Ferrara’s A Season with The Honest Men, an access all areas account of last term, provides a unique insight into Roberts’s time in the managerial hotseat. It is a portrait of a man committed to the club but often frustrated by his player’s inability to follow his instructions. The logic was there in how to counter United’s opponents but the application was not. Yet after two-and-a-half years of inadequate results and performances, the buck has to stop with one man.
The last four seasons have been a chastening experience for Ayr United supporters. Their club has gone from yo-yoing between the second and third tiers to middling League 1 also-rans. Meanwhile, part-time clubs with a fraction of United’s fanbase – Dumbarton, Alloa Athletic, Cowdenbeath, Stranraer and Forfar Athletic – have left the Honest Men in inertia.
Mark Roberts cannot be held solely responsible for their decline but he eventually ran out of excuses – and pals. With 52 goals in 163 appearances, his playing career with Ayr will be fondly remembered but his management of the club has been a bitter disappointment.