Kilmarnock in History: Spanish Flu and Cup Glory
Welcome to the 11th installment of our Kilmarnock In History series, by club historian John Livingston.
The war was still going on as the 1918-19 campaign began, and it was a real struggle at times for most clubs to field a regular team.
Despite this, Kilmarnock made a terrific start to the season, losing only once in the opening 10 fixtures. They recorded a 7-1 home win over Hibernian in early September, with Willie Culley scoring four times, and it could have been a bigger win had Tom Hamilton not missed a penalty kick at 1-0.
They also had encouraging away wins over Motherwell (2-1), St. Mirren (5-1) and Third Lanark (4-3). However, in their 11th fixture on 26th October 1918, Kilmarnock lost 3-0 at home to Partick Thistle. After the game, a ceremony took place in the club rooms within the main stand to celebrate the formation of Kilmarnock F.C. 50 years earlier.
The Golden Jubilee celebration was attended by the directors of both clubs’ as well as former committee members and other invited guests from the S.F.A, Scottish League and other clubs. The chairman Charles Smith was presented with a tablet inscribed with the names of all the past presidents of the club. It was handed over by a former president of the club, Dan Gilmour JP. Despite the disappointing result on the day, a good evening was had by all present.
Unknown at the time, inside left Alex Goldie played his last ever game that day against Partick, as he was taken ill soon after, falling victim to the deadly “Spanish influenza” epidemic that had been spreading all over Europe, and sadly, on 6th November 1918, he died at the age of 25.
Another Kilmarnock player affected by the “Spanish Influenza” epidemic was top scorer Willie Culley; both him and his wife being struck down. Willie recovered his health, but unfortunately his wife died.
The club also received sad news just as the war was about to end, that three men who were registered players when the war began – Alexander Barrie, John Rollo, and Daniel McKellar, had been killed. This took the total of players registered with Kilmarnock F.C. at the outbreak of the war in August 1914, who were killed in the conflict to seven.
The continued problems in fielding a regular, consistent team continued over the rest of the season, and it caused many strange and indifferent results, such as being hammered 8-0 at Ibrox by Rangers just four days before Christmas, followed three weeks later, by a 1-0 win over the same Rangers team at Rugby Park! Kilmarnock ended up using 40 players (a total that included a couple of unknown trialists), but still finished in 9th place with 35 points from 34 games.
A Scottish Victory Cup competition was held in the second half of the season, but in the 1st Round, Kilmarnock lost 1-0 in a replay away to Albion Rovers, after having drawn 1-1 (a.e.t.) at Rugby Park. In April 1919, a “Grand Victory Show” was held at Rugby Park, and there was also a Benefit game against Celtic played at the end of the month for Walter Rutherford, who had picked up a nasty injury in early February 1918 that had kept him from working as well as playing.
Kilmarnock won 4-1 in front of a crowd of 3,000, thanks to a hat trick by Alex Higgins (the son of the club’s first-ever Internationalist), who was playing as a guest from Newcastle United (he was to sign permanently later in the summer).
A couple of Kilmarnock players were honoured in the Victory Internationals that were played during the second half of 1918-19. In February, Willie Culley was the scorer in the Scottish League team that lost 3-1 to the Football League in Birmingham. In April, Malcolm McPhail was in the Scotland team that drew 0-0 with Ireland in a Victory International at Windsor Park Belfast.
During the summer, club secretary James MacDonald left to become secretary-manager at Ayr United, and his replacement was Hugh Spence, a Northern Irishman who had been a highly respected assistant to William Wilton at Rangers. Mr. Spence also had a decent knowledge and many good contacts within the junior ranks, especially in the Glasgow area.
In the opening few months of the 1919-20 season, the team struggled badly, taking only seven points (three wins and a draw) from their opening 12 games. They suffered some heavy away defeats to Raith Rovers (5-1) and Hamilton Academical (5-2); lost 7-1 at home to Rangers; then lost 5-0 in successive away games to Ayr United and Rangers.
Players such as Mattha’ Smith and Willie Culley had both been missing from the start of the season, but when they both returned by mid-October, the team gradually began to show some improvement.
There was sad news in early November, when former player Bobby Templeton died at the age of 39. He had come back to live in the town after retiring from playing with Fulham, working as the landlord of the Royal Hotel in Duke Street.
Secretary Hugh Spence was still looking to sign new players, especially up front, and in December he signed John Reid Smith, a 24-year-old centre forward from Battlefield Juniors and by the turn of the year, results improved, and there were high hopes for a better second half to the season.
The first Scottish Cup competition for six years began in the New Year, and after receiving a bye in the 1st Round, Kilmarnock beat Alloa Athletic 2-0 at Recreation Park, despite having to play the second half with only 10 players after Archie Mackie injured an ankle. Alex Higgins and Willie Culley scored the goals that set them up for a home tie with Queen’s Park in the 3rd Round.
A 15,208 crowd witnessed a 4-1 win, with Tom Hamilton, J.R. Smith 2 and Malcolm McPhail getting the goals. In the Quarter Finals, a tricky trip to Armadale was cleverly negotiated, with J.R. Smith and Willie Culley scoring the goals in a 2-1 win.
On 27th March, they faced a strong Morton team at Hampden Park in the Semi-Finals, but they showed great tenacity in fighting back from being 2-0 down to win 3-2, thanks to a couple of goals from J.R. Smith and another from Malcolm McPhail.
The Final on 17th April was against Albion Rovers, who had beaten the favourites Rangers after three games in the other Semi-Final.
Despite going a goal behind after five minutes, Kilmarnock recovered to eventually win 3-2 in a hard-fought Final that was witnessed by an unbelievable crowd of 95,611 at Hampden Park.
The goals were scored by Willie Culley, Mattha’ Shortt and J.R. Smith, and the team was: Tom Blair (capt), Tom Hamilton, David Gibson, John Bagan, Mattha’ Shortt, Bobby Neave, John McNaught, Mattha’ Smith, John Reid Smith, Willie Culley, Malcolm McPhail.
When the team eventually returned to the town with the Scottish Cup there was a huge crowd to cheer them home. Unfortunately, that same day Alex Higgins, the club’s first ever Scottish Internationalist died. His son Alex Higgins junior, was still a Kilmarnock player, but unavailable for the Final through injury.
A few days before the Cup Final, the club played a Benefit game for long-serving defender James Mitchell, who was player-coach of the reserves. A crowd of 2,500 turned out to see an International Select XI beat a Kilmarnock Select XI (mostly trialists and reserves) by 3-2. Incidentally, the Kilmarnock reserve team had already won the 1919-20 Scottish Alliance League title.
It proved to be a memorable first season for club secretary Hugh Spence, but the team still had five league games to play in 14 days after the Cup Final.
In the third of those games, a Monday afternoon game away to Morton which Kilmarnock lost 4-0, they played the entire 90 minutes with just 10 players. J.R. Smith was injured, but his replacement John Garrity missed a couple of train connections, and eventually arrived at Cappielow Park just before the game finished!
A couple of away wins over Hearts (1-0) and Albion Rovers (2-0) saw Kilmarnock end the Division 1 campaign in 9th place with 43 points from the 42 games played.
After the season ended, Kilmarnock met League Champions Rangers in a fund-raising game at Ibrox Park for the Scottish War Memorial Trophy. They lost 5-0, with their plight not being helped by the harsh sending off of J.R. Smith.