About Ayr United Football Club
History of Somerset Park
History of Somerset Park
Football has been played at Somerset Park for well over 100 years - yet a ball might never have been kicked on the hallowed turf had it not been for the annual Ayr Cattle Show!
Prior to 1888, Ayr Football Club played their home matches at Beresford Park. This ground was rented to the club but requisitioned annually for the Cattle Show. However in 1888, the park was requisitioned earlier than usual, in April. This left the Ayr FC Committee with a major headache as the club had lined up a prestigious friendly with top English side Aston Villa, who had won the FA Cup the previous season.
It was clear the club had to find a new ground - and fast. On 18th April 1888, a special meeting was held in the Carrick Street Halls to discuss the various options. One option was the more central Newton Park and the other was a field to the south of Walkers Chemical Works - adjacent to Somerset Road. The latter was the chosen option amid doom and gloom from a section of the support that felt that the new ground was too far from the centre of town. Negotiations were opened with the owners of the field, Walkers, and a satisfactory rent agreed.
The old Clubhouse and Grandstand were dismantled at Beresford Park and moved to the new ground, named Somerset Park. The grandstand backed onto the railway with the entrance to the ground close to the top of Tryfield Road (now Place). The ground ran in a North - South direction and there was still a large expanse of ground between the pitch and Somerset Road. All of this work was completed in time for the match with Aston Villa on 7th May 1888 that Ayr FC won 3-0.
The Grandstand collapsed during the final of the Ayr Charity Cup in 1889. Thankfully no one was seriously injured. Then in 1895, a spark from a passing steam train caused a fire on the slope behind the Grandstand and it took the quick actions of the supporters attending the Ayr FC v Saltcoats Victoria match to prevent the fire from reaching the barricading. Throughout the years there have been a number of interesting incidents and developments surrounding the ground, with its future having been in doubt on a number of occasions, even well before the formation of Ayr United in 1910.
The first such move came in July 1894 when the committee of Ayr FC announced plans to move to play at the Carrick Street Oval. This was an ambitious plan that would have put the club at the heart of the town centre but the lack of finance put an end to the move.
The next such plan to move was raised in 1896, when proposals were made to move to Blackhouse, an area on the opposite side of Whitletts Road but there was insufficient support for the move and the plans fell through.
At this junction, the Committee decided to make a commitment to Somerset Park. A special meeting held in August that year approved the following improvements:
- Change the direction of the pitch to a North East - South West direction
- Rent the adjacent land between the pitch and Somerset Road
- Lay a new tar macadam cycling track around the pitch to improve the athetics facilities at the ground
Walkers naturally carried out the latter work and the official opening of Greater Somerset took place on 17th April 1897, Ayr FC defeating Stevenston Thistle 4-2 in an Ayrshire Combination fixture.
The ground remained in that style, with the exception of the construction in 1913, of a new press stand and the increase in the number of turnstiles from 9 to 14 to accommodate the growing interest in First Division Ayr United. During the First World War, Beresford Park was used on occasions for first team fixtures due to that grounds close proximity to the Railway Station, following the introduction of wartime travel restrictions.
However twice, in 1914 and again in 1919, the club searched for a new home and tried to lease Dam Park off its owners, the Ayrshire Agricultural Society, only to lose out on both occasions to Ayr Cricket Club. Perhaps the thinking behind the proposed move to Dam Park was that since Ayr Uniteds formation, the club had continued to lease two grounds - Somerset Park and Beresford Park. Although the clubs recognised home was Somerset Park, it continued to use Beresford Park for Reserve team fixtures until May 1926 when the owners of the town centre ground, London Midland Scottish Railway Company, reclaimed its use for staff recreation purposes.
The cost of renting both grounds must have been a burden on the clubs finances but due to the 'old brigade in both the Ayr FC and Ayr Parkhouse camps, perhaps the easier option for the new club to save money was to look for a new home.
Following the second failed attempt to lease Dam Park, the directors of Ayr United again made a firm commitment to Somerset Park and in 1920, commissioned a top architect, Archibald Leitch, to design a new ground. Leitch, a Glaswegian, was THE architect of his time in the design of football stadiums and was responsible for the construction of stands and grounds at the majority of the major clubs throughout the UK, including, Ibrox, Celtic Park, Hampden Park, Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park, Highbury and White Hart Lane to name a few.
Obviously the design of Somerset Park was a more modest effort and his preliminary report included the following points:
- Re-lay the pitch to a West - East direction
- The building of a new stand, running the full length of the pitch to seat 2,592 at a cost of £8,000
Before investing such a large sum on the ground, the Directors decided that the club should own Somerset Park before the work be carried out and they agreed a price of £2,500, paid in annual instalments of £500, with Walkers for the purchase of Somerset Park.
In March 1920, the work on Leitchs plans began with the demolition of the cycle track that once had been the envy of a number of clubs in the days when annual Athletics Meetings were a vital source of income for the clubs.
In 1923, Somerset Park boasted a record crowd of 15,853 for the visit of Rangers on Scottish Cup duty but this record was broken again the following year when 16,721 spectators turned up for the 'derby Scottish Cup clash with Kilmarnock.
The re-development of Somerset Park finally took place during the close season on 1924 and followed the plans drawn up by Archibald Leitch, with the exception of the Main Stand that at just 187 feet long, did not run the full length of the pitch as originally anticipated. The Stand held 1345 spectators but of course there was space at either end of the stand for any future extension should it be required. There was a delay in the construction of the stand due to a builders strike and SFA President Tom White eventually declared the new Grandstand open amid much pomp and ceremony, on 13th September 1924. Sadly Rangers spoiled the party with a 4-0 win.
The next piece of ground improvement came on 30th September 1933 with the opening of the covered enclosure at the Railway End of the ground. The plans for the enclosure had been drawn up by United supporter, Charles Nair and the cost of the 'roof had been met in part by the Ayr United Supporters Association who donated £230 to the club - with a further £130 donated by the Ladies Supporters Club.
Four months later, a new record 'gate for the ground was created when 23,651 paid to see Celtic win 3-2 in a Scottish Cup tie.
Further improvements were made in 1935, not though with the spectators in mind, to celebrate the clubs silver jubilee. Directors of the club made a series of donations. Club Chairman William Lockhart gifted wood panelling for the boardroom and Douglas Bowie donated a hand carved mahogany sideboard, once owned by King Leopold of Belgium.
But the gift most noticeable to supporters was that of the four leaded windows depicting the Auld Brig, Burns Cottage, Greenan Castle and the Heads of Ayr that were donated by Andrew Wright. All of these features remain today.
Following the commencement of the Second World War, as a club, Ayr United closed down at the end of the 1939/40 season and the ground requisitioned by the armed forces. The occasional school match and forces fixture had been played at the ground, as had the home games of Newton Rovers during the war years but following the end of the War in 1945, the ground was de-requisitioned. However the ground was in a state of neglect with tall weeds on the terracing. The 'clean up was carried out by volunteers of the 9th Holding Battalion, based at Ayr Racecourse.
During the 1947 close season, the ashes surrounding the playing surface were replaced by red blaes but weeks later, on 23rd August; a discarded cigarette set a section of the terracing on fire. The terracing having previously been sprayed with weedkiller.
After the war, Morton had used Somerset Park for some reserve team fixtures while the re-building work at their Cappielow Park ground was being undertaken, and to show their appreciation, the Greenock side presented a silver salver to Ayr United prior to their 1949 Scottish Cup tie. The salver is still on display in the Somerset Park boardroom today.
Years of decay had taken its toll on the original boundary fencing separating the spectators from the pitch and in the summer of 1950, the Ayr United Supporters Association built a new boundary wall. The Supporters Association were to the fore in providing ground improvements and on 13th March 1952, handed over the keys of a new gymnasium to the club at a cost of £1200. The gymnasium is still there today, situated in the corner of the Tryfield Place/Railway Enclosure area of the ground.
John Muir, an AUSA committee member, was given a life membership of the club for his part in raising the funds.
Ball boys, one behind each goal, first made their appearance at Somerset Park during a 2-1 defeat from Stenhousemuir on 3rd October 1953.
Another fine service provided by volunteers on match days is that of match commentary being broadcast to the local hospitals. This is provided by the Ayr Hospital Relay Service, a registered charity made up of a handful of Ayr United Supporters. On match days, they broadcast from a studio, built above the gymnasium and which was officially opened for the first time on 12th August 1959, relaying news of Ayrs 2-1 win over Falkirk to those in the Ayr County Hospital.
Forty-Five years to the day since the opening of the main stand, Rangers came calling again to Somerset Park. This time a record breaking 25,225 people crammed into the ground, with many more getting in for free, to see Ayr record a historic 2-1 win over the Ibrox side.
Somerset Park, still had no floodlights and the Supporters Association organised a Floodlight Fund, under the chairmanship of John Fergusson, to help pay towards the £18,000 installation cost. The supporters raised £12,201:14s:11d and in June 1970, work on the erection of the floodlights commenced. The first time the lights were actually used was for a Second XI Cup tie against Partick Thistle on 8th October when bad light meant they were switched on for the final 12 minutes of the game. A second replay was necessary to separate the teams and this was the first time the lights were switched on for an entire match, although the official opening came on 18th November 1970 in a 2-0 win against Newcastle United in a match organised to mark the big 'switch on.
During the close season of 1971, the roof on the Somerset Road End enclosure was constructed at a cost of £12,000 and to mark the occasion, a friendly was organised against Sunderland. Also on the occasion of that 1-1 draw, the black and white shop was opened for the first time. A hut situated on the North Terracing, it sold souvenirs to spectators, including club pennants, badges and programmes. It remained there for a number of years, run by the Supporters Association, until the demise of that organisation and its eventual closure.
While re-turfing work was being carried out at Somerset Park at the start of the 1972/3 season, Ayr United decanted to Dam Park to play their League Cup sectional ties against St.Mirren and Clydebank with the 'home match against Rangers being played at the home of county rivals Kilmarnock.
In 1975, Somerset Park was the one of the first grounds to obtain a safety certificate from the then Strathclyde Regional Council following the implementation of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act, brought about as a result of the Ibrox Disaster in 1971. To obtain that certificate, the club had to upgrade the terracing and install new crash barriers. In 1980, Ladies toilets were built and the terracing at the Somerset Road End enclosure concreted but the main focus was on a £500,000 project to build a new sports and social complex at the club that would have included a new gymnasium, sports hall and a lounge bar with an additional function suite. The stand was to be extended on the west side to include an additional 600 seats. The plans, drawn up by Bill Bain of Cowie, Torry and Partners, was dependent upon Ayr United achieving promotion back into the Premier League. Sadly that never materialised and the plans fell by the wayside - although it is clear that they were well ahead of their time in attempting to utilise the stadium on non-match days. The house at the corner of Tryfield Place was purchased by the club and is now home to the family of the Somerset Park groundsman.
Later that season, Ayr reached the semi final of the League Cup, the first leg of which was played at Somerset Park. Until that evening it was a regular occurrence for supporters of both sides to 'switch ends at half time. Sadly, on 5th November 1980, the Dundee supporters opted to 'switch ends by walking across the Somerset Park pitch at half time. The response was the creation of the segregation fence that now exists around the halfway line on the North Terrace that was used for the first time on 28th March 1981. Chief Inspector Hamill of Strathclyde Police had wanted to go further and requested to Strathclyde Councillors that all the football grounds in the region should have fencing erected around the perimeter of the ground to provide greater safety to players. Fortunately, his request went unheeded.
The plans for the 'Super Somerset had fallen by the wayside but the stand was increased in 1989 with the building of the Family Stand to the east side of the stand. It was opened for the first time on 1st August for the friendly with Dundee United.
In the early 1990s, following the implementation of the Taylor Report, the Directors of Ayr United investigated the possibility of turning Somerset Park into an all-seater stadium. Mike Thomson was the Director who led the project but apart from the funding of the plans, it was rejected as an as the grounds capacity would have been cut to less than 10,000.
Since the mid 1990s, there have been a number of small changes to the ground. In 1996, the Hospitality Suites were built on the North Terracing and the old half time scoreboard that had adorned the open terrace for decades was finally removed. A further segregation fence was built between the Somerset Road End and the North Terrace to comply with safety regulations.
Then in November 1998, Ayr United lodged a planning application for a new ground in the Heathfield area of town. A new 10,200 all seated stadium would be built but its funding was very much dependent on the building of an associated retail development that would help fund the new project. Despite overwhelming public support, signified by the fact that on 26th June 1999, four days before the public meeting at which South Ayrshire Council would decide on the plans, 8,000 people in Ayrs High Street, signed a petition in favour of the development. At the public hearing, at which around 800 United supporters turned up to, the plans were passed but were 'called in by the Scottish Executive.
After an extensive public inquiry, two inquiry reporters recommended that the application be granted with the condition of some improvements to the road network surrounding Whitletts Roundabout but this advice was rejected by the Minister Sam Galbraith who vetoed the required retail development.
The club appealed against his decision and after the Scottish Executive discovered an error in their processing of the decision, the new minister responsible, Hugh Henry made the same decision in September 2002, denying Ayr United the vital finance necessary for the new stadium. So today, Ayr United remain at Somerset Park, and will do so for the foreseeable future.
Whether the future of the football club will be at Somerset Park or elsewhere remains to be seen but there is no doubt that the quaint, tight old-fashioned football ground has many happy memories for many generations of Ayr United supporters.