In our latest instalment of Talking Kit, Neil Sargent looks back almost 20 years to Kilmarnock’s impressive 1997/98 campaign.
The late nineties was a golden era in the history of Kilmarnock Football Club. Managed by Bobby Williamson from 1996 until 2002, the club won the Scottish Cup in 1997 and twice finished fourth in the top flight, qualifying for Europe on both occasions.
In an era when other Scottish clubs were looking to the continent to bring in stars, Kilmarnock competed at the highest level with a squad made up almost entirely of Scots. As the 1997-98 season kicked off, only two of Williamson’s men came from outside Scotland - Yugoslav goalkeeper Dragoje Lekovic and French striker Jerome Vareille.
Club legends like Paul Wright, Ally Mitchell, Gus MacPherson, Gary Holt, Mark Roberts and Ray Montgomerie gave the squad a familiar feel, but while the personnel may have been conventional the new home kit certainly wasn’t.
Since the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, only three Kilmarnock home strips had not featured either vertical or horizontal stripes. Between 1904-06 and 1972-73 the team turned out in an all-blue home strip, while 1993-94’s offering had been all white. Apart from these fleeting examples, however, every single Killie strip in the 20th century had incorporated their famous blue and white stripes or hoops.
It came as a bit of a surprise, therefore, when the club unveiled a plain white home kit with large yellow band around the midriff for the start of the 1997-98 campaign.
The kit was manufactured by Le Coq Sportif and was sponsored by Sir Tom Hunter’s Sports Division brand.
Killie’s reward for their Scottish Cup glory the previous season was a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup tie against French side Nice. Despite being relegated from Ligue 1 the previous season, the side from the Cote d’Azur were on a high after winning the Coupe de France for only the third time in their history.
The first leg took place in the Stade Municipal du Ray in September 1997. Kilmarnock gave their new kit its European debut and fielded a team that included 10 Scots in the starting line-up - Jerome Vareille being the only non-Scot to feature.
German striker Stefan Kohn scored twice either side of half time to put the French team 2-0 up and things looked bleak when Martin Baker was sent off with 17 minutes remaining. But the 10 men rallied and Paul Wright converted from the penalty spot after he was fouled by Ivorian defender Didier Angan. Just moments later, however, Mikael Rol restored Les Aiglons lead and gave them a 3-1 cushion going into the second leg.
Wright’s crucial away goal meant Killie were still very much alive and things looked even better when, in front of a big crowd at Rugby Park two weeks later, Mark Reilly struck in the 31st minute to put the hosts one goal away from glory. As Killie pushed for the vital second goal, however, they were hit with a late sucker punch as Zoran Milinkovic pounced to equalise on the night and ensure Nice’s progression.
Back on the domestic front, Kilmarnock found themselves pushing for a return to Europe as they battled St Johnstone for fourth place in the Premier Division. With just two games remaining the Ayrshire side held a slender one-point advantage over Saints but had to visit Ibrox Stadium with Rangers still in the hunt for a record-breaking 10th successive title.
In one of the shock results of the season, Ally Mitchell scored a 90th-minute winner for Killie that not only kept their European ambitions alive but also all but ended Rangers’ pursuit of Celtic at the top of the table. A 1-1 draw with Hibernian on the final day was enough to confirm a fourth-place finish as St Johnstone went down 2-0 to Celtic as Wim Jansen’s men clinched the championship.
The following season, as the Scottish Premier League era got underway, Kilmarnock reverted back to blue-and- white vertical stripes which they have worn ever since - but in its solitary season in the limelight the classic kit of 1997/98 had already done enough to make its mark in the history books.