AS the year nears its end and the first half of the 2022-23 Championship season draws to a close it’s probably fair to say that the transformation in Ayr United’s fortunes has been one of the biggest stories of the campaign so far.

Christmas publishing deadlines meant this article had to be written before Friday night’s top-of-the-table crunch tie against Dundee at Somerset.

But regardless of the outcome of that match, the turnaround in fortunes for Lee Bullen’s men – who, let’s not forget, were fighting against the drop for most of the 2021-22 campaign, and weren’t sure of their place in the second tier until the final game of the season against Partick Thistle – has probably come as one of the biggest surprises of the current Championship battle, at least outside of Bullen and his squad.

Bullen – who, let’s not forget, has still yet to complete his first year in the Somerset hot-seat, having been appointed on January 7 after the sacking of Jim Duffy – spoke after that win over Thistle at the end of April about his belief that “the nucleus of a good team is there”, and of his hope that adding three or four new faces to his squad could see the Honest Men “push towards the top half of the league”.

And, so far at least, that stated ambition is looking like a rather modest one, with Bullen’s men having first hit the top of the table in the second week of the season.

A goalless draw in the season opener looked like a solid, if unspectacular, start to the campaign against an Arbroath side which had only just missed out on promotion to the Premiership after a heart-breaking defeat to Kilmarnock in their final fixture of 2021-22 - but who have struggled to readjust to Championship reality since then.

High points in the opening weeks of the season included wins away to both the second tier’s newly-promoted sides, the ambitious and well-backed Queen’s Park and Cove Rangers, and an impressive victory over Dundee at Somerset in front of the BBC cameras - the first of three occasions in the first half of the season that the Honest Men would be picked for live BBC Scotland coverage of the Championship and the Scottish Cup.

After a wobble in early October, with defeats at home to Inverness and away to Dundee, Bullen’s side regained top spot with an impressive win over Partick Thistle in a match rescheduled after the death of the Queen, and have since defied the predictions of pundits who favour one of Ayr’s bigger, or bigger-spending, rivals for the top spot.

And while the biggest headlines have been made by the likes of Dipo Akinyemi, whose 15 goals in the season’s first 18 games have given him a clear lead in the goalscoring charts, and have inevitably led to speculation that a bigger club might come calling for the former Welling United man in the January transfer window, something that’s just as encouraging for Bullen and his coaching team is the emergence of the club’s home-grown talent.

Bullen spoke after the win over Raith Rovers on December 3 about his pride at the appearance of five Ayr United Academy graduates on the pitch for the final stages of that match – and with more young players eager to emulate the examples set by the likes of Finn Ecrepont, Paul Smith and Mark McKenzie, the long-term future for the club certainly looks bright.

That doesn’t mean the short-term outlook is any less rosy, mind you – and with the Championship widely regarded as one of the most competitive leagues in the country this season, no matter the outcome of Friday night’s Christmas cracker against Gary Bowyer’s men at Somerset, Ayr look likely to have a big say in the fight for promotion to the Premiership for some time yet.

After an old year that has seen major progress from relegation strugglers to promotion contenders, 2023 for Bullen’s men begins with a trip up the coast to face Morton on Monday, January 2 – kick-off at Cappielow is at 3pm.