Cup glory, a nose for goal and a couple of pints. The fairy-tale year of Raith Rovers.

raith

“Unthinkable surely for the skipper to miss.” It’s funny how things work out sometimes. The next words were, “But he has!” Jock Brown, commentating on the 1994 Scottish League Cup Final at Ibrox, uttered that particular harbinger of doom for Celtic’s captain Paul McStay in the penalty shootout that decided the game. McStay saw his shot saved by Raith’s goalkeeper Scott Thompson and the Kirkcaldy club, managed by Jimmy Nicholl had secured the unlikeliest of cup triumphs.

The unlikeliest? Well, of course it’s always a major coup for any club outside of Glasgow’s top two to land a trophy and for a second tier club to do so, only added to the lustre. But there was more to it than that. A series of coincidences, links and cross-cutting threads about the game and various subsequent events, marked the game out as a watershed moment for both clubs.  

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Here was a team of youth players and journeymen professionals, assembled for the relatively paltry sum of just over £200,000, taking on and overcoming the might of Celtic. Victory for the Glasgow club would have broken a five year trophy-less spell, but a late equaliser just a couple of minutes after Celtic seemed to have secured the trophy, put into the net off the nose of Raith skipper Gordon Dalziel, may just have felt like fate to Hoops’ fans.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Half-a-dozen years earlier, Nicholl had been a Rangers player, winning two league titles in three years, before passing through Dunfermline, on his way to Kirkcaldy. Talk was, before the final started, that Raith, using the ‘Home’ dressing room at Ibrox, had found a box full of studs, specially selected for the type of pitch the home groundsman had prepared. Apparently, they’d been left there by a member of Rangers’ backroom staff as an aid for the former Rangers player – and perhaps also to help in the downfall of the club’s bitter Old Firm rivals. Glasgow schadenfreude.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. At the time, Celtic’s trophy drought was taking on serious proportions, as Rangers’ domination of Scottish football seemed locked in whatever the the Bhoys tried. Dalziel’s nose for a goal and McStay’s miss may just have broken the spell though. The following May, the dam was finally breached when Tommy Burns’ charges defeated Airdrieonians at Hampden Park to lift the Scottish Cup.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. A couple of years after Brown’s fateful – and flawed – prediction of McStay’s ability to put his spot kick into the onion bag and keep Celtic’s hopes alive, new Celtic supremo Fergus McCann appointed the solicitor and erstwhile commentator as General Manager at Celtic Park. Unsurprisingly perhaps, McStay brought the curtain down on his paying career in the same year.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Brown’s stay at Celtic Park was short lived, but in his brief tenure, he was instrumental in Dutchman Wim Jansen taking over from Burns. In his first season, Jansen took the club to the league title and denied Rangers the opportunity of surpassing Celtic’s nine-in-a-row run of titles. Brown and Jansen never enjoyed the best of relationships however, and the manager left after a single season. Brown then advocated the appointment of Josef Venglos, who was much less successful than his predecessor. Brown resigned the following year.

Yes, it’s funny how things work out sometimes.

To say that Celtic and Raith Rovers had arrived at Ibrox with differing recent histories would be somewhat of an understatement. Celtic were a club with faded glories, reaching out for a place at the top table when their biggest rivals had grabbed all of the chairs and put their feet up as well. In 1986, Graeme Souness replaced Jock Wallace at Ibrox after the former manager had failed to rekindle past glories in his second term in charge. It heralded an unprecedented period of dominance. With the money and business acumen brought to the club by David Murray, Souness, together with his successors, first Walter Smith and then Dick Advocaat, had Celtic trailing and mired in financial hardship.

The Ibrox club’s nine-in-a-row run took them from the 1986-87 season, right through to the 1996-97 term and included seasons such as 1992-93 when as well as securing the domestic title, they made an extended run in the Champions League competition. All this time, Celtic’s diminishing powers on the field were matched by a failing financial situation that was only transformed after the arrival of McCann who set the club back on a sound financial level, allowing it to grow once more.

If Celtic’s story was one of a leviathan enduring a temporary period in the wilderness, the tale of Raith Rovers, their run to cup glory and what happened afterwards can be seen as the polar opposite. It’s funny how things work out sometimes, and this was a time when a small town club, through perhaps astute management, a collection of players that gelled and a smile from the football fates enjoyed a fairytale twelve months.

At the time of the reorganisation of the Scottish league structure in 1976-77, the club from Stark’s Park, would hardly have been considered as one of the game’s aristocrats. They’d never lifted a cup in their history; the closest being runners up to Rangers a few years after the Second World War. The same year, they won the First Division title, but since then the best they had managed was runners-up in 1966-67. Following reorganisation, after a few seasons bobbing up and down between the First and Second Divisions it seemed they’d found their natural level in the top half of the second tier.

Nicholl was appointed to take charge in 1990, with the club reverting to being a full-time outfit the following season. At the end of the 1992-93 they won the First Division title, and gained promotion to the Premier League. It was a giddying, but all-too-brief, time in the top echelon, before reality and relegation walked hand-in-hand into Stark’s Park, but had clearly shown what the club could achieve, albeit perhaps not sustain. The following season, they were to deliver a victory that many thought beyond the club.

The Scottish League Cup run began in fairly unspectacular, but comfortable, style with a five goal victory away to Ross County. They were then drawn at home to Kilmarnock, newly promoted to the top division, and probably favourites to progress. Stark’s Park however hadn’t been a happy hunting ground for the Ayrshire club, and Raith managed to reprise a league result from the previous season and ran out 3-2 winners.

Into the last eight of the competition, Raith fans would not have been dreaming too much on the potential for cup glory. As well as Celtic, Hibernian and Aberdeen were still in the competition, so it would have been something of a relief to be drawn against fellow First Division side,  St Johnstone, even if that meant an away fixture at McDiarmid Park. In front of a crowd barely over six thousand, Nicholl’s side won through 1-3. The semifinal saw them avoid the big guns again, as they were paired with Airdrieonians. After finishing regulation time locked at 1-1, Raith won through on penalties 5-4. It was good practice for what was to come.

Few would dispute that Raith’s run to the final had been fairly fortuitous in terms of the opposition encountered, if less so for the way they cleared each hurdle. In the same period, Celtic had needed to overcome both Dundee teams and then Aberdeen to reach the final. There was no chance of a beneficial draw now though. Facing the Kirkcaldy club in the final at Ibrox would be a trophy-hungry Celtic and a Glasgow crowd baying for a victory that would have been so much sweeter for taking place at the home of bitter rivals Rangers.

Raith Rovers should not have been underestimated though. Yes, their road to the final had been fairly straightforward, but they had travelled it nonetheless, plus they were bound for promotion back to the big time at the end of the season. All of that was for the future though. Of more immediate concern was how could little Raith Rovers hope to topple the mighty Celtic?

If that was a question occupying the thoughts of many of the club’s fans, it didn’t appear to trouble the players over much. Nicholl’s man-management style had reaped huge dividends, and would be a key element in their success. A report by Richard Wilson of BBC Scotland, back in November 2014 gave a few insights.

He reported how during a pre-season tour of Northern Ireland, Nicholl would often allow his players evenings out to socialise and would even circulate cans of beer on the coach after friendlies played there. Whilst some may consider this as negligent management, others would differ – especially his players. Nicholl had recognised that his squad was comprised of hard-working if not spectacularly talented players who would respond to be treating as responsible adults, and that such activities helped to reinforce a strong bond that was already growing between the players.

Wilson quoted Raith full back Stephen McAnespie who illustrated the value of Nicholl’s approach, “The camaraderie was huge for us. We mixed a lot outside the changing-room, whether it was golf or a night out after a game, we had a lot of good characters and Jimmy Nic had a lot to do with that. He knew the value of a close-knit dressing-room and was a big part of the banter, but he also knew when the time was right to get tuned in and focus. Believe it or not, we felt we could win the game before we kicked off. That was probably because we had some of us young guys that were kind of fearless and a bit naïve to the magnitude of the occasion, which obviously worked out for us.”

Naïve perhaps, but with that sort of attitude and the inherent desire to play for each other, a team will always have a chance, whoever they play. It’s certainly not an approach that Nicholl sought to change as the club approached its best chance of cup glory for over 40 years. The evening before the game, the players and staff stayed at a hotel in Erskine where the manager announced the starting line-up. He then called a waiter forward with trays of beer and told his players to relax and stay calm.

If the move was intended to breed confidence, it may well have worked. Boarding the coach for the journey to the big match, skipper Gordon Dalziel insisted that no-one should take the seat at the first table on the right-hand side. “That,” declared the captain who would play over 300 games for the club and later return as manager, “is where we are going to put the cup on the way back.” If it was bluster no-one seemed to acknowledge it as such and the seat was indeed left vacant.

If Celtic were favourites, they may well have been feeling the pressure and the weight of expectation of a demanding fan-base. In the tunnel before they entered the pitch, whilst the Celtic players looked grimly determined, the blue-shirted Raith team were laughing and joking as if it was a pre-season friendly. Nicholl’s laid back build-up appeared to have delivered.

Despite this, Raith’s players would have known of the enormity of the task in front of them as they entered the pitch. Yes, the Celtic team facing them had been struggling over recent times, but still possessed players the like of ‘Bonny Prince’ Charlie Nicholas, John Collins, Tom Boyd and of course Paul McStay. Everyone would have had the Hoops as odds-on favourites. Everyone that is, perhaps the players and staff of Raith Rovers. McAnespie, again, “We were technically a good side, we played the ball on the floor, we were an aggressive, attack-minded team. We had a great blend of youth and experience through the middle of the park.”

Such confidence appeared justified when after a bright start, Nicholl’s team took the lead. A corner from the left found Steve Crawford in space inside the area. Poor defending allowed him to control, turn and shoot right-footed from the edge of the area, past the despairing dive of Gordon Marshall, and into the Celtic goal. Whilst the Raith contingent in the crowd exploded in jubilation, and Crawford ran towards the touchline before diving in celebration, behind Marshall’s goal, the massed ranks of Celtic fans may have had a not unfamiliar sinking feeling. This should have been the chance to lay their hoodoo; win this trophy and get things back on track again. Now, unbelievably against Raith Rovers – and yet so believably at one and the same time – it looked to be slipping away.

As the minutes ticked by, the tension built as Celtic pressed without reward. Then, just past the half hour mark, Boyd crossed from the left, and with the Raith defence pulled out of position, a header back across goal from Mike Galloway found little Andy Walker alone on the six yard line. Seeing Thompson racing to regain position, Walker cannily dived forwards to head the ball into the space the ‘keeper had just vacated. Celtic were level. That’s how it stayed until the break.

To many, it looked like Raith may have had their moment of glory as the pendulum swung Celtic’s way after the break. Now released from the tension of being a goal down, the Glasgow club’s play became more fluid and confident, increasingly threatening the Raith goal. Perhaps benefitting from the team spirit and determination that Nicholl had built up amongst his squad though, his team held out and entering the last ten minutes, the scores were still tied.

Willpower and team spirit can carry you a long way, but eventually fatigue grabs at tiring minds and limbs and towards the end a goal looked increasingly likely to come. With a shade over five minutes remaining, Collins rampaged forward from midfield, feeding the ball into Nicholas who flicked on for Walker, before making his way into the area. The little striker’s shot struck the post and bounced back into play around the six yard line where it was met by the marauding Nicholas who joyously drove it into the net for what everyone surely thought was the winning goal. It’s certainly what the commentator thought, “Nicholas now has surely won the cup for Celtic”predicted Brown, setting the standard for later musings.

If many thought Raith were likely just to roll over, they had reckoned without their stubborn refusal to accept defeat. Celtic fans were still celebrating just a couple of minutes later when David Narey floated a free kick into the Celtic box. A headed clearance fell to David Sinclair about thirty yards out. Finding no way forward, he played the ball out to Jason Dair on the right. The wide man jinked inside one, then two Celtic players before firing in a shot. It was poorly struck, but low and along the ground it seemed to cause Marshall an amount of confusion. Unable to hold the ball as he made the save, it bounced up into the air and into the path of the Scottish League Cup’s ‘coach-seat guardian’ Gordon Dalziel, who was following up. The ball famously struck him on the nose as he struggled to get his forehead on it and bounced into the net. Back from the dead. It was 2-2; and so to a penalty shootout.

Now if there was common consent that on paper Celtic and should have won out – aside of the fact that the game is played on grass rather than paper – the chance to do so in regulation time had now gone. Whilst penalty shootouts aren’t bereft of skill, now a big dollop of personality kicked in. After the first four nominated players on both sides had all netted, that became even more the case, as Sudden Death entered the equation. The last two players were McAnespie for Raith and Galloway for Celtic.

First forward was McAnespie, then a 22 year old full back who, the following season, would swell the club’s coffers with the £900,000 fee that took him south of the border to join Premier League Bolton Wanderers. Looking as composed as anyone surely can in such circumstances the defender placed the ball on the spot, turned to walk towards the edge of the area, before turning again to face the goal. There seemed no hesitation as he ran in to fire high to Marshall’s right, with the goalkeeper diving the other way.

The pressure then swung on Galloway. As Scott Thomson stepped between the posts to defend the kick, he surely knew that if he guessed correctly and the kick was less than truly struck, Raith could be in dreamland. The defender’s shot was low to the goalkeeper’s left, but Thomson had guessed correctly. The shot was not hit that powerfully and the goalkeeper got a good hand to it. Was this the moment? The ball squirmed off Thomson’s glove though and found the corner of the net. Was that the chance gone?

At 5-5, it was time to call on the reluctant ones, the players who had been managed to avoid the manager’s eye when the first five were picked. Welshman Jason Rowbotham, on as a substitute, drew the short straw for Raith, but coolly side-footed home. Then came Brown’s comment, McStay’s miss and Thomson’s glory. McAnespie described the next couple of seconds. “The aftermath was chaotic, Thommo made the save and we all pretty much just bolted in every direction, towards the fans, to each other, to the gaffer.”

A night of celebrations followed, with players and staff eventually turning into bed a little the worse for wear but with the promise of waking up the following morning and finding it was no dream. There was still serious business to go on with though. At the end of the season, to add to the cup triumph Raith were promoted to the Premier League as champions with 69 points and the meanest defence in the league. The following season they finished a creditable mid-table in the top flight, but their big adventure was in the Uefa Cup, qualification by virtue of that famous day in November at Ibrox,

In the first round, they were paired with GÍ Gøta of the Faroes. A comfortable 4-0 victory, thanks to goals from Dair, Roughier, McAnespie and Cameron, and then a 2-2 draw on the island of Eysturoy, saw them ease into the next round where they drew Icelandic club, Íþróttabandalag Akraness. This tie was more competitive though and when, in the first leg at Stark’s Park, Thordarsen scored to equalise an early Danny Lennon strike and send the teams in level at then break, it seemed the European excursion may be about to hit the buffers. Another Lennon goal though, and a late strike by Danny Wilson, gave Raith something to defend in the return. An early strike by Arnar Gunnlaugsson gave the home side hope, but it was an ice cool display by Nicholl’s boys and they saw it out for a 3-2 aggregate victory. The next round gave them the big prize, a tie with Bayern Munich.

To no-one’s great surprise, the demand for tickets to see the one of the continent’s top clubs was huge and the game was switched to Hibernian’s Easter Road ground in Edinburgh. Sacrificing home advantage and the compact surrounding of Stark’s Park for increased gate revenue seemed to have done for any aspirations of progress however as Jurgen Klinsmann scored twice to make the return in Bavaria surely a formality. Or was it?

A fairly lacklustre Bayern performance, coupled with the typical resilience of Nicholl’s team saw Lennon give Raith an unlikely lead – and a dream of the most unexpected of comebacks – just before the break, but an early second half strike by Klinsmann again and a further goal by Babbel were enough to finally douse Raith’s fiery ardour. It had been a glorious twelve months, but the following season things began to fall apart.

An early season struggle saw Nicholl accept an invitation to move to London and takeover at Millwall. Former Raith player Billy Thomson took over the reins, but neither he nor Tommy McLean who followed him shortly afterwards could halt the slide and at the end of the season Raith finished at the foot of the table having won a mere six league games. After yet another managerial change as Ian Munro took over, Nicholl returned in 1997, but the spell had been broken. The fairytale had passed.

When arriving in Kirkcaldy in 1990, Raith were a club so short of money that players had to wash their own kits. What the former Manchester United and Rangers achieved though transformed them into a club with cup and league triumphsand an exhilarating European adventure, plus the funds to build two new stands at Stark’s Park. What fans of the club may remember most though is a day at Ibrox. McAnespie, who now coaches in America sums that up well. “It’s nice to relive it all,” he recalled. “Especially with the other players, because at times we will remind each other about something that we had forgotten about after 20 years.” It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ magazine).

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