Sunday, 5 June 2011

Season Review 2010/11: Raith Rovers

Click here or read below for my season review of Raith Rovers. It was published on The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast.

Raith Rovers: So Near, Yet So Far
Starks Park - the home of Raith Rovers
Watching your team miss out on promotion to your fierce local rivals after sitting at the top of the league for months on end is tough to take. Some may say that Raith Rovers possessed a squad that were never good enough to challenge for the title anyway, but having come so close it does not make it any easier to accept.

After winning promotion to the First Division in 2009, Raith finished seventh in their comeback season. It was a good achievement, especially after reaching their first Scottish Cup semi final in forty-seven years during the same campaign. However, even the most enthusiastic Rovers fan would not have predicted a title challenge in the 2010/11 season.

Despite comfortable wins over Partick Thistle and Dunfermline Athletic at the start of the season, followed by an SPL scalp in the League Cup, the expectation was that Raith would eventually lose their form and tip-toe down to their more natural position in the middle of the league. As it turned out, Raith never slipped down further than second place - a quite remarkable feat.

The key to Rovers success was their solid defence. Only eight league goals were conceded in the opening fifteen games. Craig Wilson, Grant Murray, Laurie Ellis and new signing Willie Dyer quickly gelled together and opposing teams struggled to break down their resistance. At the other end, striker John Baird would pull opposition defences all over the place with his neat technique and pace. His comrade Gregory Tade acted as the physical and acrobatic target man, causing absolute chaos amongst enemy lines. Although Baird and Tade were not the most clinical of finishers, the team possessed endless amounts of desire. Raith would time and time again force their tiring opponents into mistakes and find injury time goals to grind out an extra point or two.

A November fixture against Dunfermline would be a prime example. After a woeful eighty minutes, falling behind by two goals, Iain Williamson pounced on an error by goalkeeper Chris Smith to bring the deficit back to just one. Williamson hit the bar just minutes later, but Rovers were not done yet. Deep into injury time a speculative cross by Dyer was flicked on by Allan Walker and the ball just happened to loop into the top corner. This was not just an example of a comeback though. Walker's goal was one which kept Raith at the top of the league. Rovers fans made the short journey back to Kirkcaldy delirious with their team's spirit and it was this time that most started believing something special could be on the cards.

However, in typical Raith fashion the club crashed out of the Scottish Cup the following week at the hands of Second Division Alloa Athletic and went on to produce two mind-numbingly dull 0-0 draws against Partick and Falkirk.

The players regrouped however, and turned over the Pars in the New Year derby. Rovers then went up to Dingwall, claiming a narrow 1-0 victory, but it was here that the promotion train appeared to de-rail. Raith only managed to keep three clean sheets in the remaining nineteen league games. All of a sudden Rovers could no longer rely on just scoring one goal to win a match. This was a problem. Baird appeared to have lost some confidence, Tade was and always will be a poor goalscorer, Graham Weir had yet to score since May 2009 and Gary Wales was rarely fit. Now, Raith had to find even more desire and commitment to grind out results.

The Starks Park side managed to keep up with fellow title challengers Dunfermline for most of 2011, but ultimately the deciding game for the top position took place at East End Park on Saturday 23rd April. Raith looked jaded and one dimensional falling to a 2-1 defeat. The end result was Dunfermline gaining a four point advantage over the Kirkcaldy side with two games remaining. The Pars sealed the title seven days later cruising past Greenock Morton 2-0, while Raith lost 1-0 to Queen of the South, ironically falling to an injury time goal.

As the silent Starks Park troops walked home dejected, they tried to evaluate just how their side had missed out on a place in the SPL. Some blamed manager John McGlynn after he tinkered with a steady defence just before the New Year, bringing Mark Campbell into the centre of defence and shifting Ellis out to the left. However, to blame McGlynn for the sudden leaking of goals would be unfair as the outgoing Dyer lost his place due to injury and in the following months Ellis too, would struggle with his fitness.

More likely to be the significant two reasons for Raith's eventual downfall would be first: pressure and second: Dunfermline strengthening their squad.

The Rovers players were never expected to be challenging for promotion and after defeating Dunfermline at New Year, suddenly found the media turning up the heat, labelling them as real contenders for the title. Raith simply could not cope with the pressure. A second half capitulation to Morton at Starks Park in late January appeared to cause serious mental scarring amongst the Raith defence. In fact, it was at Starks Park that Rovers faltered most. Six defeats at home is simply not good enough for a team seeking the league title and the impact of the statistic looks all the more overwhelming when comparing it to Dunfermline's single loss at East End Park.

However, it was more than good form that emerged from East End Park. Dunfermline strengthened their squad quite considerably in January. Although talented winger Willie Gibson left to join Crawley Town, gaffer Jim McIntyre used the funds gained to bring in Liam Buchanan, Martin Hardie and Kevin Rutkiewicz. Buchanan went on to make seventeen appearances, Hardie fourteen and Rutkiewicz twelve. Contrast this to Raith's only January signing, Gary Wales, who featured just seven times from the bench.

Ultimately, Dunfermline were better equipped for promotion. McIntyre had his side playing neat, attractive football, while possessing the required desire and commitment in the latter stages of the season to grind out results when necessary. Raith melted as the levels of expectation rose, especially when playing at home and simply did not possess the required quality to see out the latter stages of the season.

Mid-table is once again the benchmark for Rovers next season, but with significant budget cuts this summer and fifteen departing players, there will be no miracle title challenge this time around. In fact, there is a possibility that the team could struggle to cope with the lengthy list of departures and come 2012, be flirting with relegation back to the Second Division.

written by Will Lyon

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