WORDS: SHAUGHAN McGUIGAN
Cheap cola, sweary managers and the curse of Des Lynam – supporting Raith can be a bizarre experience. Yet, while the average marriage hits a difficult patch after seven years, it took 23 for Shaughan McGuigan to fall out with his beloved Rovers. And he still came crawling back for more…
Image: treefell (via Flickr)
“FUCKING CHANGE IT (insert name of whoever’s in charge of Raith here)!”
If I had a tenner for every time I’d heard that phrase during my 26 years of following Raith Rovers, I’d probably be writing this from a luxury apartment in the Maldives rather than my drafty flat in Kirkcaldy. That’s probably a good thing, though. After all, how could swimming in water so clear you can see fish from 50 metres away possibly compare to the excitement of a 0-0 draw with Dumbarton?
Supporting Raith is like any relationship: it’s had its ups and downs, frustrated me and made me angry. It’s made me joyously happy and on more than one occasion it’s made me doubt we could go on.
The last occasion this occurred was about three years ago. In an attempt to get more fans to attend games, the board had announced a special ‘Fans Day’ against lowly Stirling Albion.
Albion had essentially been hand-picked for the venture as we’d sweep them aside with a swaggering joie de vivre, delighting our new fans who would then be more than happy to part with their cash every fortnight to watch Rovers’ scintillating brand of football.
We got beat of course, in a performance that was so inept it probably put people off football in general, never mind coming back to Starks Park. I sat there, taking in everything that was going on around me and debated whether or not to come back the next time. It was freezing, we seemed to have a midfield that couldn’t pass or tackle and we had strikers who would struggle to amass 25% of the career goals of Jose Luis Chilavert. It was an exasperating, anger inducing spectacle. Even staying in and listening to Paul Merson mispronounce any second name more taxing than Smith or Brown on Soccer Saturday seemed more appealing.
I contemplated the unfairness of it all, the fact that people could be brought up to support Real Madrid or Juventus and only see their team lose three matches a season. I’ve seen Rovers lose that many games in a week.
Marriages, on average, reach a difficult patch after 7 years, myself and Raith were reaching ours after 23.
This is normally the part of these stories where the author will use the line: “I can still remember my first game…” Well I’ll be honest, I can’t. I know we scored a barrow-load of goals and that I enjoyed the pie, less so the cheap juice that my granddad bought me, though. It’s no surprise that Pola Cola have never challenged Coke or Pepsi as a leading player in the soft drinks industry because their beverage tasted like it was approximately 17 per cent washing up liquid.
What I can remember is the atmosphere, the tangible feeling that you were part of something. The shouts, the roars, the groans, the smell of tobacco, the language, the joy of a goal and the anger aimed at an apparently blind/ useless/ biased referee. It was a new world to me, a place where everything was exciting, and sweary.
Suddenly, everything that my granddad had talked about made a bit more sense. He’d regaled me with Raith tales of the past – successful teams, huge crowds and great players. Now I had my own team to watch and the timing could barely have been better. My first season saw Rovers become the last unbeaten team in Britain, a feat which saw Grandstand do a feature on them before their home game against Meadowbank, the 16th match of the season.
They interviewed the players, the manager, Frank Connor (above), and even the groundsman, Andy Leigh, a man who had been employed at Starks Park since 1948, firstly as a player before moving onto the grounds staff. I remember having difficulty working out anything Andy said through his thick Fife accent. Considering I’m from Fife, I’ve a hunch that no one south of Berwick understood a word he uttered.
I watched the piece before setting off for the game, grinning from ear to ear, enthralled that the team I’d chosen to see at every opportunity was now attracting the attentions of the BBC. Still unbeaten in November and Des Lynam waxing lyrical about us on Grandstand? Surely nothing could stop us!
We lost that day, 3-2. I still blame Des Lynam.
It didn’t matter, though. I was already hooked. I hadn’t just been reeled in by the four-month unbeaten start to the season, I’d become smitten by the idiosyncrasies that I would eventually come to realise weren’t the norm in football. In fact, when I tell people about them now they suspect I’m making it up.
My granddad, for example, was adamant that any child small enough to be lifted over the turnstile should be allowed to gain entry for free. Strangely the staff seemed to agree, although I suspect they were a bit scared to say no since he bore more than a passing resemblance to Charles Bronson.
This meant that, for most of my first season at Starks Park, I was admitted for no charge (try using that argument the next time you take your child to a game at Stamford Bridge and see how you get on). The problem was my granddad was still suggesting this to me when I was 12, by which point I was big enough and strong enough to lift him over.
I eventually found a great spot to sit, not that it was a seat as such. The enclosure behind the dugouts had a small wall that ran around the perimeter of the touchline, holding up the advertising hoardings. Magnificently, this meant that kids – or adults I suppose, but that would be weird – could sit right next to the manager and substitutes. This enabled us to hear every curse, command, conversation and other, less polite words that began with ‘c’, boomed from the dugout.
Most of these expletives emanated from Frank Connor, a bull of a man with a shock of white hair and an expression that constantly suggested he was furious – imagine Leslie Nielsen’s face if he’d just been told his kitchen had flooded and you’ll have a rough idea of how Connor looked.
His demeanour meant that he was free from the abuse that everyone else involved in the game seemed to get thrown at them. Opponents, officials, even Rovers own players and substitutes were regularly insulted. Not Frank, though. He could have started with a defender in goals and a ball boy up front and still no-one would have dared to question his tactics.
But perhaps the biggest curiosity at Starks Park in those days was the movement of the fans. Even in the mid-Eighties segregation wasn’t taken particularly seriously, especially when the away fans consisted of about 28 for the visit of Albion Rovers. As a result, and with three sides of the ground all linked, the crowd would congregate behind whichever goal Rovers were attacking. This meant that, at every half time interval, about 300 men would shift, like a migratory flock, from one end of the ground to the other.
It shows a real positive mental attitude that Rovers fans believed they’d get the best views of any goals scored behind the net that Raith were shooting towards, but with the players Rovers had at the time it was a correct assumption. Connor had picked up a collection of waifs and strays and fashioned them into a promotion worthy side.
Defender Paul Sweeney would eventually sign for Newcastle, while Stevie “Bingo” Simpson was a tricky, skilful winger who’d been picked up from non-league football. Gordon Dalziel was plucked from East Stirling and went on to become the club’s leading goalscorer, while Hamish McAlpine, a man who once played in a European Cup semi-final in goals for Dundee United, was signed on a free transfer from the Tayside club.
My favourite, though, was Colin Harris, and not for the usual reasons that you like a footballer. Don’t get me wrong, he was good – very good in fact – but he made his way into Raith folklore for something very different. After drawing Rangers in the Scottish Cup in 1988, a Monday night crowd of 9,500 turned up on a cold dreich evening, expecting to see Graeme Souness’ millionaire team bulldoze Raith en route to the next round.
It didn’t happen, though. Instead, they were given a huge fright as Rovers took the game to them, only being denied victory by a matter of inches as Harris crashed a header off the bar in the second half. With the score at 0-0 and the game heading into injury time, the crowd witnessed the incredible sight of Graham Roberts and Graeme Souness taking it in turns to receive the ball from Chris Woods in the Rangers goal and immediately roll it back to the keeper who would pick it up and start the process all over again. A team of internationals were playing for time against Raith, a squad full of part-time players.
Realising that Rangers were making no attempt to play football, Harris sensed an opportunity. In a show of pure impudence he sat down on the halfway line, turned to the crowd and gestured with his arms as if to say, “What’s the point?”
Taking his lead, a few of his teammates joined in, sitting down or squatting on their haunches. It sent the biggest home crowd I’d ever seen at Starks Park into a rapturous frenzy. We may not have been about to beat the team that had swept all of Scottish football aside, but for a few glorious minutes we were certainly able to mock them. It was a spur of the moment thing, something I’d never seen before and, due to the rule change on goalkeepers picking the ball up, something I’ll never see again, but everyone who was there that night can still remember it.
Raith would continue to grow from that point, to such a degree that they’d win the League Cup against Celtic while still a First Division club in 1994. They eventually competed in the Premier League and, for a while, threatened to become really quite good. We even had the audacity to take the lead against Bayern Munich in the Olympiastadion in the Uefa Cup, a match I travelled to on a bus that had two temperature settings: cool and freezing.
I could tell you all about these things, but they’re not the reason I started following Raith Rovers. No one supports a provincial football team because they expect them to win silverware, or threaten a German heavyweight. They do it because supporting their local team seems the right thing to do, natural somehow.
Unfortunately, in Scotland, supporting your local side isn’t really the done thing. Instead, Celtic and Rangers hoover up the vast majority of fans, most of whom will only sporadically set foot inside Celtic Park or Ibrox, if indeed they ever visit.
Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer about what team you support – it’s a bit like your favourite James Bond or the Spice Girl you fancied the most: everyone’s different. However, people who cheer on Celtic or Rangers from their living rooms when they have a local team at the bottom of the street are, to me, a bit like folk who prefer Roger Moore or fancy Sporty Spice – hard to fathom.
As for me and Raith Rovers, well we made up after the Stirling Albion debacle. Like a puppy doing its business on the carpet, you can’t be annoyed at them for very long. There’s every chance I won’t see them win a trophy again; it might even be a while before they give Celtic or Rangers a fright, but if the alternative is watching Chris Kamara making up words while describing a botched Reading free kick then I’ll be there every week, enjoying the pie, bypassing the juice and cheering them on.