The lost generation of Raith fans

Those before can tell of European campaigns and giant-killing cup runs. Those after can dream of possible glories ahead. What of those who endured the ups and down of the era of Antonio Calderon and Claude Anelka?

By Graeme Kilgour

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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To be part of a pitch invasion to celebrate on the hallowed turf of the club you have supported all of your life is a magical moment. Hugging our heroes and singing ‘championies’ is a moment I will remember forever. It wasn’t promotion to the Premier League or a cup final against Celtic, but it was the first taste of triumph I had with my club.
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We had just landed at Glasgow airport after a two-week family holiday in Greece and rather than head straight back to Kirkcaldy to unpack and get back to reality, we had one last family holiday treat. A trip to New Douglas Park to watch the opening game of the 04/05 season against Hamilton Accies.

It was Thursday afternoon, school had finished and my brother and I were on our way home. Thursdays had become my third favourite day of the week. As a 14 year old just hitting the mid section of puberty, Saturdays were the first and Fridays second favourite.

In 2004 there were no such things as smart phones with Snapchat and Instagram; we amused ourselves by comparing polyphonic ringtones, taking heavily pixelated videos or photos of each other or comparing top scores on Snake 2.

As football fans, we didn’t have the luxury of up-to-date team news through Twitter feeds, highlight packages online, weekly interviews with managers, players and coaching staff. We weren’t desperately refreshing our social media news feeds so that we could be the first to read any signing news or injury updates.

Thursday afternoons were about one thing and one thing only: The Fife Free Press. The local newspaper that covered Kirkcaldy and surrounding areas would usually hit the shelves on a late Thursday afternoon and would be waiting for my brother and I on our arrival home from school. Our weekly ritual very rarely changed; my younger brother and I would discuss what news there could be, maybe more information on the tiny story in the midst of the national sports pages earlier that week, possibly news confirming rumours that were circulating in the forums, or the potential that we had been captured on camera from the previous weekend’s game.

The discussions would soon turn to arguments over who would get to read the paper first. A race to the house to ensure who was first with it in their grasp. Sometimes deliberately taking longer to read every article just to annoy the other. Why our mum never bought two papers, I will never know.

To some, this ritual is nothing new. Generations before us didn’t have the luxury of the plethora of news on football that was available in the early 2000s. Yet for some growing up over the last 15 years, this would seem alien. Imagine not being able to follow your favourite players on Twitter and Instagram. The media constantly working to get whatever story hasn’t already been covered. As well as the younger generations of football fans, there will be supporters of clubs like Rangers and Celtic who will have never lived through a period where their team’s news didn’t occupy the back pages of every national newspaper in the country.

Throughout these modern dark ages of technology, myself and many other long suffering Raith fans of similar ages had grown up just fractionally too late to be able to appreciate our club enjoying two promotions to the top flight, a giant-killing cup final and a European adventure. We grew up surrounded by people who had lived through this magical time in history, telling story after story of that famous Coca-Cola Cup run, trips to the Faroe Islands and the unforgettable double header against Bayern Munich. Joining Jimmy Nicholl and his young players in celebration in the prestigious Jacki O’s nightclub. Every story told to open-mouthed youngsters who could only dream of witnessing a time like that again.

Alas, these older supporters had fallen into the fateful football trap of expectancy and as season after season went on and the club slid further and further down the league, that expectation had turned to desperation. No longer were Raith Rovers considered to be a regular team in the top flight of Scottish Football but more as a one-hit wonder. The longer we lingered in the mid to lower end of the First Division, the less our club would feature in the media as each season ended with more disappointment and financial problems.

However bad things were during the late 1990s and early 2000s, my brother and I along with the other fresh-faced batch of new Raith fans became used to only reading about the Old Firm, Hearts or Hibs on occasions and the Scottish national team’s failings. Watching for results on CEEFAX, listening out for goals, half time results and occasionally match reports on Radio Scotland and of course, the weekly newspaper reports, had become the natural order for us. We didn’t know any better.

I can’t remember my first game and I would love to be able to have some kind of romantic story of the exact moment I first fell in love with Raith but the truth is that I don’t. My memory of the 1990s seasons are hazy. I can remember being at games but have no vivid memories of them. My first real memory comes from the Millennium Derby at Stark’s Park where we beat local rivals Dunfermline 3-0. It’s in the early noughties that my memories really start; players like Craig Dargo, Didier Agathe and Marvin Andrews.

I can remember there was always talk of financial troubles at the club but the financial affairs of a Scottish professional football club aren’t exactly something a young lad is thinking about when supporting his local team. I would hear people talking about how things had changed, listen to the angry calls from the stands for people who I had never heard of “getting to fuck”. Who cares about the chairman and board of directors at the age of 10 and 11? Not me. I was more interested in seeing players scoring goals or meeting these heroes. The truth be told, I didn’t understand what was going on.

The 2001/02 season is an important one in my time as a Raith fan. This was the first season that my dad would let my brother and I sit on our own. I think this was more benefit to our father than to us as he no longer had to endure the torture every Saturday afternoon to keep us happy. For my brother and I this was huge news. We ventured towards the back of the stand where the older and angrier fans would sit/stand and chant their songs and vent their disgust at whoever was unlucky enough to be getting it that Saturday. Swearing in public, shouting abuse and singing along with these men was something of a coming of age for us as football fans.

That season was to be the season of firsts for me. My first away game, an amazing journey to the cauldron that was Brockville to watch Falkirk beat us 2-1. I can’t remember much about the game but everything about that old football relic has stayed with me. I would witness my first managerial sacking as Peter Heatherston was sacked and replaced by interim manager Jocky Scott. I would also feel the pain of relegation for the first – and sadly not the last – time as Raith finished bottom of the league despite having the First Division top goal scorer Nacho Novo playing up front.

After enduring all of that, why on earth would anyone want to go back? Many didn’t. Having watched the team fall from the dizzy heights of European football to the Scottish Second Division, their love affair with the club was over. Commitments such as marriage, children and careers came first over trips to Stranraer and Berwick. But for my brother and I, along with as many new recruits as we could find, this was just the start of a new adventure. What commitments did we have? None. Raith Rovers were our commitment.

In desperate need to get back up to the First Division within one season and avoid dropping to part-time football, the board of directors took a gamble and appointed player-manager Antonio Calderon. Our newly appointed Spanish manger arrived with his very own armada: players like Paquito, Roul O’Jeda, and Javier Mass. The prospect of watching these players tearing up the Second Division with Andy Smith, Ryan Blackadder and Shaun Dennis was a mouth watering prospect for us.

Trips to Brechin, Stenhousemuir and Berwick were to follow and our blend of continental and Scottish football would prove to be too much for our league opponents and on the second last game of the season, Handy Andy Smith scored in a 1-0 win over Berwick Rangers to secure promotion back to the First Division. We got our day in the sun.

To be part of a pitch invasion to celebrate on the hallowed turf of the club you have supported all of your life is a magical moment. Hugging our heroes and singing ‘championies’ is a moment I will remember forever. It wasn’t promotion to the Premier League or a cup final against Celtic, but it was the first taste of triumph I had with my club.

Summers without football are long drawn-out affairs. Waiting desperately for the first Saturday so we can get back into supporting the newest batch of players. It was at about this point that the Fife Free Press had started to become our reliable source of information. News of players being released is always sad but they are quickly forgotten when news of newer and even further travelled players arriving in their place. Ramiro Gonzalez, Ramon Pereira and Goran Stanic were added with a whole host of other exotic names. It had become a source of amusement for travelling Raith fans listening to the stadium announcers struggling through the Rovers’ teamsheet.

It was to be a long season for us. Frustrating, hard to watch and completely mind-boggling at times. We weren’t used to watching the theatrical and raw emotions of continental European players. Goalkeeper Ramiro Gonzalez attempting keepy-uppies on the edge of his own box only to be dispossessed by the oncoming striker who would score in front of the bemused and angry home fans. Martin Hugo Prest celebrating a goal by taking his shirt off, placing it on top of the corner flag then pulling the pole out of the ground and waving it above his head and Antonio Calderon accusing the SFA officials of racism against Spaniards because of the amount of bookings and red cards we had received.

Despite all of this, the job was done and we had secured our First Division status. Antonio Calderon had been a manager for just two seasons and had completed both of the tasks he had been assigned to do. He was stamping his own brand of football on the club and although it was different, we were buying into it. The ship had been steadied and now it was time for us to set our course. Or so we thought.

The first we knew about the shock departure of Calderon and his backroom staff was on a Thursday afternoon when we were expecting to read about more Argentinian or Spanish signings for the season to come. A decision had been made between himself and the club that he would leave as the club had entered into talks with Claude Anelka, the older brother of Nicolas Anelka. From the reports we were reading, we understood that Claude Anelka was going to bankroll the club and in return he would have full control of the management, coaching and recruitment at the club. Calderon was offered a new contract but in a coaching role only, instead of manager.

A disgraceful and undignified ending for the man who had brought us back to and kept us in the First Division. His objectives in his first managerial job had all been completed and yet, as is so often in football, money talks. Mr Anelka had the cash and a blueprint of how he was going to make Raith Rovers Football Club “the third strike force in Scotland”.

Football fans are a fickle bunch. We were sad for Antonio and his players but the mouth-watering prospect of our club being back in the top flight was just too good. Another week would pass and another edition of the local paper would be waiting for us in the kitchen. A full interview with Claude explaining and outlining his plans and promises. Talk
of French superstars coming to Kirkcaldy, contacts through his brother in the English Premiership and a six-figure investment into the cash-strapped club. We had forgotten about Calderon by
now. To say we were giddy was an understatement.

That summer we would spend hours of our school holidays down at the Beveridge Park watching these new players training, standing outside Stark’s Park waiting for another signing to arrive and quickly collecting autographs from these dark-skinned French giants. Holding onto them until the time came that they became household legends in Scottish, English or world football. It was 2004 and every week we would wrestle over the back pages desperate to find out what was the latest news in the merry-go-round of madness that was Stark’s Park. We were desperate for the season to start. We wanted to be part of the history that was about to unfold.

“No one really pays too much attention to pre-season friendly results.” Justification and self-reassurance for the poor results and performances we had witnessed in the build up to the season ahead. After all, it was always going to take time for these players to adjust to the Scottish game.

We had just landed at Glasgow airport after a two-week family holiday in Greece and rather than head straight back to Kirkcaldy to unpack and get back to reality, we had one last family holiday treat. A trip to New Douglas Park to watch the opening game of the 04/05 season against Hamilton Accies. Raith lost that game and went on to win only three games and draw seven, conceding 67 goals and scoring only 26. That season we travelled to St. Johnstone, Partick Thistle, Falkirk and Clyde and made all but two home games. Drawn to our club like a hopeless moth to a lightbulb, waiting for someone to put us out of our misery. The inevitable relegation eventually came. ‘Claude Le Fraud’ had long gone by the time we sank back to the depths of the Second Division, leaving behind a rotting carcass that even the seagulls of Kirkcaldy wouldn’t touch.

His French superstars had turned out to be amateur players plucked from the lower French regional leagues and expected to compete in the Scottish professional game. The celebrations on the pitch two seasons before were distant memories. The new reality was financial turmoil. The club directors left to pick up the pieces after Anelka was hounded out wanted their money back and to wash their hands of the club. The players under contract wanted their wages and we fans in the stand wanted our pound of flesh.

Protests, boycotts and rallies followed. Finally we got some media attention. Reclaim the Rovers was formed and everyone pulled together. Thankfully the necessary people were bought out and the for-sale signs were taken down from outside Stark’s Park. But what lay ahead, no-one knew. Part-time football, long seasons in the Second Division and a massive rebuilding process was for certain. Four seasons, two managers and a failed play-off attempt later and we were to have our day in the sun once again. No pitch invasion this time but the unique chance to celebrate the title-winning match at the national stadium against Queen’s Park. The long, dark winter was finally over and we could finally put the previous five years behind us and look forward again.

For me, plenty had changed in those long five years. I was 19 years old. No longer wrestling with my younger brother over the back pages of the local paper. The days of spending the week begging dad to take us to places like Dingwall and Arbroath no longer happened. There were train and bus trips fuelled with beer and laughs. New responsibilities like work and living on my own had crept into my life. Even with these new-found obstacles to getting to watch my beloved team, we still managed.

Nine years on from that day at Hampden, as a man approaching 30 years old, I look back at all of these memories with fondness. New memories are being added every year; a promotion battle with local rivals Dunfermline that went down to the third-to-last game of the season, visits to Starks Park from Hearts, Hibs, Rangers and Dundee United, a Scottish Cup semi final and of course the Challenge Cup win over Rangers at Easter Road. Watching new Raith fans arriving at Stark’s Park holding the hand of their father or granddad, about to embark on their own journey as a Raith Rovers supporter. Or the older generations of fans I speak to at the games, in the pub or on our travels, comparing war stories of times gone by that they had endured.

For the older fans have seen our club produce a player like Jim Baxter, only then to sink to the bottom of the lowest league in the country, then to rise up again to the top and compete with Europe’s elite. Then there is us, the forgotten generation of Raith fans, the band of full-hardy gluttons for punishment, blindly following our beloved club into the abyss and returning again and again. Living in the hope that one day we will be able to brag of travels to Munich rather than Berwick and challenge the top flight of Scottish Football once again.

The dark paths that we travel, full of uncertainty and disappointment make every single moment of sunshine worthy of the journey. So when I’m asked would I do it all again? I wouldn’t be a Raith fan if I said no.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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