The 2015-16 season will be remembered as the season we got married, divorced shortly after the honeymoon and now we’re left wondering what will become of the kids.
After progressive seasons under the stewardship of John McGlynn the club stagnated in the Scottish Championship under Grant Murray. Despite exciting cup runs and one incredible afternoon at Easter Road in the Ramsden’s Cup final it was time for a refresh.
Refresh indeed. Ray McKinnon was engaged as our new manager, arriving from Brechin on a two-year contract. Credit is due to those board members who sounded him out. His passion and ambition was unwavering. He won the hearts of the Raith Rovers fans with bold substitutions, superior tactical knowledge, passionate celebrations, motivational interviews and provided the players with belief that this was to be a great season.
These qualities had been severely lacking in previous seasons and it ultimately lead all the Raith fans up the alter to marry “Super Ray” just weeks after the engagement.
Who could blame us? After a winless pre-season Raith won the first seven home games a combined 15-2. The away form was somewhat harder to come by, with a Friday evening 1-2 win at New St. Mirren Park the only highlight. Soon McKinnon began to mix it up both in terms of selection and formation and the players responded.
The defensive unit of Kevin Cuthbert (undoubtedly the player of the season), Jason Thomson, Lewis Toshney (lately Craig Barr), Kyle Benedictus and Rory McKeowan was the primary success operation keeping ten clean sheets but most importantly being disciplined and hard to breakdown throughout the season.
After the first ten games Raith sat second in the league behind runaway leaders Rangers. But the mid-season slump was about to strike. The slump came and a strangely good time as it deterred Dundee United from swooping for McKinnon after sacking Jackie McNamara.
Injuries to Lewis Vaughn and inconsistency with Mark Stewart, Craig Wighton and Jon Daly lead to a lack of confidence in the attacking third. Injuries to Lewis Toshney and Jason Thomson began to create problems defensively too.
Cracks began to appear – the unbeaten home run ended with defeats to Hibernian and Falkirk in a stretch that would see Raith claim only 2 points from a possible 21. Away from home a painful draw at Dumbarton having been 0-3 up followed a dreadful defeat at Livingston in what was probably the worst performance of the season.
The poor run continued into January before much needed home wins against Livingston and Morton set up for the long overdue Honeymoon. A sensational last-minute winner by on loan hero Ryan Hardie sent Rovers fans wild against playoff rivals Morton.
Further highlights followed as the Rovers support got right behind the team. It has been a long time since the players, fans and staff have felt this bond. The togetherness and determination from the players on the pitch was reflected in the stands.
A dramatic 4-3 win against St.Mirren dispatched another playoff rival, much to Chick Young’s bemusement. He would be sickened by another defeat two weeks later, this time at New St. Mirren park (again).
Finally Raith saw off Hibernian with a 2-1 win at Starks Park having lost the previous four encounters. The playoffs were in sight and it was sealed with two terrific battling performances away at our rivals Morton and Queen of the South. Vital winners from James Craigen and Craig Barr were celebrated like league title winners. It was our league title -getting that fourth spot.
One game that became the most unwanted fixture of the season was Rangers at Stark’s Park for the league title. Praying for a Hibs win, they failed, as had become the norm. So it was up to Raith with minutes to go and the Rangers fans singing “Championees” to stop the party. When Harry Panayiotou missed from the penalty spot it looked over. But such was the character of the side in the last three months: Panayiotou scored a dramatic equaliser – hashtag SCENES – moments later. There was no title party for Rangers that day.
Raith won 10 of the last 17 games with only defeats away to Rangers and against Hibernian in the playoffs. The Ladbrokes Championship would have looked starkly different if the league season began after the mid-season transfer window with Raith claiming a ten point lead at the top of the form chart.
Despite a well fought victory at Stark’s Park in the first leg, the playoff dream was brought crashing down early in the return leg at Easter Road. A 2-1 aggregate loss was no disgrace. Hibs played the superior football without comfortably dominating in terms of the score line.
The excitement of the playoffs vanished after Dundee United made it abundantly clear they wanted Ray McKinnon to guide the club back to the Premiership next season. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. It was like watching your best friends go through a divorce when you know your other half secretly would have preferred him/her over you.
Every Raith Rovers fan would leave a club they were managing to take the Stark’s Park hot seat so I don’t grunge McKinnon’s heart over head decision. It’s similar to McGlynn’s move to Hearts a number of years back. The only difference being McKinnon had one successful season in Kirkcaldy.
The separation was hurtful. Firstly the compensation agreement seemed to indicate an amicable split but after days of intense negotiations it was clear there were stumbling blocks. When McKinnon resigned leaving Raith Rovers fans deflated it concluded what had become a unfortunate divorce. I think Raith fans would be forgiven for thinking McKinnon should have saw out his contract when the outstanding reason he got the job was for the work the board and the players made to meet his ambitions.
But across football, loyalty, is not what it once was. It is particularly prominent in Scotland where one-year rolling contracts mean players move from team to team and back again whether they’re rivals of previous clubs or not, simply to make a living.
Whatever your thoughts are on this saga put it to bed this summer, look back on a terrific season with pride and get ready to support the new manager next season. It promises to be quite a league, again. Dumbarton, Dundee United, Dunfermline Athletic, Greenock Morton, Hibernian, Queen of the South, Raith Rovers, St. Mirren, Ayr United or Stranraer and Falkirk or Kilmarnock.
Pick a winner, pick your playoff teams and pick the relegation candidates.
Where will we be?