English manager Robí di Lathamé had led Raith Rovers to a surprisingly good start to life in the Scottish Championship. Expected to fight bravely against relegation, Rovers occupied the playoff places in 4th position after 15 matches.
And the strong start continued with a 3-2 win at home to Ayr United, in which we took the lead with striker Dylan Parker’s first goal for the club then went 2-1 down by half-time. But goals from in-form right-winger Jordan Elliot and left-winger Jake Cain saw us overturn a game in which we were considered underdogs at home.
We continued the fine form with a 2-1 win at Queen of the South, then somehow came away with a 0-0 draw at runaway leaders Dundee with goalkeeper Ross Munro well and truly the hero as he made 10 saves and played a 7.7.
But the goals flowed in a ridiculous match at home to Arbroath in which we were 2-0 up inside 10 minutes, 4-0 up inside 20, then gave them 2 goals back and made it 5 just before half-time. Unsurprisingly it also finished 5-2. But Cain got an assist hat-trick while Elliot and striker Darren Shaw both scored twice.
That was our final game of the year and as we moved into 2021 the United Kingdom left the European Union. So non-British and Irish players will now need work permits.
January transfer window
2021 began with a huge offer for our club captain Regan Hendry. Watford offered us £500k, so I negotiated hard and got them up to £2 million up-front plus £250k in add-ons. Hendry showed his importance to the side with a starring role in a 2-goal comeback to seal a 2-2 draw at Ross County. We will undoubtedly miss him but we cannot ignore that kind of money in our financial position.
But the deal finally went through and more than doubled the club’s all-time record transfer fee of £900k received for Steve McAnespie moving to Bolton way back in 1995.
The good news was that this offered an opportunity to exciting midfield prospect Dylan Tait to step into Hendry’s shoes. But just to make sure, we also picked up a decent looking loan midfielder in Jack Turner from Southampton.
Life after Hendry
Our first game without Hendry didn’t start well as Alloa Athletic led 1-0 at half-time with a penalty for a challenge that looked well outside the box. But we fired back after the break with goals from Shaw and Daniel Armstrong.
Then Tait put in the kind of performance that ensures Raith fans could quickly forget about Hendry. He laid on two goals in a 5-1 smashing of Dunfermline Athletic in the Fife Derby, in which Jamie Gullan scored a brace to end his 15-match goal drought!
That good form continued with a big 4-1 win over Queen of the South, a 0-0 at Ayr, then we went and beat league leaders Dundee 2-1 with a Gullan penalty and a late Elliot winner.
And this great form, which saw us still sitting in 4th place in the league, resulted in the Raith board offering Robí di Lathamé a new 2-year contract worth £2k a week – more than doubling the previous contract.
We celebrated that with a 3-0 win over relegation-threatened Arbroath. The 3 points ensured we completed our objective of avoiding relegation and achieved next season’s objective of becoming an established Championship side, with 8 games still remaining.
Chasing the playoffs
That win over Arbroath was followed by 3 successive defeats and it looked like becoming 4 as we went behind early on at home to Hamilton. But a stern talking to at half-time saw the boys come from behind to win 2-1 inspired by an Elliot brace.
But we took the opposite of momentum (if that’s a thing) by falling 2-0 down inside 23 minutes at 9th-placed Queen of the South. But not to worry, as Ayr also lost – to Dundee, which sealed them the title – which confirmed our place in the Scottish Championship playoffs!
This achievement saw us pass our objective of reaching the playoffs 4 years early, and Chairman Robbie McGinn was well and truly chuffed.
Our penultimate match of the regular season was at home to Ayr and Shaw got things started with his 20th goal of the campaign then Elliot sealed a 2-1 win. And we finished up at champions Dundee, so I rested loads of players for a game in which we “faced the impossible.” We held them to 1-1 until the last 20 minutes, when they ran riot to win 4-1.
That ensured we finished up in 4th place in the Championship, which earned us a cool £325k in prize money.
That took us into a two-legged playoff match against Ross County, of which the winner will face Hamilton. And I think the winner of that game then has a playoff game against the next-to-bottom team in the Premier League. So the chances of promotion via the playoffs are pretty slim!
We got off to a flyer against Ross County, winning a penalty that Gullan converted after 10 minutes to end another 10-hour goal drought! They got back into it before the break but an excellent second-half performance saw Elliot step up to seal a 2-1 win. But Cain was the main man with 7 key passes, an assist and an 8.8 rating. We then went and held on for a 0-0 draw in the second leg, which sealed an unlikely 2-1 aggregate success!
We again started well in the first leg at home to Hamilton as Cain bent in a free-kick thanks to some dodgy goalkeeping. But Hamilton then raced into a 3-1 lead through some dodgy efforts by our keeper Munro. Cain then teed up Shaw to make it interesting late on, but we couldn’t get another to level it up.
Ridiculously, we went into the second leg with McRobb, Tait and Brady on international duty at the Under-20 World Cup. But we did really well and even threatened to beat Hamilton against all the odds. We again made a good start through Elliot only for Uche Ikpeaku to equalise, then McKay headed home before Ikpeazu again levelled on the verge of half-time. Shaw levelled things up at 5-5 on aggregate, but Hamilton’s quality paid off with two late goals.
The season ended with the playoff second round, but it had been a fantastic first campaign at this level that absolutely exceeded expectations. There’s plenty to be done in the summer and I expect a huge turnover in both players and staff.
Hamilton ended up losing 3-1 to Motherwell in the final playoff round, so we’ll see them again next season.
Our second youth intake delivered a few players wth potential first-team qality. The best prospect is central midfielder Mitchell Evans who I suspect could become a Premier League player, along with goalkeeper Mark Crawford and centre-back Dylan Millar.
We also have an absolute mass of youngsters coming in over the summer, who are regens I’ve been scouting from across the UK whose contracts all expire. Whether they turn out to be any good or not we shall see!
Join us next time as we look back on a successful first season in the Scottish Championship.