Roth Raivers: Part 17 – Leading at San Siro

The town of Kirkcaldy had spent a summer partying in celebration of the club qualifying for the Europa League courtesy of finishing third in the Scottish Premiership in 2023/24.

But the hangovers needed to be put to one side as Raith Rovers manager Robí di Lathamé had somewhat of a conundrum to overcome. That was how to go about strengthening and developing a side that had probably peaked in terms of what it was capable of achieving, with no money.

Realistically, Raith Rovers aren’t ever going to catch the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers. We’ve only taken one point off the two clubs in 14 league games against them in the last two seasons! Add to that the fact that we only have £10 million in the bank and continue to lose money, while Celtic sold £67 million worth of talent in the summer of 2024. Plus, the result of the Brexit vote means we basically can’t sign anyone who isn’t British, which massively reduces the scouting options available.

That means the future of Raith has to be in developing young players and not shelling out on pointless, expensive transfers.

Summer transfer window

The summer of 2024 was, as a result, relatively quiet. We sold off a few backup players for a total income of just £60,000, and brought in a host of loanees.

The key signing was to bring back Watford striker Ryan Cassidy – who’s scored 68 goals for Raith in the last three seasons – back for a fourth loan spell at the club. And we extended the loan deal of Leicester left-back Joshua Willis, which was important.

We strengthened the spine of the team with central midfielders Godwin Uzeh from Man United and Callum Wigley from Spurs, holding midfielder / centre-back Marley Lyon from Arsenal, and goalkeeper Andrew Richards from Chelsea.

Luckily though, several of our youngsters like centre-back Willie Binnie, midfielders Enrico Donati and Glen Cranston, and striker Marc Parkinson had shown solid progression over the summer. Donati, in particular, had a bid from AC Milan over the summer and is wanted by Liverpool and Inter!

And, with those signings in, here’s how we’re looking at lining the boys up for the new season. And, you’ll see we’ve gone with a new 4-1-3-2 formation given our lack of wing options.

I think there’s very little chance of getting close to that third place finish of last season and we’re nowhere near good enough to get through the Europa League qualifying stages!

Draw overload

The new season began with a trip to Falkirk and we made a solid start by racing into a 2-0 first-half lead through a Donati screamer and a first for the club from Cranston. But we let the hosts back in as our former winger Jordan Elliott scored, then we had Willis sent off and hung on for a 2-1 opening day win.

However, Donati’s star performance caught Liverpool’s eye. They came in with a derisory bid of £1.5 million, I negotiated it way up to £10 million plus extras and they eventually agreed to pay a straight-up £10 million. It was definitely a great deal for our club, considering we paid £4,000 for him two years ago! However, for some reason, he rejected their offer, which is just bizarre.

That was followed by three consecutive home draws beginning with a dire 0-0 against Livingston, then 1-1 against St Johnstone and Hibernian as the league campaign got off to a slightly shaky start. Then more draws came at home to Hearts, who’d begun the season well, before we went to Celtic Park and held firm to claim a 0-0 and only our second point against the Old Firm!

European adventure begins

Raith’s European adventure began with a trip to Cyprus to face Apollon Limassol in the Europa League Playoff. We fell behind early in the second half but Binnie leapt highest from a corner to nod home a vital away goal and equaliser. Then a 0-0 draw in a return leg that we dominated was enough to seal progression to the Group Stage! And that means one thing – money! – with £2.51 million for qualification alone.

We got handed an exciting – yet difficult – group stage up against AC Milan, Dynamo Kyiv and Olympiakos. And our performance in reaching the group stage resulted in the Board offering me a new contract worth £3,500-per-week until 2027.

The group began with the most difficult game, at the San Siro against AC Milan. We held Milan for the first half, then the unthinkable happened as that man Binnie headed home from an Uzeh free-kick to give Raith Rovers the lead… at the San Siro! However, Milan immediately got given a very dubious penalty that Franck Kessié converted. He then got sent off and we held on to earn a great away point.

We followed that up with a narrow 1-0 loss in Ukraine, but bounced back with a magnificent 3-0 win at home to Olympiakos. That win included young striker Mick Turner coming off the bench to bag not only his first goal for the club, but also his second!

First-ever point against Rangers

That win over Olympiakos arrested a long run of 11 games without a win in all competitions – of which eight were draws!

We’d drawn six of our eight league games, which had us sitting in eight place and meant an upturn in form would push right up the table and a dip in form would have us worried. And a 1-0 loss at Motherwell didn’t exactly help the situation. But we recovered to beat fourth-placed Dundee United 1-0 with a goal from the unlikely source of holding midfielder Alan Bayliss.

We backed that up with another 1-0 home win, this time over bottom of the league Falkirk as striker Parkinson ended an incredible 28-match goal drought! During the game, Frank Lampard was spotted scouting Enrico Donati for Chelsea. The upturn in form continued as we went to next-to-bottom of the league Livingston and won 2-0. Centre-back Binnie stepped up to convert a penalty then Cassidy added a second to make it comfortable.

And we followed up that string of league wins with our first ever point against Rangers! Another strong defensive effort saw us claim another 0-0 draw.

But the good form ended at Hibernian, where we had Wigley sent off after 2 minutes and got thumped 5-2 – although young midfielder Stephen Crawford did score his first goal for the club. And we were then dreadful in a 2-1 loss at St Johnstone.

That little drop in form ended with a 2-0 win at Greenock Morton – for which they were 6/4 favourites, just to give context – thanks to another Binnie penalty and Lyon heading home a long throw for his first goal for the club. Then a solid 2-2 draw at home to third-placed Aberdeen, who got a very dodgy penalty, set up our final home game of the year against Celtic.

And we claimed our second draw of the season against Celtic and a third of the season against the Old Firm by holding them to a 1-1 draw thanks to Bayliss’ late header from a corner. Although they will feel done by given they had 32 shots to our 6!

2034 closed with two away games, of which the first saw us thrash Hearts 4-0 out of absolutely nowhere. Cassidy bagged a brace, along with goals from Parkinson and substitute Turner. Our bizarre form continued as we went in at half-time at Dundee United 4-1 down but fought back to lose 4-3.

And that took us into the winter break and a new year sitting in 7th place in the Scottish Premiership – which is exactly where the media predicts us to be.

Europa League group conclusion

The win over Olympiakos was followed by a 2-1 defeat in Greece. Then we welcomed AC Milan to town and put another hugely credible display with a 0-0 draw, despite being well and truly dominated. However, that did bring our campaign to an end as we couldn’t catch Kyiv.

We rounded out the group with a trip to Ukraine and only lost 1-0, while Olympiakos lost 8-0 in Milan. And that consigned us to third place in the group and the Europa Conference League – which I think is a solid effort for little old Raith! In that new competition, we will take on Astra Giurgiu in the first knockout round.

Join us next time to discover if we can build on our up and down league form and how far we can go in the Europa Conference League!

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