Kevin McHattie’s move to Kirkcaldy is the perfect fit in so many ways: Rudi Skacel will play in front of him this season, Raith Rovers is inherent in his family’s blood and his grandfather regularly took him to Stark’s Park as a child.
Gary Locke moved swiftly to bring the left-back back to his native Fife when he decided to leave Kilmarnock in June. The pair previously worked together at Tynecastle and Rugby Park.
The 23-year-old is now playing regularly for a club where he belongs in every sense of the word. It’s the kind of appreciation most footballers want, but often lack. With McHattie ever-present, Raith have won all three Betfred League Cup ties to date, including a penalty shootout triumph at holders Ross County last weekend.
Skacel hasn’t appeared yet, although a typically grandiose entrance from the Hearts legend is certain once he reaches full fitness. Lining up behind the 37-year-old Czech this season is one of many appealing aspects for McHattie. Above all, he feels wanted again and senses an opportunity to relaunch his career whilst enjoying family support.
“The management staff at Raith are looking for a good season. They want to bring players forward and improve them,” he told the Evening News. “When I first signed, I spoke to the gaffer and he said: ‘One of my roles as a manager is to make you a better player’. If he does that and I move on to bigger things, he said he’d be extremely happy. He’s said that to all the boys.
“That’s what you’re looking for. I see this as a stepping stone to get back to where I want to be. Raith is a massive club and most of my family support them. My grandad took me to games when I was younger so it means something because of that family connection.
“I wasn’t really into football that much. I was playing roller hockey and ice hockey until I was eight, then I signed for Dunfermline. My grandad took me to Raith games from the age of five. All my mates support them, as does my wee cousin, and my uncle is a season ticket holder. I can get them tickets now so they’re all happy.
“Raith train at the Michael Woods Sports Centre in Glenrothes and I’m back staying in Glenrothes with my mum and dad. Training is two minutes up the road, which is convenient for me. I’ll be looking to try and get my own place in the next couple of months. It’s good to be home and see family, which I’ve not done for the last year or so.”
As a kid, McHattie would have watched a Raith side containing popular figures like Marvin Andrews and Craig Dargo. Skacel has the potential to be just as revered in Kirkcaldy. “You look at his experience and the things he’s done in his career. He’s won Scottish Cups and international caps. He brings a lot to the table,” continued the defender.
“You can’t complain when you’ve got a left foot like that. We’re hoping Rudi will bag us some goals and he’s more than capable of that. He’s a big name as well. I’m looking forward to having him play in front of me. He knows the game really well and it’s a great signing for Raith.”
Locke’s influence in the recruitment of Skacel, McHattie and the former Kilmarnock winger Chris Johnston is clear. A minor overhaul of the squad has taken place since he replaced Ray McKinnon in the Stark’s Park manager’s office. He has turned to those he knows and trusts.
McHattie was told last summer he was surplus to requirements at Hearts. He then had a similar conversation with Locke’s successor at Kilmarnock, Lee Clark, in June. It’s no surprise he has gone where he feels most valued.
“This is the third time I’ve worked with him [Locke],” explained McHattie. “He has that belief in me and he wants to play me. That’s a key thing for me, to play every week at this stage in my career. That’s one of the main reasons I signed. I played in the Championship with Hearts when we won the league. It’s a very competitive division. You’ve got big teams like Hibs, Falkirk, St Mirren, Dunfermline, Dundee United.
“Leaving Killie was similar to Hearts, really. I spoke to Lee Clark and he said I wouldn’t play as much as I wanted to. That was fair enough. He’s brought in loads of new faces there so it was time for a change.
“Last season was great for Raith and they’re looking to emulate that. I know Jason Thomson from when he was at Hearts, and obviously I know Rudi as well. Chris Johnston was at Kilmarnock last year so there are a few familiar faces.
“We’ve got a great dressing room and team spirit and that’s key. You look at what Leicester achieved last season so anything is possible if you have the right mentality.”