Derided as a waste of time; sneered upon by top clubs; dismissed as the ultimate “diddy cup”. Scotland’s Challenge Cup begins again this weekend and it won’t be to everyone’s liking.
Just don’t let anyone at Raith Rovers hear the carping. To them, it is a trophy to be cherished. Players and staff at Stark’s Park etched their names into club folklore by beating Rangers in last season’s final. John Baird’s winning goal in extra-time in front of 20,000 fans at Easter Road was one of the most dramatic moments in the tournament’s 24-year history. To the likes of captain Jason Thomson and manager Grant Murray, lifting the Challenge Cup has helped define their careers.
The competition is open to clubs outwith the top flight and this season carries a higher profile than ever before with Hearts, who host Annan in Saturday’s first round, plus Hibs and Rangers – set to meet at Ibrox on August 5 – all involved.
B&Q, Bell’s whisky, MG Alba and Ramsdens have all sponsored the Challenge Cup in the past, but this year’s version is known as the Petrofac Training Cup. The oil and gas provider is the latest to put their name and money towards a supposedly insignificant tournament. It is worth noting that, whilst major competitions like the Scottish Professional Football League and League Cup are officially still without sponsors, the Challenge Cup is not. The trophy will always live in the shadow of the Scottish Cup and League Cup given it is exclusively for lower division teams, but that does not mean it lacks importance. Ask anyone at Raith.
“You do think back to that day and what a great occasion it was when people talk the Challenge Cup down,” said Thomson. “That might be the last trophy I win, or the last cup final I play in. You have to treasure it and remember the good times. They don’t come around too often.
“People will look down on it. Folk at different levels of football will have a different view of the Petrofac Training Cup. I’ve got a mate who will go and play in a cup final that might mean nothing to me but it means the world to him if he wins it.
“I’ll always remember winning that final. Nothing stood out from the celebrations at night because I can’t remember much about them,” he laughed. “The day does pass you by, which isn’t what you want. The goal and the final whistle are what I’ll always remember, and the first couple of hours of the Sunday night. I’ve nothing but good memories of that tournament.”
Beating Rangers placed Murray alongside the iconic Jimmy Nicholl as the only Raith Rovers managers ever to win a cup. It was a remarkable achievement in just his second season in management, particularly given the size of the opposition on the day. Murray admitted even he didn’t realise the magnitude of the occasion until Raith arrived at Easter Road on the afternoon of the final.
“Leading Raith Rovers out that day alongside Ally McCoist to go and play against Rangers in a cup final at Easter Road was a great occasion,” he explained. “We only realised how big a day it was when we got there that afternoon.
“We didn’t realise how big it was going to be until we actually arrived at Easter Road. Stuff like that will live with the players for the rest of their careers. At half-time, our players were disappointed with how they had played as a team. I didn’t actually need to say a lot to them. They felt they hadn’t really had a go. What I said was, ‘well, you’ve not had a go and we’re sitting at 0-0, why not have a go and see if you can win a cup?’ John Baird’s winner will go down in history, it was a magnificent moment.”
So why do many people frown upon the Challenge Cup? “People look down on it when they’re put out of it, and I’ve been similar myself as a player and a manager,” admitted Murray. “It’s competitive football so when you play a competitive game, you want to win.
“We got all the way to the final well before Christmas last year. Then we knew we had a final to look forward to in April. It was a massive final being against Rangers and we were fortunate enough to go and win it. It’s brought us a lot of publicity. For a club like us, it goes down in the history books.”
Raith start their trophy defence with a Fife derby against Dunfermline at East End Park this weekend. Having beaten Rangers to win last season’s tournament, they are aware it will be even more competitive this time.
“That was a big thing last year, knowing the final was against Rangers and it would be a massive occasion. That’s what goes down in our players’ memories,” said Murray. “They played Rangers in a cup final and won it.
“It does move on to another level this year with Hearts and Hibs coming into it as well. Saturday’s game has added tension because it’s another Fife derby.
“There is always pressure on us being the holders. I’ve been involved in Fife derbies as a player and they are massive games of football.”
Thomson shares his manager’s thoughts. “If you didn’t have the likes of Rangers, Hearts and Hibs, it might not be as big a trophy to win,” he said. “Those three being involved makes it that bit more interesting. We are the holders so we’ll be going in against Dunfermline to defend it and try to win it again. We won’t play them in the league this season so it will be a big day. We also beat them 2-0 in the earlier rounds of this competition last year.”
That was another memorable day for the Fife club. Labelled the Ramsdens Cup last season, the tournament was extremely kind to Raith. You certainly won’t find anyone in Kirkcaldy speaking badly of it.