TOMORROW’S friendly match between Raith Rovers and Hearts at Stark’s Park has all the makings of a Tynecastle love-in: John McGlynn manages his new club for the first time against his old one; the Scottish Cup will be paraded at half-time; it’s a testimonial game for childhood Jambo Laurie Ellis; he is now player/coach in Raith’s new three-man management team alongside player-manager Grant Murray and assistant Paul Smith, both of whom are former Hearts players. The links are seemingly endless.
“It’s something probably no-one could have written,” admits Murray. “Everything has come together, even for Laurie, whose just been appointed first-team coach and is playing against his boyhood heroes managed by our former manager. It’s a great game for Raith Rovers, first and foremost. We have a friendly against last season’s Scottish Cup winners. Because it’s Hearts, that makes it a massive game anyway.”
Both clubs formed an alliance some time ago in a mutually beneficial arrangement. In fact, ever since McGlynn left his job as Hearts coach in 2006 to take charge at Raith, the clubs have enjoyed a strong connection with one another. Hearts’ recruitment of McGlynn to replace Paulo Sergio as manager was met with no opposition from Raith, emphasising the strength of the bond as well as offering acknowledgment that he had done everything he realistically could with the Fife club. Murray doesn’t need told of the affection of the Hearts support, having experienced it first hand as part of the 1998 Scottish Cup-winning squad. Similarly, he is well acquainted with the feelings of Raith fans and witnessed how they idolised McGlynn during his successful five-and-a-half-year stay in Kirkcaldy. Tomorrow gives the home support a chance to say thank-you and goodbye in a fitting fashion.
“John will get a great reception,” continues Murray. “He had some great years at Raith and had a good rapport with the fans and the players. It’s just fitting that this game is his first game as Hearts manager. From my point of view, he was the guy who brought me to Raith. If he hadn’t, this opportunity for me would never have come about. It’s going to be that bit extra special.” Murray was earmarked to replace McGlynn by Raith directors before the Hearts appointment was even made official. Yet the defender, now 36, was still surprised to be offered a chance to take his first steps into management.
He captained the team and, as McGlynn’s on-field leader, the progression seems a natural one, however that didn’t mean it wasn’t a bolt from the blue.
“We were well surprised when the board came to us,” explains Murray. “We knew John had been linked with the Hearts job earlier in the summer but we reported back for pre-season training and John was still there. As a player, you have to report back and get on with training. We then found out Hearts were keen to talk to John but that was just between him and the clubs. He moved within three or four days so all the board did at that point was ask Paul Smith if he would take over. He was to make sure pre-season went as normal and Laurie and I were asked just to help him out. Then the board came back and asked us to take over as a management three with the rest of the backroom staff behind us. Paul’s role is staying the same and, for myself and Laurie, his experience is going to be vital. He assisted John and the players know him well.”
The visit of Hearts provides Murray with his second match in charge of Raith following a 1-1 with Ross County at Stark’s Park on Tuesday evening. Like any new manager, he is eager to impose himself and make an impression on players and fans alike ahead of the forthcoming campaign in the First Division.
He never was one to hog the limelight during a playing career which earned him a reputation as a reliable and disciplined defender, and management won’t be any different. Tomorrow, more than anyone else, is about Ellis.
“Laurie was a Hearts supporter when he was growing up. When this game was first arranged for Laurie, I think the links John had with Hearts definitely helped. Hearts then went on to win the Scottish Cup, which now makes it that bit more special. The cup is going to be there tomorrow so it will be a great day. For myself and the Raith players, we’ve got to concentrate on it being a pre-season friendly.
“We played Ross County on Tuesday and drew 1-1 so the boys will be looking to step up a bit more as we get nearer our first competitive game. In our heads, we also can’t forget that it’s Laurie Ellis’ day and one that he truly deserves. Ten years at a football club is a magnificent achievement. It’s his game, his day, and one he can be proud of.”
Those crossing the River Forth to Fife are guaranteed a day to remember, and one with more than a subtle tint of maroon.