The story behind Raith Rovers' play-off surge: Blood-spattered carnage, Brendan Rodgers influence, plus dreams of playing Rangers, Celtic, Hearts and Hibs
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Blood-spattered bodies stumbling about the technical area might have looked rather chaotic, but it was all good-natured. Beating Dunfermline always sparks crazy scenes in Kirkcaldy, after all.
Scoring in the last minute to win 2-0 in a promotion play-off tie prompted a heightened sense of ecstasy for Raith. Gozie Ugwu’s emphatic finish secured their place in the semi-final against Dundee, the first leg of which is tomorrow. A play-off final for a place in the Premiership awaits the winners.
With Rovers only promoted from League One last term, some got slightly carried away amid the euphoria. There was a strong former Hearts presence involved. It all started in a reasonably civilised manner as manager John McGlynn, assistant Paul Smith and coach Darren Murray embraced to celebrate Ugwu’s goal. Then goalkeeping coach David McGurn piled in.
Ex-Tynecastle coach Murray takes up the story in between bouts of chuckling. “We’ve just scored to go 2-0 up. Me, Smudger and John are hugging,” he says. “Then big Davie’s come in and I swear to God, he’s smashed us. What a mess. Smudger’s eye is a right state with John’s glasses going into his face.
“Then John’s on the telly giving an interview talking about going from looking like Tom Cruise to this. It was so funny. Not at the time, but looking back now it is. There is so much pressure in football at that level that you need that release.”
The Brendan Rodgers effect
The injuries won’t deter McGlynn and Smith as they prepare their team to face Dundee. It is the next step on a journey inspired by none other than Brendan Rodgers, and one which might take Raith all the way to the razzmatazz of the top flight.
McGlynn – a former Hearts boss – spent two years working as Celtic’s opposition scout under Rodgers and has implemented some new philosophies at Stark’s Park. Murray believes the change in approach is significant.
“The biggest thing about John is that learning from Brendan Rodgers has just changed the style of football he plays. When you work with the best British manager at the moment, it rubs off,” says the former Hearts youth coach.
“It’s been a three-year process to get Raith to this point and they are one of the best footballing teams in the Championship. That doesn’t guarantee you success, but John and Smudger have taken their League One squad, made two or three additions, and finished third in the Championship.
“That passing style looks easy on the eye but it’s the hardest to implement. It’s high-risk football, but credit to everyone for pulling it off. Now they’re in a play-off semi-final for promotion. It shows the work that’s been done. What they’re doing over there is top-level. I can’t say enough good things about it.
“The players have a great camaraderie and a way of playing that suits them. The manager changed shape and got us higher up the pitch in the second half on Saturday. We played a different style and the lads were brilliant at that as well. Now we have a really exciting game against Dundee, another good side with real experience.
“It’s a test everyone at Raith is really looking forward to. We didn’t expect to be in this position but we’re dreaming about playing at Tynecastle, Easter Road, Ibrox, Celtic Park – and rightly so.”
Nor did Murray expect to be in this position when he first encountered McGlynn more than a quarter of a century ago. In the mid-1990s, he was a Musselburgh Athletic player with McGlynn has his manager. McGlynn joined Hearts as youth coach in 1996 and would eventually invite Murray to join him coaching the club’s under-16s.
“I was still playing at Musselburgh, my son was just born, I was 28, and I’d had a few ligament injuries. I decided to give it a go as a coach,” recalls Murray, eternally grateful to McGlynn for that invite. He was offered another opportunity last summer.
“I first went across to Raith when Paul Smith was on honeymoon last year. I gave John a hand, then John became unwell with his gall bladder at the start of the season. We were really concerned about him. John was my mentor as a young coach and he’s my friend.
“I continued to help Smudger and support him at games. The principles and the way Raith play are in line with what I like to see in football. So I just went there to help and that’s what I’m still doing. I’ve done very little in the context of what’s gone on this season. I don’t have a title and I’m not employed there, I’m just helping out.
“I’m still busy with my coaching business in Midlothian and I’m delighted with the progress of all my young players who inspire me every season.”
Murray is content simply being a helping hand at Stark’s Park. He has been involved in a remarkable campaign regardless how the play-offs transpire. That said, having come this far, there is serious motivation to ride this wave as far as possible.
“The atmosphere there just now is great and the people are tremendous. Blair Doughty the sports scientist, Simon Pollock the kit man, Stewart Duff the physio, Katy Green the doctor, Cameron Ross the conditioning coach, Andrew Tannahill the analyst, they are great to work with.
“But I was also really impressed with Dunfermline and Stevie Crawford in particular at the weekend. He showed an unbelievable amount of class afterwards. He texted me saying: ‘Well done, Darren. Gutted you beat us but well done and good luck in the play-offs.’ That was a great gesture. I’m not sure I’d have done that. It was really humble and I like that.”