It may have looked as if Graeme Smith’s nerves had got the better of him as the former Hibs goalkeeper raced up the tunnel at Stark’s Park knowing he would be facing a penalty shoot-out when he re-emerged.
But, he revealed today, that “comfort break” was the secret behind the heroics which saw Raith Rovers crash out of the Championship, humbled by part-time Brechin City who had ended the season fourth in League One.
The short spell he spent within the away dressing-room allowed him to gather his thoughts, the 33-year-old returning to save three of the six spot-kicks he faced in an afternoon of drama which keeps their promotion hopes very much alive.
Smith had already played his part in the excitement, pulling off a string of impressive first-half saves to hold Raith at bay before Rovers defender Jean-Yves M’Voto’s blunder allowed ex-Easter Road striker Ross Caldwell to open the scoring just as he had done in the first leg of the promotion play-off at Glebe Park a few days earlier.
As they had done then, the Kirkcaldy club hauled themselves level, Frenchman M’Voto powering home a header only to slip and gift Alan Trouten the chance to fire Brechin ahead again.
His strike looked very likely to prove to be the winner only for Declan McManus to equalise for a second time and send the match into extra-time.
Brechin’s efforts appeared over when Ryan Hardie put Rovers in front for the first time but they got their rewards when Liam Watt curled a superb free-kick into the net from 25 yards.
“We hadn’t scored a goal from a free-kick all season,” revealed Smith. “It was a running joke in training with everyone asking what was the point of practising.”
As the players from both teams and their respective managers, Raith’s John Hughes and Brechin’s Darren Dods, gathered to decide on who would be taking the penalties, Smith disappeared, off to the peace and quiet of the dressing-room.
He said: “The last thing I wanted was everyone saying ‘all the best’. I just took myself away to the toilet as I’d been drinking water throughout the game, had a wee rest and took my shinguards off to be more comfortable. I talked to myself to convince myself I was going to save them.
“I came out saying ‘I know what I am going to do’. I wasn’t going to try to second guess anything, I knew what I was going to do.
“It wasn’t luck, I went the same way six times and saved three of them. As a goalkeeper you have nothing to lose, I actually felt more nervous watching the guys stepping up to take them than facing them.
“When I was in the middle of the goals I was convinced I was going to save them. By that time Raith had a hell of a lot more to lose than us.”
It was another former Hibs player, midfielder Scott Robertson, playing his first game of the season for Raith after a long injury lay-off, who turned out to be the sinner, Smith saving his penalty before Andy Jackson sealed a memorable win for Dods and his players and the 249 fans behind the goal.
However, much as he was delighted, Smith has plenty of sympathy for Raith. As someone who works in sales for a security firm, he appreciates the financial hardships which may now follow for the full-time Rovers players.
He said: “It means a lot to us and our fans but, to be honest, it’s not going to change my life. I don’t have all my eggs in the one basket so I can play with a freedom.
“But for Raith, other than Danny Handling [on loan from Hibs], this might change their lives. The Raith fans clapped us off which is the biggest pat on the back we could have got while the players were gracious in defeat.
“They’ll survive, they’ll come back up and be favourites along with Ayr United to do that next season.”
Brechin now face a two-legged affair with Alloa Athletic to decide which of them will be playing Championship football with Jim Goodwin’s side having won three of their four encounters with the Glebe Park club including a 6-1 hammering only a month ago in which Smith was sent off for, he revealed: “Kicking one of them.”
The much-travelled goalie said: “Alloa will be favourites, we know we’ll probably go into the games as underdogs but that doesn’t bother us. Alloa will appreciate we have some good players, you never know.
“Last season we were bottom of the league but won eight out of our last ten matches, got out of that position in the second last game of the season and only made ourselves totally safe in the final match.
“I’ve got another year to go at Brechin and I’d obviously be delighted to see us go up. I’ll be 34 at the start of next season so it would be something of a bonus. You can’t go on forever because it does get harder as you get older.
“However, as much as I am getting the credit, it was the boys in front of me who were magnificent. The guys in midfield never stopped running and as much as we were celebrating, and as good as it was at the end, they were absolutely shattered.
“But I hope the young kids at the club appreciate moments such as this, savour them and use it as a motivation to kick on in their careers.
“You never know, some of them might have made a wee bit of a name for themselves, someone might just have been there having a look at them.”