So near and yet so far… I wrote a quick reaction piece on Raith Rovers’ Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Dundee United for scotsman.com.
Sometimes it’s hard to be a Rover, as Tammy Wynette might have sung if she had experienced lower league Scottish football. And that’s just getting to the game. Unless you’re a member of the Tartan Army or one of the die-hards who made the trips to Mount Florida for away games against Queen’s Park, it’s a challenge to even locate Hampden Park.
Thanks to a combination of smartphone, road atlas and guesswork, we get to the national stadium an hour before kick-off – ample time to mull over Raith’s prospects. Ross County’s stunning win over Celtic the previous afternoon looms large on everyone’s minds. Can we follow in their footsteps with another SPL scalp? Despite ourselves, we can’t help thinking that if we win today we’ll never have a better chance of lifting the Scottish Cup. Looking back, maybe that kind of thinking was our undoing from the start.
Hampden may be less than half-full but it’s a hell of a sight: on the warmest day of the year so far, blazing sunshine streams down on a sea of tangerine and blue – this match should really have been sponsored by a certain fizzy drink. All around Rovers fans greet each other, exchange the usual Starks Park banter and soak up the sense of once-in-a-generation occasion.
But as seats fill and the minutes tick away, the feeling of jubilation takes on a nervous twang. This is it. Weeks of build-up and hype lead to the next 90 minutes, in which our fate will be decided, for better or worse.
And for the first 27 minutes at least, it feels like this could be it. We have plenty of opportunities to sing and shout as our team comes flying out the blocks, pegging United back into their own half and creating four corners in a row. Gregory Tade, hero at Pittodrie two rounds ago, looks his usual gangly but unpredictable self on the right flank, and the SPL high-fliers appear bereft of ideas.
As all football fans know, however, all the possession in the world means diddly squat without a goal. And as if to state their credentials as the form team in Scotland, United hit us with a sucker punch with their first clear chance – former Raith loan star David Goodwillie latching on to a clinical through pass to calmly slot home the opener.
This was not in the script, and the Raith players don’t know how to react. For the remainder of the match we never really trouble United, who double their lead through a fine Andy Webster header just before the hour mark.
As the game wears on the atmosphere in our part of the North Stand grows increasingly deflated, resigned to watching the team in tangerine close down the match, while their fans party as if they’ve already won the cup. Even the tattooed, topless lads in the row in front of us only get off their seats to make certain hand gestures at the gloating United contingent away to our right.
In the end the game was surprisingly lacking in drama or suspense for a cup semi-final. Raith manager John McGlynn will feel let down by the lack of character and abundance of nerves shown on the day by some of his charge, but rightfully proud of the incredible feat of getting this far.
After the final whistle has blown to seal our gloom, the roads out of Glasgow are clogged with cars flying tangerine scarves and flags. With nothing but a long journey home and a relegation battle to look forward to, it’s worth repeating: sometimes it’s hard to be a Rover. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.