When Raith Rovers won the Coca-Cola Cup it didn’t feel real – 25 years later it still doesn’t

Don’t peak too soon. Advice that can apply to many things in life.

Whatever you do, make sure you save the good stuff till later.

When you go to the cinema you don’t settle down with your popcorn and watch as the hero defeats the villain in the first scene, followed by 120 minutes of denouement.

But reality isn’t like Hollywood. And there’s no chapter in any screenwriting book that would come close to the badly scripted reality of supporting a Scottish football team.

***

The first time my Dad asked if I wanted to go to the football, I said no.

I’d rather go to the pool with my pals, I think I told him. I’d never been to a proper match, so there was no obvious attraction for a nine-year-old me. Saturday afternoon was fun time, mucking-about time. Throwing myself down a flume repeatedly or splashing around when the wave machine came on seemed far more appealing.

But everything changed soon after that, and nothing was the same again.

Never again would Saturday afternoon be a time of carefree fun or – in adult life – even just a time to relax after the working week was over. From that point on it would become a time of anxiety, of disappointment and – very, very occasionally as a Raith Rovers fan – of pure adrenaline and air-punching triumph.

For reasons I can’t exactly remember (perhaps Dad bundled me into the car against my will), I started going to the odd game in the 1991-92 season. Memories of that campaign are foggy at best – an unremarkable trip to Dens Park to see Raith take on eventual title winners Dundee is lodged in my hippocampus for some reason.

But like a camera lens sharpening into focus, my real enthusiasm for it all began some time around August ‘92.

I sometimes ask myself this: if it had just been any old season, would my interest have waned? Would I have bailed on my Dad and gone back to the wave machine?

But this wasn’t any old season for Raith Rovers. Somehow I managed to start following them as they were about to embark on the most successful period in their 109-year history.

On the opening day of that season, Raith faced newly relegated St Mirren. A tough test on paper.

Rovers came away with a 7-0 win. This, it soon became clear, is not a typical scoreline for Raith Rovers.

The team didn’t lose a game until December, and while the stats look impressive to this day, to a young fan it was all about the players themselves.

The fearsome defensive pairing of big Shaun Dennis and Davie “Sinky” Sinclair, the youthful trio of Jason Dair, Colin Cameron and Stevie Crawford, the wise old head of player-manager Jimmy Nicholl in midfield alongside Peter “Silky” Hetherston, and up top, a strike partnership that from my nostlagia-blurred perspective eclipses Rush and Dalglish, Shearer and Sutton or Yorke and Cole: Gordon Dalziel and Craig Brewster.

Scoff all you like, but as a duo they were perfect together. Dalziel the poacher, the finisher. Ruthless and instinctive, you wouldn’t find any of his goals in end-of-season compilations. Already 30, the former Rangers star looked older still, and rarely bothered to venture back across the halfway line. His hunting ground was the opposition six-yard box, where he feasted on scraps – rebounds, sclaffs, deflections – to net 33 goals that season.

Brewster wasn’t far behind with 22, but most of his damage came from distance. Even if the keeper managed to get a hand to one of his piledrivers, the footballing hyena that was Dalziel would be there, no doubt salivating at the prospect, ready to tap into an empty net.

***

Fast forward to April ’93. Kilmarnock and Dunfermline had failed to keep pace with Raith over the course, and so there was already a party atmosphere when Dumbarton came to Starks Park for the title clincher.

I remember playing football in the garden with my pal Graeme (who would go on to lead out the team as mascot for a certain cup final) and then dad driving us to Kirkcaldy on a sunny spring day.

As soon as the ref blew his whistle at the end of the 2-0 win we ran on to the pitch and crowded round the players as they soaked up the adulation.

History made. The club had won the First Division title for the first time, with an eventual winning margin of 11 points, and a goal difference of +44.

I was hooked.

There was a dose of reality when Raith struggled to adapt to life in the Premier Division the following season, and came straight back down.

But the brush with the big time brought memories like a John Collins and Charlie Nicholas inspired Celtic running riot at Starks Park, and two sensational draws against Walter Smith-era Rangers, home and away.

A trip to Ibrox the second time that season wasn’t quite so successful, but it was nothing if not memorable. A 4-0 defeat, and a Duncan Ferguson head-butt on Jock McStay that would eventually land the big striker in Barlinnie.

All of this was a mere warm-up for what was to come in 94-95. Wikipedia reminds me that we ran out league champions again, pipping local rivals Dunfermline by one point.

But that season will always be remembered for the “unthinkable” events of 27 November.

***

Like thousands of other Raith fans, me, my dad and even my sister (that’s how big a game it was) caught a bus from Kirkcaldy that Sunday for our date with destiny.

I can still remember our bus nearing Ibrox and seeing an endless line of Celtic coaches parked up. We were at the wrong end, and when the driver tried to stop to let us off, someone told him in no uncertain Fife terms to keep going. That’s when the butterflies started I think.

My programme from the Coca Cola Cup final
My programme from the Coca Cola Cup final

The game itself is well documented. I remember waving a ‘Raith Rovers – Pride of Fife’ flag incessantly, shouting myself hoarse and clenching my fists tightly whenever Raith broke out of their own half (it was a daft superstition I had at the time, as if I was somehow influencing the game with my fist-clenching).

A quarter of a century later, I can’t remember much about what I did when Scott Thomson guessed right to save Paul McStay’s penalty, but I do remember the “Govan Stand erupting”, as Jock Brown described it on the commentary.

It was like a glitch in reality. For days afterwards it really was like the cliche about pinching yourself.

I was too young to join in the celebrations in Kirkcaldy that night, but I did manage to appear on the front page of The Courier when a few of us were snapped on the High Street with our flags (if you have a copy of this please let me know!). Dancing on the streets of Raith, and all that.

But the story wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

We still had the Uefa Cup run the following year, and a very respectable 4-1 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich over two matches (again, it really was the realm of pinch-yourself).

My programme from the Bayern match at Easter Road
My programme from the Bayern match at Easter Road

There was a sixth-place finish in the top flight in 95-96, and the chance to see players of the calibre of Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Jorge Cadete at Starks Park.

But things were changing. Jimmy Nicholl departed for Millwall in 1996, taking Crawford, Dair and Sinky with him.

It should have been a time for Raith to consolidate their place in the lower Premier Division or at least upper half of the First Division, but there were some rash decisions. A new stadium was hastily built with the transfer cash received for Steve McAnespie, who joined Bolton for a staggering £900,000.

But while we had a shiny new stadium, other similarly sized clubs invested in their teams for sustained title challenges and relegation battles, and the likes of Kilmarnock are still reaping the rewards after all these years.

The team spirit that shone so brightly from 92-95 was lost. A succession of jobbers signed for a succession of dud managers, and things were never the same again.

The arrival of the charlatan Claude Anelka in 2004 was a new low, a Mariana Trench kind of low, and one from which the club never fully recovered.  Many Rovers fans with Dunfermline-supporting mates or colleagues have never heard the end of it since. “Sold the manager’s job” indeed.

The years since the mid-90s have been fallow. Unremarkable. These days Raith languish in the third tier, playing in a half-empty Starks Park against teams that can barely muster 100 travelling fans.

It would be inaccurate to say there haven’t been any highlights – the Scottish Cup run of 2010, the Challenge Cup win over Rangers in 2014, the emergence of the mercurial Lewis Vaughan before his sickening spate of injuries – but it’s all a far cry from the 90s.

And don’t mention the Gary Locke / John Hughes season.

***

After the 1993 title win, Jimmy Nicholl was quoted as saying: “It was a great day and I wish there’s a lot more to come in the future, I hope there is anyway.”

If anything, it’s a stark reminder to appreciate the good times. When they’re here and they’re now.

The rest is just hope.

And, when you’re in the trough, all you can do is hope for another peak. One day.

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