While the coming season brings a familiar sense of optimism and anticipation amongst football’s aristocracy, it is worth remembering that while expectations at all levels of football may differ, the excitement and novelty of new adventures is more tangible lower down the footballing food chain.
For Scottish club Raith Rovers, this Autumn sees the 20th anniversaries of several of its most memorable fixtures – the UEFA Cup campaign of 1995.
The triumph over Celtic in the 1994 Coca-Cola Cup Final had not only set in stone one of Scottish football’s great footballing fairytales, Raith found their way into the UEFA Cup.
Tuesday 8th August 1995 saw the visit to Starks Park of Faroese side Gotu Itrotterfelag, in the first ever competitive European fixture at the Kirkcaldy ground. In the midst of league campaigns, cup defeats, and away trips to the familiar outposts of Scotland’s provincial football scene, it is worth dwelling on the novelty, the euphoria, and the trepidation with which Raith Rovers F.C. took its first European steps, on a clear blue summer’s evening in front of 5,082 fans.
Your author was 17 years old at the time, not old enough for a pint (not that I’m letting on, anyway), but certainly old enough to drink in the history of the occasion. The bus-trip to Links Street, the quickening pace up the steep slopes of Pratt Street, and the sense of anticipation walking underneath the Main Stand to emerge blinking into the sunshine bleaching the open South terracing – all etched into this Raith fan’s memories of an evening in which every detail was savoured.
In the aftermath of Raith’s Coca-Cola Cup win in 1994, thoughts had immediately turned to the European draw the following summer. Who would be involved? Would all-seater stadiums be required? Most importantly, how far could Raith go? The football sages in the school playground professed a deep and intricate knowledge of the European game – only a ‘high-risk” game designated by UEFA would mean an all-seater encounter; Raith’s opponents would be from a northern section (no trips to the Mediterranean, it was said); and surely Raith’s new signings would send shockwaves through any European dressing-room.
Back in the real world, Raith had strengthened over the summer. Jim MacInally, who’s European pedigree with Dundee United and Scotland extended to all corners of Europe, anchored Raith’s midfield. Partick Thistle’s Alex Taylor also provided strength in the tackle. Led by manager Jimmy Nicholl, with countless appearances in an international jersey for Northern Ireland under his belt, Raith were in as good a position as they would ever be for their first European encounter.
Enter Gotu. Having won the Faroese league, Gotu travelled south with confidence and determination. At least seven Faroese internationals started, including midfielder Marti Jarnskor – who had four goals in sixteen internationals. Pre-match headlines had focussed on goalkeeper Jens-Martin Knudsen – bobble-hatted hero of the island nation’s 1-0 victory over Austria in 1990 – but scant attention had been paid to the visitors’ recent European history. The previous season’s European campaign had ended in disappointment and controversy – a 3-2 defeat at Swedish heavyweights Trelleborgs had seen a Gotu goal disallowed late on.
The Raith match programme pre-kick-off gave plenty of food for thought. The centre-spread listed the famous names also playing that evening – exotic and awe-inspiring, in a pre-internet age where televised highlights packages would provide a momentary glimpse into far-off worlds of footballing sophistication and mystery. Bordeaux, Red Star Belgrade, Olympiakos, Galatasaray – would fans worshipping in footballing cathedrals across Europe be searching their atlases for Raith when the first-round draw was made?
With all nostalgia, a sense of reality is also important. Raith played with composure, authority, and quality on a night when few would have forgiven a footballing freeze. The following morning’s Glasgow Herald suggested the 4-0 win “nice and easy”, but on an evening when Motherwell were comprehensively destroyed by Finnish opposition at Fir Park, the scale of Raith’s achievement should not be forgotten. Broddle charged from full-back (perhaps a tactical plan to pin the Faroese in their right-back area), MacInally swept the ball left and right across the parched surface quickly and accurately, and the youthful triumverate of Cameron Crawford and Dair probed and pushed around the gathering Gotu rearguard.
Jason Dair’s historic opener, turning in a cross at the back-post and celebrating in front of the South terracing, followed a near-miss from ther evening’s stand-out player Tony Rougier. Gotu’s back four – with international experience against Europe’s elite, don’t forget – were uncomfortable all evening. As Starks Park bathed in the evening sunshine, a bright energetic and focussed Raith front-line harried, hassled, and humbled their arguably more illustrious opponents.
Watching from the front of the terracing, several memories still linger. The sight of the Main Stand absolutely full – not a wooden bench in sight as Kirkcaldy came out in force for this most unique of fixtures; the yellow stripe of Faroese fans in the front row of the stand, chanting and cheering their heroes, relishing the atmosphere despite the score-line; Stephen McAnespie curling a beautiful free-kick beyond Knudsen to score Raith’s third on the night; and the Raith fans’ riposte “You only sing when you’re fishing…” addressed to the magnificent band of away supporters.
Gotu retreated, regrouping for the second leg, tails between their legs. Years later, they would merge with local rivals Leirvik I.F. to form combined outfit Vikingur, who are currently one of the forces of Faroese football. In 2014/15, Vikingur themselves beat Latvian and Norweigan opposition to reach the third competitive round of the UEFA Europa League.
In a congested and often confrontational Scottish domestic football scene, the rare breaths of fresh air often seem sweeter as a result. With a calendar that can often involve five or six games against the same opposition, taking on and beating a genuinely unknown quantity still is a thrilling thought. Even the most hardened cynics within the Starks Park faithful reflected the nervous anticipation of a footballing challenge Raith rose to magnificently.
The bus-ride home that evening seemed a blur, full of talk of the “First Round proper”. Ceefax listed the European results, eyes scanning with new-born intensity, seeking validation of the dream of membership of a European elite: Austria Vienna had scored four, Brondby had won, Orebro, Neuchatel Xamax, Apollon Nicosia…. and then there we were. Teletext said it, so it must be true…..
Raith Rovers 4, Gotu Itrotterfelag 0.
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