The pre-season campaign began with a trip to Highland League side Huntly. Raith Rovers started well, racing to a 3-0 lead before half-time thanks to a brace from Ebanda and another from Sacko. The second half saw virtually an entirely different away XI take to the field; Rovers capitulated, and the Aberdeenshire team’s second half surge saw them come back to tie the match 3-3. Summer friendlies, of course, are not always the ideal barometer of how a team will perform during the season, but Rovers’ poor form continued over the next two fixtures. They found themselves three goals down in the opening half hour against Berwick Rangers, eventually losing 1-3, and were two-down in the first 30 minutes against East Fife before turning the score around to win 3-2.
The team’s defence had looked particularly dreadful in the three matches and Anelka admitted his experiment of only playing with three at the back had not worked. He had already used 22 players but had been unimpressed with a number of them, stating they would have to shape up in the coming weeks or be shipped out of the club.
The end of July saw Rovers sign another player. Iain Davidson joined his hometown team from Sunderland, and the defensive midfielder would go on to become a mainstay of the side over an eight-year period. It was one of the few decisions Anelka got right.
The manager abandoned his experimental defence and opted to utilise a traditional 4-4-2 formation for the Scottish Brewers Cup. Raith won the semi-final agianst Gretna U-19s and despite the match finishing 0-0, the side eventually triumphed after a penalty shoot-out which featured 26 spot kicks. A 1-0 victory over Stranraer in the final saw Rovers secure the trophy, but their poor performances – especially against the young Gretna side – were a cause for concern. The bookmakers were unimpressed and made Rovers 33/1 rank outsiders for the First Division title.
In their first competitive fixture, however, Rovers proved the odds were perhaps too short. In the first round of the Challenge Cup, the side were outclassed by Third Division Albion Rovers and wilted 0-2 thanks to a double from John Bradford. There were clear communication difficulties in defence, with French goalkeeper David Berthelot unable to converse with Slovakian centre-half Hajovsky, who could not speak English. On countless occasions, the Wee Rovers breached a malfunctioning offside trap – the only surprise at full-time to be the small margin of victory. Anelka had already been jeered by some fans at half-time, but the boos echoed round the stadium at the final whistle. The honeymoon period, if ever there was one, had lasted less than 45 minutes.
Raith were eliminated from a second cup competition by lower league opposition just a few days later, when Stranraer dumped them out the League Cup at Stair Park by two goals to one.
The results failed to improve as the league campaign began with a comprehensive 0-2 defeat at Hamilton. Rovers started with a striker, Nsimba Lusamba, who had seemingly just appeared for that game; he was never seen in Kirkcaldy again. More players came in: Baroan Tagro and Antony Bartholeme were both drafted into the squad, but they were no better than the players that had already been signed. Rovers found themselves three goals down after just an hour against Clyde, in their fourth straight loss.
While the club looked a shambles on the park, they were becoming something of a circus behind the scenes too. Assistant manager Dave Martin left the club, claiming he could not work with the current regime and that the players brought in were not up to First Division standard. As Hutton pointed out, Martin had doubts right from the start.
“We were getting feedback on the players from Davie, I remember him describing them as ‘fairy dancers’ and that we could potentially be in trouble,” said Hutton. “He was eventually proved right. He was telling us his concerns before the season even began!”
Martin’s replacement was as shrewd as it was surprising. Former Chelsea, Rochdale and Swansea manager John Hollins was appointed as Anelka’s right-hand man. He had won the English Third Division title with Swansea four years previously, and Hutton was immediately impressed with what he saw. “John Hollins was a great appointment,” he said. “I really thought we’d cracked it. He was different class, a great guy and I really thought we were laughing when he came in. The first point we got that season was when he got involved and we drew at Airdrie.”
Hollins seemed to instil a greater sense of organisation into the team, as did new signings Wes Daly and Jack Perry who both joined on loan from QPR. The 1-1 draw with Airdrie was the least they deserved from the game. The point was welcome, raising spirits and suggesting the team could arrest their miserable form.
The high hopes did not last long. Rovers lost consecutive matches against St Johnstone, Ross County and then collapsed spectacularly in the second half against league leaders Falkirk despite taking the lead. The defeat might have been expected, but the pathetic second half showing perfectly encapsulated the amateurish leadership that Anelka had brought to the club. More worrying were his comments afterwards, where he said the team were still not ready for the season and that he needed to find the right tactics and players for each position. It was quite a statement, especially coming when a month into the campaign.
The pantomime continued after the Falkirk game, when John Hollins contacted Hutton to tell him he was leaving the club after just a month alongside the Frenchman. “Hollins phoned me and said: ‘I’m out of here, I can’t work with Anelka‘,” remembered Hutton. “Basically, John would work with the players all week, set out the game plan for the Saturday, get them into the shape that he wanted and then on the Friday, Claude would change his team.
“If Anelka had been smart he would have reverted back to a Director of Football role and let John run the team. Hollins could have turned that team around. When he departed that was it, things just imploded.”
The next defeat, a 0-3 home thrashing from St Mirren, made it Raith’s worst start to a campaign since 1962 – a time when the club finished the season with just two league wins. It was also the worst ever start to a Raith Rovers’ manager’s career. The loss highlighted how far the club had fallen since the end of the previous season. Rovers and St Mirren had battled to avoid relegation just a few months previously, but the financially stricken Paisley club had stuck by boss Gus MacPherson and had signed just one player in Mixu Paatelainen. They were sitting at the top of the league with 17 points from a possible 21; Raith, meanwhile, had brought in a whole new management team and 14 new players, seeing a return of just one point from seven matches.
The St Mirren match would be Anelka’s last in the dug-out. He watched the next match against Queen of the South from the directors’ box, while new assistant manager Sean Dennis took his place in the technical area. Anelka still picked the team and his selections were still as baffling as ever – midfielders Darren Brady and Ryan Maxwell started in defence, while defender Bartholome played in midfield. Rovers fans released a sea of black balloons before the game, and the defeat ended with a protest outside the ground. It was clear the board had to act and Hutton decided to step in.
“The pressure on him at that point was huge,”said Hutton. “I convinced him to move upstairs so that he could work alongside a new manager. We got a load of applications but even at this point, Claude was still mucking about, trying to bring in even more French players and guys from non-league clubs in England for trials.”
Even the selection of a new manager did not go smoothly and Hutton decided at this point that in terms of his own position, enough was enough. “We selected a shortlist of managers and after we conducted the interviews, the majority of the board voted for Terry Christie with a vote of three to two,” he said. “I then received a phone call from a board member who hadn’t even been at the meeting who informed me he wanted to vote for Gordon Dalziel. I said that was okay since that made it three-three and I was the chairman and I had the final say, so it would still be Christie who would be appointed.
“However, there were even more shenanigans and suddenly Dalziel got the job. I decided at that point I was out of there and stepped down. I’d just had enough.”
Dalziel took charge of the Kirkcaldy side midway through October. Anelka decided to leave the club altogether immediately after the new manager’s first match in charge, a 0-2 defeat against Clyde. Afterwards, the Frenchman issued an extraordinary press release where he detailed exactly where he had went wrong at the club:
“Right at the start I knew things were going wrong. I quickly realised that there was more to the game in Scotland than I thought and I also knew my knowledge of the game was not enough to fulfil my overoptimistic plans. I signed players that I thought were of better quality than the others I already had at the club, but I was wrong.
“It has been very hard to listen to the abuse and jeering of the fans but it is understandable. I am the first person to realise they love their club with a passion.”
Hutton wasn’t surprised that Anelka left the club when he did.
“By then, his position at the club had become untenable,” he sighed. “The cash that he’d brought to the club was all gone by October. It had been spent providing accommodation, travelling expenses and all that kind of stuff. The whole thing was a bloody disaster. By that time the board had split up, the chairman had resigned, and we were the bottom of the league. It was a complete shambles. The whole debacle probably put the club back three to four years.”
The change of manager brought no change in fortunes and Rovers would end the season with just 16 points. Dalziel’s reign as boss was also marked by failure – despite clearing out the dead wood, his team ended up finishing seventh in the Second Division the following season. Dalziel’s tenure ended just four games into the 2006-2007 season after a 1-3 home defeat from local rivals Cowdenbeath. Under his successor John McGlynn, Rovers eventually returned to the First Division after winning the Second Division title in 2008-2009 and finally put an end to the turmoil of the previous years.
Anelka’s experience in Kirkcaldy did not put him off management. In 2010, he took charge of American side AC St Louis for their debut season in the USSF Second Division, the professional league immediately below the MLS. The opening match against the Carolina Railhawks was a fine example of his anarchic decision-making – St Louis midfielder Manuel Kante had been chosen in the starting XI but had left his ID card at home. As the team sheet had already been handed in, Anelka would have been forced into making a substitution before the match had even started. Deciding against this, he sent Kante home for his credentials and lined St Louis up for their first ever professional match with just ten men. By the time the player returned, St Louis were two-nil down.
In an example of history repeating itself, Anelka was eventually fired from his position after ten games with St Louis bottom of the league. It was clear that football management was something he just wasn’t suited to.
In 2008, Claude Anelka’s time at Stark’s Park was given the recognition it deserved when he was named by the Guardian in a list of the Ten Worst Managers of All-Time. For a man who failed to win even once in ten matches at Raith Rovers, it was perhaps the least he deserved.