Throughout their 129-year history, Raith Rovers have experienced highs, lows and just about every other more prosaic point in-between. Managers such as James Henry Logan and Alexander Archibald led Rovers to great success over a period of years in the early 20th century, while Bert Herdman continued the tradition across the forties and fifties. Even more recently, Frank Connor, Jimmy Nicholl and John McGlynn managed to drag the club up by its boot straps.
Not all of these men were, or are, great managers – some of them might have just been in the right place at the right time. However, each of them had something in common: due to their implicit knowledge of the Scottish game, they knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for.
The same could not be said for Claude Anelka, who took charge of the Starks Park club in the summer 2004.
The 2003-04 season had been a traumatic experience for Raith Rovers. Promoted to the second tier as Division Two champions, Antonio Calderon’s side immediately continued their outstanding form, and the club took 11 points from the first six games, clambering into second place. Their next match, a 1-7 home defeat by Ross County, was as unexpected as it was unsettling. Rovers went on to record two wins from their following 17 games, a run which saw some fans calling for the head of the Spaniard. A late rally in the season’s closing matches eventually saw the club scrape together enough points to retain the First Division status above the relegated Brechin City and Ayr United.
Safety had been guaranteed after the penultimate game of the season, a drab 1-1 home draw with Brechin, but it wasn’t the score-line which was the main talking point after the match – it was the appearance of Claude Anelka in the directors’ box.
Over the course of the next few days, it was revealed that Anelka – through his financial backers – was looking to invest approximately £180,000 into the club, with the ultimate aim of becoming its Director of Football. It was an incredible revelation, and one which kept the club on the back pages for several days. Outwardly, the board appeared to unanimously support the idea of bringing in a man who was essentially an agent and part-time DJ, but chairman Turnbull Hutton revealed that not everyone was in agreement.
“We were made aware of Claude’s eagerness to get involved by Willie McKay, an agent who was known to us at the time through deals that we’d done with him,” explained Hutton. “The board was evenly split on whether he should come or not. There was a lot of pressure put on the board by certain people who were very keen to bring him in, and they eventually persuaded enough of the board members to back them up for Anelka to come.”
Hutton himself was one of those who needed some persuasion.
“I didn’t see what he was bringing to the party exactly, other than the obvious – investing into a First Division football club, which at the time, no-one else was willing to do,” he continued. “Anelka put around £180,000 into the club and that was the main attraction to it – we were bringing in investment.”
Much like the board of directors, supporters were unsure of the new direction the club was heading in. The situation was exacerbated when Calderon announced he was to leave at the end of the season. His final match, a 0-1 defeat at Ayr United, was watched by around 200 travelling fans who chanted the manager’s name and held up a banner which read: Adios y Gracias, Antonio. It was a sad and unfitting end to the career of a man whose popularity stemmed not just from leading the club to the Second Division title, but also from his affable and humble nature. It said a lot about Calderon as a man that he refused to criticise the decision to bring Anelka to the club, insisting that the cash sums involved were far too much to turn down. Tellingly, he made it clear that this was not a set of circumstances that he was prepared to work under.
Some supporters, already suspicious of Anelka’s involvement with the club, were bristling with indignation when it was revealed he would take charge of all first team affairs. Conspiracy theorists suggested that Anelka had fully intended to manage a side full of players who could then be sold on, possibly for his own profit. However, Hutton insisted that this was never the idea.
“The plan that was laid out was for him to assume a Director of Football role and he would work alongside the manager, but have the final say on which players would be brought to the club, ” Hutton revealed. “He was adamant that the players he knew were good enough, which convinced him that we would win the First Division.
Building on the previous season’s eighth-place finish would have probably been satisfactory for most supporters. A title win seemed outlandish considering the club had a man in charge whose footballing credentials amounted to being the brother of a talented French international, but Anelka claimed that the people of Kirkcaldy could expect to be treated to Arsenal-esque performances from their local team. Hutton admitted that at this point he was becoming even more anxious about the situation.
“Claude talked about us becoming the third force in Scottish football, which I’ll admit worried me at the time,” he said. “This, on top of Calderon leaving and Anelka then deciding he could take control of the team, had alarm bells going off even louder at that point.”
By the end of May, Hutton looked to ease the worries of a fanbase understandably sceptical of the appointment. In an interview in the Fife Free Press, he stated he understood the decision would look foolish if it did not go according to plan, but that the cash injection would stabilise the club. He also revealed that if it did go wrong, the club could still technically dispense with Anelka, pointing out that if his backers wanted their money back, they would be unable to claim it for a period of five years.
In June 2004, Anelka’s French revolution began as a raft of players arrived from across the Channel. Hamed Sacko and Rudy Pounosaamy joined from FC Capricorne; Amar Benaissa was recruited from Choisy Le Roi; and Karim Khir was signed from from Lausanne Sport. In addition, Mehdi Eloujdi came from US Ivry; Moussa Qatarra joined from AS Orly; and free agents Maurice Mendy, Jules Tchimbakala and Herve Ebanda also signed on.
This was not the end of the influx, and players began to arrive from Slovakia, apparently recommended by former Celtic midfielder Lubomir Moravcik. Midfielder Perter Ocovan joined from Nitra, while compatriot Tomas Hajovsky was also drafted in.
The remarkable turnover of players did little to entice the fans to buy up season tickets. News that Anelka and his backers had already approached (and been knocked back by) English sides QPR and Barnet did little to convince the Rovers support that the Frenchman’s appointment was a correct one. In an interview with the local press just before the first of the pre-season friendly matches, Anelka made another attempt to assuage concerns with a Q+A session. In general, he came across reasonably well but towards the end of the interview, he gave an answer which revealed exactly how much he knew about Scottish football. Responding to a claim that the standard of player he had brought to the club were arriving from the equivalent of the French non-league, Anelka stated:
“In France the leagues are stronger. You can’t compare the divisions in Scotland to those in France because there is much better quality over there. The First Division in Scotland can be compared to the Fifth Division in France.”
By extending his argument, Anelka presumably felt that SPL clubs were no better than teams from the French second, third or perhaps even fourth tier. If he had suggested that Ligue 1 had more strength in-depth than Scotland then no-one could have argued with him, but his disregard of the game in this country only strengthened any implication that he was out his depth.
Newly-appointed club spokesman Keith Lusack revealed to the press that the club were in negotiations with Sky about the possibility of filming a season-long, fly-on-the-wall documentary charting the upcoming season. The planned film eventually fell through, which, considering what was about to unfold, was probably to Anelka’s benefit.