For the second successive season, the Ramsdens Cup final produced a spectacle that only truly sparked into life in the closing moments. The catalyst to last year’s fireworks was Aaron Muirhead’s explicit head-butt across Chris Higgins’s face; this time around, the bloodied noses of the losers were of a metaphorical nature.
The match between Raith Rovers and Rangers at Easter Road was a bloodless, unimaginative encounter, but that was of little concern to the 3500 or so Langtonians who clapped and cheered the victors throughout. It can be easy to be dismissive of the Ramsdens Cup – it’s often seen as the poor relation when compared to the league competition and the Scottish and League Cups – but to judge it as an irrelevance or to say it doesn’t matter is just plain wrong.
It mattered to the Rovers players and supporters. The celebrations began with Kevin Clancy’s final whistle and, for some, ended in the wee small hours of Monday morning along Kirkcaldy High Street. The history of the club is hardly festooned with cup successes – in 131 years, this was only their fourth cup final appearance – but this, their second victory, was just as magnificent as their League Cup triumph over Celtic 20 years ago.
While the gold streamers erupted behind the players as they lifted the trophy, it seemed remarkable that it was less than a decade ago when there were black balloons swirling around the pitch, released during a league defeat to Queen of the South in protest against Claude Anelka’s dismal tenure. At the time, Raith Rovers were a shambles: Anelka’s grandiose proclamations of becoming Scottish football’s third force through playing attractive, possession-based football proved to be empty and baseless. The manager stockpiled terrible players who turned in terrible performances and reduced the club to a laughing stock.
While Grant Murray and his players deserve immense praise for their cup final victory, credit should also go to John McGlynn, Murray’s predecessor. Before leaving Rovers in to take charge of Heart of Midlothian in the summer of 2012, McGlynn dragged the club back into contention after the disarray of the Anelka era and Gordon Dalziel’s subsequent dire stewardship. His groundwork played a crucial role in the team taking their place on the winners’ podium on Sunday.
It was a match so devoid of action that many were longing for the League Cup final between Aberdeen and Inverness Caledonian Thistle
The match was certainly engrossing enough for both sets of fans, but it failed to offer much interest to the neutral. The first half was a particularly turgid affair – although Rangers saw the majority of the possession, they failed to do anything of note with it. There was a Bilel Mohsni header that went narrowly off target, the defender evading Paul Watson’s attentions to connect with the ball, and a Stevie Smith freekick which Lee Robinson did well to beat away, but these were the rare moments of excitement in a drab 45 minutes. It was a match so devoid of action that many casual observers were left longing for the recent League Cup final between Aberdeen and Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Perhaps the Raith players were overcome with nerves, with the occasion or the boisterous pre-match atmosphere playing a part. They might have been intimidated by their opponents. However, the current Rangers side should be feared by no-one. Ally McCoist might have lavished a small fortune on this group of players but, on Sunday’s evidence anyway, he appears to have built a squad that would more likely just survive rather than thrive in the top tier.
For a team that has a myriad of advantages over their counterparts, it is astonishing that they rely on such a simple, percentage-based approach that involves long balls shelled toward the general direction of Jon Daly’s head. Elsewhere, Mohsni may have helped secure his side’s passage to the Scottish Cup semi-final with his equaliser against Albion Rovers but his performance – overconfident and error-strewn – led to McCoist fielding some awkward questions in the aftermath. A passage of play at the beginning of the second half summed up the centre-back’s afternoon – chasing down Liam Fox’s forward pass, he attempted an acrobatic diving header to knock the ball back to Cammy Bell but instead of finding his goalkeeper, it landed yards away and dribbled out for a corner kick. His only moment of genuine accuracy was his kick at Lee Robinson’s post, booted in frustration after missing a free header with five minutes of normal time remaining.
It would be wrong to single out just Mohsni for criticism – not one Rangers player influenced the match in the manner they would have hoped. Ian Black in particular was eviscerated by Tom English, but to solely focus on the paucity of the Gers’ performance would be doing the winners a disservice.
Lee Robinson matched his heroics of last season’s final and added to his first half saves with a fine block from Lee Wallace at the start of the second. In defence, Paul Watson and the towering Dougie Hill won their individual battles, with the latter going on to win the man of the match award. His was a tremendous performance, made all the more remarkable for the shoulder injury he carried through the game. While Wallace might have been one of Rangers’ better players, he was outshone by full-backs Jason Thomson and Callum Booth (and although their approach play was of a high standard, they faltered in the final third).
Further forward, Kevin Moon, so often a decisive player this term, was excellent and restricted Nicky Law’s efforts in affecting the match, while strikers Calum Elliot and John Baird chased and chased and chased everything and everyone. Gordon Smith, Elliot’s replacement did the same as did Greig Spence, who was introduced at the expense of Joe Cardle as extra-time approached. When the winning goal came, three minutes from time, it encapsulated the whole match – it was forced through a combination of Raith’s doggedness and Rangers’ ineptitude.
Ricky Foster’s clearance was headed back towards the Gers’s goal by Liam Fox, before being gathered by Spence. The striker’s clever flick seemed to flummox Mohsni, who tumbled to the ground. By the time he got to his feet, Lee McCulloch’s wayward clearance had rattled off Foster’s shins and back into Spence’s path. Cammy Bell was able to block his attempt but there was nothing he could do about John Baird’s follow-up, which was hit low underneath the goalkeeper and into the net.
John Baird is the first Rovers player to score a winning goal against Rangers since 1970
Rarely has a Rovers goal been greeted with such fervour. Almost every player, including the substitutes, was involved in the tumult in front of their fans in the Famous Five stand. The goal was a personal triumph for Baird, who had began the season in the hope of making an impact in the Premiership with Partick Thistle after a mixed 2012-13 campaign with Dundee. If the player was disappointed about dropping down a division in January, then the move had been vindicated by Sunday evening – Baird is the first Raith player since Brian Cooper in 1970 to have scored a winning goal against Rangers. (As coincidence would have it, Cooper is now the manager of Ramsdens’ Kirkcaldy branch.)
It was also a triumph for Grant Murray. The Rovers manager has come under pressure from elements of the Rovers’ support, particularly during his side’s abject run between December and March where they won one league game in 15. The board’s decision to stand by Murray, underlined by the Dad’s Army-esque “Don’t Panic!” message on the club website, was not well received at the time, but there he was on Sunday, taking in the acclaim of the fans and his players, who formed a huddle around him and hoisted him into the air.
From here, both teams now move on to face more pressing concerns. Rangers have the chance to go some way to redeeming themselves as they take on Dundee United at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup semi-final, but they must improve immeasurably in every area if they’re to trouble Jackie McNamara’s side. Players of the quality of Nadir Ciftci, Ryan Gauld and Stuart Armstrong will surely tear through such lacklustre opposition.
Raith Rovers’ upcoming fixture against Dumbarton, meanwhile, might be a little prosaic compared to a cup final victory, but three points will go a long way to ensuring the club play Championship football next term. The new season will include, amongst others, Rangers and Heart of Midlothian, and will likely garner as much attention as the Premiership.
For the moment, Raith can bask in the feeling that defeating one of Glasgow’s big two clubs in a cup final brings. There have been innumerable lows over the past decade but Sunday’s victory more than makes up for them and, in some ways, makes the whole damned thing worth it. The diddy clubs don’t really get the chance to revel in glory; when they do, it’s savoured all the more.
The walls inside Stark’s Park will have to go under a little readjustment over the next few weeks. The pictures of the great players and those thrilling moments from yesteryear will have to be rearranged to accommodate this season’s heroes. It might have only been the wee Ramsdens Cup, but for the few thousand fans who turned Leith into a Kirkcaldy enclave on Sunday afternoon, it mattered very much.