When their team has just won a game with the final kick of the ball, it’s unusual for a set of supporters to leave the ground weighed down by angst, but his was certainly the case after Raith Rovers’ recent 2-1 victory over Greenock Morton. Although Gordon Smith’s back post finish in the 93rd minute was greeted with the hoopla that one might expect, it only briefly allayed the concerns surrounding David McGurn. The 33-year-old goalkeeper had gone down after an innocuous challenge with just ten minutes remaining – at first, it was hoped he had suffered a minor knock, but soon the player was taken from the pitch on a stretcher. When an announcement went over the public address system at full-time asking for one of his family members to report to the office, the celebrations quickly became hushed unease as the fans made their way out onto Pratt Street.
The supporters’ anxiety wasn’t just because of the impact McGurn’s torn Achilles tendon might have on the rest of their season – it was a show of genuine concern for a player who had recently spoken in glowing terms about his affinity towards the club. The quiet Glaswegian is something of a revelation: in the post-Bosman age with players moving from club to club on one-year contracts, he has enjoyed a successful six-year period at Stark’s Park.
McGurn’s journey to Kirkcaldy has been a circuitous one, particularly for a player at this level. He joined John McCormack’s Morton in 2001 from Hillwood U-21s, a distinguished youth team based in Pollok, but didn’t make his debut until 2004 (by which point McCormack had been replaced by Jim McInally). Despite a seven-year spell at Cappielow, McGurn only made 79 appearances, with Lee Robinson, Paul Mathers and Craig Coyle often preferred ahead of him. During his time with Morton, he took up a part-time position lecturing at Cardonald College. When a full-time role at the institution emerged, McGurn found himself at an impasse: remain at the club, or develop his career in education.
Raith Rovers, meanwhile, needed a new ‘keeper. John McGlynn’s side had been defeated in a second consecutive Division Two play-off semi-final, this time to Airdrie United, and the manager had begun to reshape his squad almost immediately, releasing Chris Fahey, Michael Brown and Kieron Renton.
This serendipitous moment led to McGurn agreeing a part-time contract with Rovers in the summer of 2008. He was joined by the experienced Gary O’Connor, who had moved from Berwick Rangers, and at first McGlynn seemed unsure of his number 1 for the upcoming 2008-09 campaign. Pre-season friendlies didn’t provide too many clues: O’Connor started the 1-0 win over Stenhousemuir; McGurn, meanwhile, impressed in a 0-0 draw with Hibernian and again in a narrow 1-2 defeat to UEFA Cup finalists Rangers.
It was McGurn who was preferred for the first competitive match of the season, a 0-0 draw at Ayr United. But it was the following game, a League Cup tie with Albion Rovers, that hinted at what was to come: the goalkeeper kept a second clean sheet and saved two penalties in the resultant to shoot-out to help his team progress to the second round.
These wouldn’t be the only clean sheets McGurn would keep that season – 2008-09 would be a record-breaking year for the club. Playing behind a back four of Craig Wilson, Laurie Ellis, Mark Campbell and Marvin Andrews, McGurn recorded 17 league shut-outs (Rovers’ best since 1992-93’s 18, albeit that total came in a 44game campaign) and conceded 27 goals (equalling 1975-76’s record total, a season played over only 26 games).
The Second Division championship was secured on the penultimate game of the campaign at a 1-0 win against Queen’s Park. Speaking after the match at Hampden, McGurn stated his pride at his team’s defensive record over the season. He had little chance of letting it get to his head, however, when midfielder Mark Ferry remarked, “Aye, but he’s only had to make about three saves all season.”
The goalkeeper certainly had a lot more to do the next year as Rovers acclimatised to a higher level. McGurn was excellent throughout their return to the First Division and played a critical role in helping the club establish themselves as a credible force (arguably, no-one else has done more to maintain their second tier status than the ‘keeper). On one occasion, he was forced into making three saves in a matter of seconds against Ayr United. Steve Bowey, who struck the third effort, had already wheeled away in celebration before realising McGurn had contorted his body to keep it out.
When asked about his personal favourite, McGurn believes his strong block in a 2-0 win at Dunfermline Athletic from the same campaign was his best. Graham Bayne’s header looked assured until the goalkeeper threw himself at the ball to tip it around the post. The stop proved crucial; almost immediately, Rovers charged upfield and scored their second, decisive goal.
During the nineties, it was often said that Andy Goram was worth ten to 15 points to Rangers. By extending the same logic to Raith Rovers, a team more likely to grind out slender victories or cling onto draws, then McGurn must be worth many more. He is rarely caught out of position and is adept at collecting high balls and commanding his area (despite his relatively short stature). His greatest strength, however, is his shot stopping – he is instinctive, reflexive and agile and his ability to block the unlikeliest of shots has earned him the nickname “The Witch”. Such is his prowess, he has even been compared to great Rovers ‘keepers of the past including the great Murray McDermott, who played throughout the seventies and eighties. McGurn could quite easily step into St Jude’s shoes if someone ever decided a new patron saint of lost causes.
McGurn made his 200th appearance earlier this season, although the milestone should have been surpassed at some point 12 months ago. He was dropped for the second half of the 2010-11 campaign in favour of Andy McNeil, a decision many supporters found difficult to reconcile with. There were a number of conspiracy theories at the time: had he signed a pre-contract agreement with Dunfermline? Was there a fall out with John McGlynn? Neither were the case; the manager simply felt that McNeil was the better of the two at the time.
Replacing the goalkeepers was not a successful manoeuvre. McNeil played poorly and his mistakes were magnified in McGurn’s absence. McGurn, obviously disappointed at not playing, held his counsel on the matter, only stating his frustration that his team came so close to promotion that season before falling short. It was an issue that the Rovers support had far more umbrage with than the goalkeeper did, publically at least.
The current campaign has started well for both player and club, with Rovers sitting in second place in the Championship. McGurn was the man of the match in the 1-0 win at Queen of the South, while his saves against Dundee and Hamilton Academical (where his side were reduced to ten men) helped secure important points. It’s a disheartening irony that his injury – which is expected to sideline him for several months – will prevent him from participating in arguably the best team Rovers have assembled during his six seasons at the club.
How will it affect his team’s title aspirations? The answer lies with McGurn’s understudy, 21-year-old Ross Laidlaw. Laidlaw is highly regarded at Stark’s Park and had already deputised last season, keeping three clean sheets in ten games (a similar ratio to McGurn, who kept eight in 27, including the match he was substituted in). Although he was rarely tested in last week’s 1-0 win over Livingston, Laidlaw has already shown he has the attributes to forge a successful career. How he composes himself on more vexing afternoons could be crucial to his team’s season.
Everyone connected with Raith Rovers will be wishing McGurn a quick recovery. In an era where most clubs’ best players can only be seen in black and white footage or in sepia photographs, it is a pleasure and a privilege to see one playing in the flesh each week. If Rovers are able to sustain their excellent form in his absence, then perhaps the goalkeeper might just get a crack at the Premiership, a level which his talent deserves.