Friday night lights await Raith Rovers this weekend as they go #roaringback to one of Scottish football's most loved venues when they face Ayr United at Somerset Park. The clubs last met during the infamous 2017/18 season where an intense title battle saw the Honest Men deservedly take the title on the final day after Raith came agonisingly close to stealing the league on the final day with Lewis Vaughan hitting the post in the final minute of the final match.
From that team, Michael Moffat, Craig Moore (who unfortunately suffered another cruciate injury), Ellis Hare-Reid and Luke McCowan are the only survivors. Ayr were very much a team on the up after that season and it wasn't long before clubs were circling to poach the talent they had accrued. Many of their squad from that season were signed by clubs in higher leagues: Lawrence Shankland has understandably grabbed most of the attention since leaving but others like Michael Rose (Coventry), Alan Forrest and Robbie Crawford (Livingston) deserve mentions having all done well at their new clubs.
Manager Ian McCall left for Partick Thistle and was subsequently replaced by veteran midfielder and Championship Manager 01/02 hero Mark Kerr. Both McCall and Kerr have assembled a squad which have plenty of attacking threats: Bruce Anderson and Innes Cameron arrived on loan from Aberdeen and Kilmarnock respectively. Tom Walsh and Joe Chalmers have been brought in to the midfield from Caley and Ross County. Andy Murdoch has been a mainstay with Ayr's team over the last few seasons having left Greenock Morton.
Defensively, Jordan Houston and Aaron Muirhead have been deployed as full backs with Jack Baird and Sam Roscoe at the heart of defence. They have been accompanied by Finnish keeper Viljami Sinisalo who has arrived from Aston Villa on loan. Two former Rovers are in the ranks for Ayr: Dario Zanatta spent the 17/18 season on loan from Hearts and divided opinion among the Rovers support. Michael Miller is also a familiar face having been part of the title winning team last season - Kerr has preferred to utilise Miller as a holding midfielder rather than as a right back.
At the heart of Ayr's team is Luke McCowan. The 23 year old operates between the midfield and the front line and was a key player in their win at Recreation Park last weekend. McCowan will no doubt be attracting the attention of clubs from the Scottish top flight and beyond. He won't have done any harm by scoring and while also playing a key role in Ayr's second goal with a deft back-heel to Aaron Muirhead.
Ayr haven't conceded a goal on league duty since their 3-2 loss away to Morton
on Halloween (admittedly, this is largely due to Betfred Cup games taking up most of November). This was also their last defeat in the league. The game will represent a tough test at a venue where Raith have struggled in recent years. Their last win at Somerset Park came under Gary Locke with Ross Matthews scoring his first goal for the club before Ross Callachan added a second.
Saturday's performance against Dunfermline will have re-assured Rovers fans that they should have reason for optimism this season. The last time the teams met, Barry Smith had Rovers playing an uninspiring style of football compared to Ayr's swashbuckling attacking brand which saw them score over 100 goals.
Regan Hendry was in his first spell at the club and (in hindsight) was criminally under-utilised until the later stages of that season. Lewis Vaughan was preferred out wide rather than up top with the manager failing to get the best from a strike partnership which had scored 30 goals each the season before. Smith's tenure really started to look doomed following the last outing at Somerset Park where he played a 4-5-1 up until they were 3-0 down in a complete whitewash of a game.
This time around, Rovers have a different dynamic in their team: their footballing identity is more based around attacking football and collecting the ball from the defence as opposed to the stodgy, direct and often grim football of Smith. As ever, the likes of Tait and Hendry will be key. With the game being on TV, you can expect a segment on the rise of the previously unknown Manny Duku from the pundits. Most Rovers fans know the midfield duo will be critical to any success and will be hoping they can deliver for the Dutch forward yet again. The match will also hopefully see the return of John McGlynn to the dugout following a prolonged absence after he underwent a minor operation.
Given the similar stature of both clubs, games against Ayr have developed into almost a minor rivalry in recent years. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to compare them to the Ayrshire or Fife Derbies but the fans on social media have enjoyed winding each other up. Rovers fans will still have fond memories of the likes of the promotion under Frank Connor in 86/87, the title win of 08/09, McGurn's triple save and Casalinuovo's volley at Stark's Park. Hopefully, there will be many more memories to come from the fixture.
The game will be live on BBC Scotland from 19:30 on Friday evening. As ever, we contacted an opposition fan to chat about the game and their time following their club. This week we've contacted Derek 'Itzdrk' Holland of the Ayr podcast 'The Super' to ask a few questions about the Honest Men:
What are your first memories of Somerset Park? My first match - Ayr United 5-0 Berwick Rangers. I was up in the stand, Ayr had an all black kit on and everything seemed magical. I started going regularly the following season and we won the league. You could see the floodlights from Troon beach and that was always nice to see, unfortunately they have been replaced now.
Luke McCowan looked a standout in your highlights against Alloa: how important has he been over the last year or so? Luke has been great since he came into the team, I remember spotting him playing for the reserves a few years ago when j watched them a few times and he was more central in midfield, Ian McCall brought him in initially for some end of season games in the build up to the playoffs, unfortunately for the team that resting up didn't work out but he got some goals and one in the away leg at Inverness as he was playing as a striker.
When we came back for the following season with a new formation he was out on the right in a sort of inside forward role, looking for him to cut in with his left foot and create or shoot and started the season on fire scoring a good amount of goals (no stats sorry), as Mark Kerr came in they he wanted something a little more from him and his form initially suffered but hasn't dipped since recovering. He's a threat throughout matches and is massive for us.
Dario Zanatta and Michael Miller both spent a season each at Stark's Park: What have both players been like so far? Dario we haven't seen a lot of so far but it would be fair to say he hasn't made the most of the chances he has been given, there is a good player there as we all know, it's up to Mark Kerr to work out how to get that on show on the pitch, he was, to his credit, very good when he came on against Albion Rovers.
Michael has started his Ayr career off well, he's playing a different role to when he was at Rovers, when he's been involved it's been when we go 4-3-3 and he is the holding midfielder, he did an incredible job of shutting down Charlie Adams in the Dundee match and looks a handful at set pieces, a very useful player to have in the squad.
How has Mark Kerr done since replacing Ian McCall? Has Ayr's style of play changed much? The team is very different under Kerr, in my opinion for the better, under McCall largely we had a style of play and that was us for the season where under Kerr everything is in preparation for the next opponent, it looks like for the most part that will be based around a 4231 this season with some 433 which we have changed up to. I think Kerr will go on to be a good Scottish manager as he must've learned so much in his first 12 months.
Michael Moffat is still going strong at the age of 35 and recently scored his 100th goal for the club. Is he the closest Ayr have to a modern legend? Absolutely, and he seems to get better all the time, there was a move on Saturday you will see on our highlights where unfortunately the goal it deserves at the end isn't there but he sells the whole defence on going one way and takes it another, really fitting of the Moff that came back from Dunfermline rather than the Moff who was at Ayr initially. Me and my group of friends got masks of his printed and wore them for his return from suspension at Stenhousemuir back in 2014:
I forgot covid protocols briefly and jumped out my seat at Somerset when he got the 100th nearly knocking my laptop over the edge at the front of the stand! What are your best and worst moments in games against Raith? I always remember the guy playing the bugle at Starks Park around the kind of era you had Nacho Novo, that was we, different.
Recency bias prevails though and the last 3 matches at Somerset Park are all very memorable, Ryan Stevenson in nets and we were scared to shoot and the two dominant 3-0 wins in League One, the matches at Starks Park were more fitting of a title race, tight affairs, these two were all too easy big days. Hopefully Friday night is the same.