Saturday's SPFL Championship fixtures saw Dundee travel to Dumfries to face an out of sorts Queen of the South side. The Doonhamers find themselves in a relegation mire at the moment with pressure mounting on Allan Johnstone: they've only won one league game this season and currently are rooted at the bottom of the table with 4 points. So why is this fixture of interest? Enter cat-LARPing Brexiteer and outspoken 'politician' (he last won an election in 2012) George Galloway who tweeted a photo from the main stand of Palmerston. Fans of all SPFL clubs were confused: why was someone with no obvious links to the club at a game when there's no fans attending?
Galloway, who thrives on trying to keep himself in the spotlight at whatever cost, then turned to social media to suggest he's going to be contributing financially in some shape or form and that fans shouldn't question his benevolence. Supporters ire then was turned to Queen of the South, who put out a statement which effectively said "Sorry you're upset: we followed the rules" with no explanation of why he was allowed into the ground while regular fans are locked out. The whole incident is one which brings the two words to mind which fans should both love and dread in equal measure: banter years.
Over the last decade, there's been numerous clubs in Scottish football who have had 'banter years'. It's undeniable that Rangers from 2012 to 2018 were the magnum opus of banter in football. No club will ever invoke such hilarity from opposition fans who have long suffered hearing about "going for 55". There are a catalogue of incidents which were mocked as their fans underwent 'the journey'. No doubt for the supporters of their club, they'll be praying they can win the league to exact some revenge.
But it isn't always the biggest clubs that come under mockery. It afflicts the smaller clubs too. These periods are often summarised by a failure of decision making at every different level throughout clubs from the boardroom to bootroom. Falkirk's effort saw them relegated under Ray McKinnon and their board escorted out the stadium from fan protests. Greenock Morton's 2013/14 season saw the late Dougie Rae, chairman of their club, slate Garry O'Connor's physique and culminated with a 10-2 humiliation away at Hamilton Academical.
For Raith Rovers, the 2016/17 season firmly fell deeply into banter years territory. The spring of 2016 had seen the club reach new heights in the post-millennium era: manager Ray McKinnon had arrived from Brechin the previous summer and after 6 months of some unconvincing but successful performances, things began to click for his side. The club were playing expansive football and the manager had seemed to get the best out of those he'd brought in.
The club embarked on a run which saw them go toe to toe with the likes of Rangers and Hibs. Under Grant Murray, the club had been stable but never challenged those above. McKinnon transformed the team to promotion playoff hopefuls and on Wednesday 4th May 2016 they reached their peak: loanee Harry Panayiotou rose to meet a header at a corner to give Rovers a lead against the eventual winners of the Scottish Cup. For a brief moment in time, it looked like Rovers might again do the unthinkable.
When the reverse fixture came at Easter Road, any momentum the Kirkcaldy side had was brought to a shuddering halt with two goals in the first ten minutes from John McGinn and Darren McGregor saw Hibs surge into a lead. It was a bridge too far for the visitors. The players walked towards the fans and each party showed their appreciation for what had felt a special season. Trouble was just waiting up the road.
On the night of Panayiotou's goal, Dundee United were relegated to arch-rivals Dundee at Dens Park. They moved quickly to replace Mixu Paatelainen and immediately set about poaching United fan McKinnon from the Rovers. It's arguable that it didn't help that prior to the first leg, there were already media outlets in Tayside stating McKinnon would take the job even if Rovers were promoted.
So with McKinnon departing, the Rovers board convened to look at who to take the club forward. There had already been a wave of positivity regarding the club and they'd made the astute move of offering early bird season ticket deals for fans to buy while they were still in the hunt for promotion. Fans speculated who might go for the role: the popular choice was to try to take Jack Ross from Alloa. Some fans felt Steve Aitken, who had got Dumbarton punching above their weight, might have been a choice. To this day, it's still a subject of myth over who was and wasn't interviewed for the job - some suggest that Ross was turned down in favour of 'stronger candidates'.
On Thursday 19th May 2016, the banter years began with a bang. Fife Free Press correspondent Matthew Elder firstly tweeted at 09:51pm that former Hearts and Kilmarnock manager Gary Locke had been interviewed for the job before confirming later on at 11:04pm that he'd be announced the following day. What followed was a reaction of incredulity at the decision: Locke had seen already seen relegation with Hearts and had taken Kilmarnock backwards as a club: he had a 26% win ratio as a manager. Supporters hammered social media to plead with the club to reconsider what was seen unanimously as a terrible appointment but the club ploughed on.
A press conference was arranged for the following day and Locke was confirmed. Directors pointed to his coaching record and that he'd worked under difficult conditions before. It wasn't long before the signings started to roll in: fellow management candidate Darren Jackson joined as Locke's assistant. In true Locke style, Kevin McHattie was brought having followed him from Hearts to Kilmarnock before. Winger Chris Johnston and goalkeeper Aaron Lennox arrived from Killie and Aberdeen respectively.
Jean Yves M'Voto replaced the outgoing Lewis Toshney who followed McKinnon to Tannadice. Scott Roberts was brought in on loan from Rangers. The first big banter moment of the Locke era came on the 21st July 2016 when the club announced that 37 year old Rudi Skacel was joining the club. A legend in Gorgie, Skacel hadn't played regular football since leaving Dundee United but Locke maintained that he'd still be able to contribute to the cause.
Despite all the negativity, Locke proved doubters like myself wrong initially when the season started. After a group stage elimination in the Betfred Cup, the club started strongly with a 2-0 win down at Somerset Park against Ayr with Ross Matthews and Ross Callachan on the score-sheet. St Mirren were then beaten at Stark's Park in a 3-1 victory with Declan McManus getting a brace between a Ross Callachan goal. Newly promoted Dunfermline visited Stark's Park but were swept aside with Bobby Barr and Mark Stewart netting. This was followed by a 2-2 draw at Tannadice after the visitors had gone 2-0 down: as a doubter I stood in silence as fans around me chanted Gary Locke's name and thought "Had I made a monumental arse of it throwing a strop over this guy earlier in the summer?".
Rovers were brought down to earth with two losses against Falkirk and Queen of the South were offset with a 3-2 win against Dumbarton. A defeat away to Morton was matched with a draw against Hibs and a 4-2 hammering of Falkirk. On the 29th October 2016, Mark Stewart scored a 90th minute winner to put Raith up to 3rd in the table on 20 points. At this point, they'd moved 13 points ahead of Dumbarton and an incredible 16 over St Mirren. Changes were afoot in Paisley with the Buddies opting to replace manager Alex Rae with Jack Ross.
It's at this point, the banter years started to gain a bit of momentum for Rovers. The early signs were there. Robbie Crawford arrived at the club on the 4th November following his release from Rangers and lasted until he was released on the 23rd December appearing for less than 10 minutes. By this point they were 5 games without a win but still comfortably ahead of the relegation zone. Rovers went to Easter Road on Christmas Eve and left with a 1-1 draw which was most memorable for Rudi Skacel avoiding a red card and making a 5-1 gesture to the Hibs fan: it would be the most memorable point of his Rovers career.
The draws began to turn to losses as any early season confidence evaporated. Rovers then decided to avoid the "new year new me" mantra of the Instagram age. Dunfermline came to Stark's Park and brushed the home side away with a 2-0 win. The Rovers were in free fall but still had a bit of distance from 9th place (6 points) or even St Mirren who were rooted to the bottom (13 points). 2017 started with the most bizarre transfer window since Claude Anelka had strolled up (or down) Pratt Street in 2004.
Firstly, 32 year old veteran Ryan Stevenson was brought in from Dumbarton having been released by Dumbarton. Later that evening, I received a DM from a Dumbarton fan on Pie and Bovril to give me the heads up on one of the most bat-shit mental decisions in the club's history: the message summed it up:
"I'm reliably informed that a Vaughan loan deal was being worked on tonight and he's expected to sign tomorrow. I honestly can't believe we've been able to shift Stevo and get him in return. Locke must be fucking insane.
Probably not what you wanted to read, so sorry about that."
21 year old Lewis Vaughan was seen as one of the brightest talents at the club but hadn't been favoured by Locke. Rovers were 4 points ahead of the Sons but somehow it was felt that the correct decision would be to loan Vaughan out to our league rivals. It was met with huge concern.
By this point, the fans had firmly turned on Locke and the board of directors. As a distraction, the club had draw Hearts in the Scottish Cup: they offered to mark the occasion with a special hospitality package where fans could have get the usual trappings at the club but also attend a Q&A session with Locke and Skacel. Fans were incensed as it came across as a clear attempt to make money off those fans who attend games more often in Gorgie than Kirkcaldy.
The board had already come under scrutiny earlier in the season with a deal which saw another top youth prospect, David Bates, go on loan to Rangers with Jordan Thompson replacing him. With the loan deal ending in January, manager Gary Locke took to the national press to confirm that the club would get very limited compensation as the transfer was turned to a permanent arrangement on the condition that it would be supplemented by loans for Scott Roberts (a player who had failed to make any impact in his initial spell) and Ryan Hardie.
CEO Eric Drysdale released a statement on the 17th January confirming that they wouldn't stand in Batesey's way. Drysdale would go on to say that the transfer had been leaked to come across in a negative manner and that the deal would be a good one for the club. He then proceeded to attack the Rovers support for failing to back the youth development scheme set up in the Summer before praising Locke's willingness to co-operate with the club.
Defeats to Falkirk, Morton, Dumbarton and Dundee United meant that pressure ramped up. Fans began to take to social media to tell the club that they'd not return while Locke was in charge. On 7th February, Gary Locke's tenure ended with a 1-0 defeat to Morton. Prior to the game, Locke had made the players aware that the match was very much last chance saloon. Locke's tenure had felt doomed from the start - the players have tended to come across unanimously as enjoying his coaching style and being disappointed they didn't turn things around.
If Locke's appointment was met with complete distain, then his replacement had the polar opposite. John 'Yogi' Hughes had taken Caley Thistle to the Scottish Cup in 2015 and had been known for always getting his teams to play out from the back. Fans were delighted to have such an experienced manager at the helm and it looked like a corner had been turned. Not everyone was convinced though: winger Bobby Barr had previously had dealings with Hughes at Livingston and things had ended on difficult terms.
In Yogi's first match, Ryan Stevenson cracked in a half volley to give the hosts a second half lead before Jason Cummings curled in a fine free kick to level the game. At this point, the gap between Raith and the bottom two had eroded to a 2 point advantage over 9th place Ayr, and 12 over St Mirren.
A 2-1 defeat at Palmerston to Queen of the South then set the scene for one of the most farcical incidents in Rovers history. 30 minutes into the match, goalkeeper Connor Brennan picked up an injury. He continued on to play the rest of the game but Rovers were presented with a problem. Their number 1 Kevin Cuthbert had torn a groin muscle at Dundee United earlier in the season and they'd failed to replace him.
A visit to Somerset Park loomed the following Tuesday. The warm summer afternoon where a Locke side inspired by Callachan, Matthews and Vaughan ran out comfortable winners felt like eons ago. Fans would look on social media during the Sunday and Monday to check to see who the replacement keeper would be. By Monday night, people were really worrying: we're cutting it a bit fine.
Tuesday came and the hours whittled away. At my work, as the day disappeared I started to tell any colleagues who were interested in football to fill their boots: Raith Rovers football club would be fielding an outfield player in goals for the match. Twitter then started to pick up on this. LadBible Accumulator type accounts diverted their attention onto the matter. Logan Bailly had been lined up to join but refused to come. The BBC sent Kenny Crawford down to follow the match simply based on the unique situation.
So it was left to Ryan Stevenson, our replacement for our most talented youngster, who donned a pair of Cammy Bell's gloves which had been in the boot of Ryan Hardie's car and took to the field. Rovers lost the match 1-0 and CEO Eric Drysdale was interviewed for the club website where he bemoaned the situation and blasting the SPFL's decision to proceed with the game.
It was peak banter years. It's not uncommon to see outfield players have to take their place if a keeper get injured. But to play one for the full 90 minutes was unheard of. Additionally, the situation saw the SPFL turn around and insist that Rovers had options available to them but failed to act.
In the wake of the incident, Ryan Stevenson would leave the club and spend time away from the game. Stevenson deserves immense credit for how he handled the situation that night: he is a player who has made no secret of his difficulties in the past and it was brilliant to see him looking lively at Somerset during the BBC coverage of our recent league game.
The club eventually managed to bring in a replacement for Brennan in Slovakian stopper Pavol Penksa. The new keeper made his debut as Rovers won their first match since October when they beat St Mirren at home. Jack Ross's side had been gaining momentum but the result looked like it had given some breathing space: Raith sat in 7th place and were 9 points ahead of bottom and 4 ahead of the relegation playoffs. Lewis Vaughan's Dumbarton sat in 8th place, 2 behind the Kirkcaldy side.
A 4-0 drubbing away to Dumbarton saw the Sons leapfrog Rovers. Queen of the South visited Stark's Park and left with a controversial point with Stephen Dobbie's 'ghost free kick' being adjudged to have crossed the line:
For every win, Rovers were being matched by the teams about them. The game against the Doonhamers was indicative of how things always seem to go against you when you're down on your luck.
There were back to back away defeats to Falkirk and Dunfermline. With 4 games to go, Morton came to Kirkcaldy and Rovers were able to pick up a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Craig Barr and Ross Matthews. The result put them in 7th place in the league - one ahead of St Mirren and Dumbarton, and four ahead of Ayr who were rooted to the bottom of the league.
At this point, it was clear how much of a disaster Lewis Vaughan's loan deal had been. Between October and April, Raith managed two goals away from home. In the same period, Lewis Vaughan had scored as many for his new club who were looking increasingly like they might survive with thanks to his performances.
The final three league games saw Rovers face Hibs at Easter Road, St Mirren in Paisley and Ayr in Kirkcaldy. Hibs had already secured the title at this point and many Buddies were unhappy that they might field a weakened team of fringe players and youths. While Hibs did field a weakened side that night, a lot of players were playing for contracts and trying to impress Neil Lennon. And if ever there was a player to score goals against Raith Rovers it would be James Keatings and he didn't disappoint as his double helped Hibs to a 3-2 victory with a last minute goal.
Rovers then faced the worst possible opponents at the worst time. St Mirren had become a juggernaut and on 29th April 2017 came one of the most one-sided games I've ever seen. Inspired by a trio of Stevie Mallan, Lewis Morgan and Kyle Magennis the Saints ran riot over the Rovers. Jack Ross had his team set up in a manner where they were playing free-flowing, aggressive football. Yogi Hughes never left his dugout until half time.
Full time arrived at St Mirren had leapfrogged Rovers into 7th. To make matters worse, Dumbarton went to Tannadice and walked away with a respectable 2-2 draw which meant they were all but mathematically safe. Their equaliser was scored by Lewis Vaughan: the worst fears of Raith fans were being realised as it became more and more apparent that they could be relegated by their own player.
Sometimes, you don't realise the damage of things until you look back. After the St Mirren game, I wasn't really in a mood to look at Yogi's take on the game. But social media will always draw your attention if you're not focused on what's going on in Scottish football. Galloway's exploits in Dumfries are a perfect example of this.
Fans had suggested prior to the St Mirren game Yogi no longer seemed to be concerned about the Rovers. He only seemed bothered about his reputation. Our board had denied him the chance to speak to Motherwell and he came across as being unwilling to shoulder any of the blame for the situation.
So the post-match interview at St Mirren Park will go down in infamy. PLZ Soccer's 4 minute chat with Yogi is hugely illuminating. He initially apologised to the fans before then blaming modern society for the lack of character in his players or a failure to 'Take one in the dish, like you do'. He completely absolved himself of any blame in a defeat where he didn't make any changes.
Almost immediately, Twitter was alight with some fans saying it was great to see a manager talking about home truths. But the reality was that Hughes failed to take any responsibility. It was just one of several interviews where it came across as an attempt to maintain personality. He followed it up with a bizarre interview for STV news prior to the final league game against Ayr where he claimed he'd leave kitman Simon Pollock to take the team talk and mentioned that if Rovers were relegated that the Rovers fan would be forced to go back to working on the railways. Pollock didn't take the team talk and is still with the club to this day. It was just another chronicle in a memorable season
So the final day rolled around and Rovers needed a miracle with St Mirren facing Hibs at Easter Road. Opponents Ayr weren't completely out albeit it would've required a significant goal swing. Normally this wouldn't be an issue, but goalkeeper Pavol Penksa opened the game by attempting to clear a high ball and knocking out Craig Moore with a flying knee. He was immediately sent off and never seen again at Stark's Park.
So ten man Raith had it all to do and John Hughes would see how tough their characters were. Jonny Court gave Rovers the lead before Ross Docherty equalised for the Honest Men. Ayr then missed a chance to go ahead from the spot as Rovers saw Hibs go ahead at Easter Road. St Mirren shortly equalised as fans kept an eye on smartphone updates. The game ended with Declan McManus netting a late winner for Raith: the end result was the same - St Mirren had pulled off the great escape and the playoffs beckoned. The club would host their player of the year dance that evening: John Hughes didn't attend and Bobby Barr won player's player of the year.
In previous years, the playoffs had always brought fear into Rovers fans. They'd been comfortably beaten twice before by Stirling Albion and Airdrie in previous attempts. Brechin City were the opponents in the semi-final and had lost more games than they'd won in the league campaign. A 1-1 draw was played out midweek at the Glebe meaning Rovers had to do the job in the second leg at Stark's Park.
After a goalless first half, the game exploded into life on the 50th minute: centre half Jean Yves M'voto, who was voted player of the year, played a short back pass to Connor Brennan. It was a mistake which characterised his performances in the final few games and it was pounced on by Ross Caldwell who gave the visitors the lead.
After scoring an equaliser, the French centre half then failed to handle a simple header - the one thing he'd been consistently good at - allowing Alan Trouten to nip in and put Brechin ahead. Relegation looked inevitable until Declan McManus scored a stoppage time equaliser. Rovers had been given a temporary reprieve.
Ryan Hardie gave Rovers the lead in injury time as they started to dominate the game. Bobby Barr in particular was proving a real menace to the Brechin defence. But with 5 minutes left on the clock, disaster struck. Liam Watt powered in an unstoppable free kick into the postage stamp.
In the resulting penalty shoot out, Rovers initially looked like they might sneak through after taking 2-1 lead. Misses from Barr, Hardie and Scott Robertson saw them drop out of the Championship for the first time since 2009 to a team who would go on to fail to win a league game the following season. It was the coup de grace of the banter year.
At full time, the atmosphere in the stands was one disbelief. It was a stark reminder of how much football can change in a year. In 374 days Raith had gone from a dream of potential top flight football to exile in the third tier. Rumours circulated after the game that everything from heated discussions to fights had taken place between Hughes and Kevin Cuthbert. The board would release a statement saying Hughes had left the post concluding a thoroughly underwhelming time. It would be over 3 years until his next management job.
The damage from the 2016/17 season had lasting reverberations for Rovers. It would take three attempts to get the club back to the Championship. The period was a lesson in communication for boardrooms across the country: fans had become frustrated by the lack of clarity and direction at the club, especially in the latter half of the season. Decisions seemed to be taken on a wholly financial basis rather than from a footballing perspective. Rovers ultimately were undone by their own decisions not to pursue someone like Jack Ross and the incredible move to loan Lewis Vaughan to our rivals.
But the banter years will always have a place for us fans. Football would be frankly terrible if you had everything your way. Schadenfreude is very much alive and well within Scottish football and we have some incredibly self deprecating fans: at the 5-0 drubbing away to St Mirren our fans stood and sung "You're nothing special, we lose every week" prompting laughter and applause in the home end.
Throughout this period, there were a lot of characters involved in the club. At the time, I've probably criticised a lot of people on social media: some fairly, some harshly. It's clear the club took lessons from the season to heart - the board has changed members and appears to operate with more transparency. The club is marketed a lot better now with a far stronger presence.
While nobody really wants to wish any particular club harm, I'll be first in line to enjoy it if our counterparts in Dumfries do go through banter years. Football fans have a long memory and I've not forgotten that ghost goal...