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Plus ça Change: A summer summary of Raith Rovers and the importance of optimism



Dario Zanatta in league cup action against Alloa


At the time of writing this, Raith Rovers have just recorded their biggest cup shock since they beat Rangers in Scottish Cup away to Ibrox. Despite having gone through the League Cup group stages without conceding a goal, Stephen Glass's Aberdeen looked formidable opponents for the Kirkcaldy side who had suffered a mini-slump in the league.


The reward for the win is an away tie to Parkhead to face a Celtic side who are in the midst of a rebuilding job under Ange Postecoglou. While the win against the Dons was a surprise, John McGlynn's side never reneged on their willingness to try to get the ball down and play in the face of a high press. Rovers themselves have had a bit of a restructuring in the summer and yet McGlynnball still seemingly prevails.


The last entry I made to Tadefromtwoyards concerning league business was immediately after the 5-1 demolition of Dunfermline. Following on from that match, Rovers would exit the Scottish Cup with a hard fought game away to Livingston as future loanee Matej Poplatnik would score the winning goal in extra time. Having run Dundee close, the Dark Blues ultimately would snatch second place on the final day (it should be noted the gulf in resources between the two sides). The playoffs beckoned and after a 0-0 draw at East End Park, Rovers eliminated our neighbours from along the A92 courtesy of goals from Lewis Vaughan and Gozie Ugwu.


Going toe to toe against Dundee was no mean feat given that they'd signed four Championship winners throughout the course of the season. The first leg saw the Dees race in to a 3-0 lead in a controversial fashion given Reghan Tumilty had a perfectly good goal ruled out just before the interval. Lewis Vaughan's solitary strike unfortunately saw the season end at Dens Park as James McPake's team would progress to eliminate Kilmarnock.


There was certainly a feeling of a missed opportunity: Rovers had enjoyed one of their most successful seasons since the glory days of the mid 90s. The only negative was that at no point were fans allowed to show their appreciation to some of the most scintillating football you could hope to see at this level. The plaudits from the media were well deserved for McGlynn and Smith who had built a team where you felt no task was too big.


As ever, the summer saw the changes ring at Stark's Park. Throughout final third of the 20/21 season, McGlynn had been busy building up pre-contract agreements to bolster to his squad: even before the end of the season Christophe Berra, Dario Zanatta, James Keatings and Tom Lang had all agreed to join. They were joined in the summer by the returning Aidan Connolly along with new additions in Liam Dick, Blaise Riley-Snow. Poplatnik, Ethon Varian and Kai Fotheringham supplemented the squad on loan deals. Youth deals were also agreed for Kieran Mitchell and Greig Young who both impressed in pre-season friendlies.


There was also a lengthy list of departures from the club. The pick of the bunch was Regan Hendry who secured a move down to Forest Green Rovers in the English League 2- it was of little surprise that there was a full article posted to the Raith website to show appreciation to the talents of a truly special player. There's already talk of some Rovers fans making the trip to Carlisle when the other Rovers make a trip north. Hendry already looks to be quickly turning into a fans favourite with a goal and an assist in three competitive games.


Aside from this, both Daniel Armstrong and Kieran MacDonald would leave the club. Armstrong's departure to Kilmarnock came somewhat as a surprise given he'd been vocal post-match against Alloa about how much he was enjoying his time at the club. MacDonald left in more unfortunate circumstances - with the club moving to full time, no compromise could be reached with the left back to allow him to remain at the club. To compound the misery of our fans, he'd go on to play a focal role for Hamilton in their visit to Stark's (more on that later).


Club legend David McGurn moved to Cowdenbeath while Fernandy Mendy joined former Kelty Hearts boss Barry Ferguson at Alloa. Iain Davidson departed the club and moved to Highland League Brechin while Manny Duku and Gozie Ugwu joined Inverness and Morton respectively.


The mood among the fans was quite contrasting as the new season approached. By this point in his career, John McGlynn is a manager where many Rovers fans might raise eyebrows at signings or decisions only to say "I wholeheartedly trust the manager". He is, after all, the man who has taken us from the doldrums of league one playing against stuffy opponents to the cusp of promotion to the highest level on two separate occasions.


Other fans were less convinced by the returns of Zanatta and Connolly. It's impossible to argue against saying that Christophe Berra's best days are behind him given he's an ex-Scotland internationalist, but the perennial question of "is he finished" after his last season at Hearts was raised. The relative inexperience of Riley-Snow and Varion at this level is another point some more cynical fans may have looked towards.


The friendly matches Rovers played gave little away- there can often be an overreaction when the most important factor is getting match fitness. These games did represent an opportunity for one major positive - the return of fans to Stark's Park. Rovers entered into the league cup campaign as a seeded side having finished in the top half of the Championship and were duly rewarded with trips to Cowdenbeath and Livingston with matches against Brechin and Alloa at home.


The opening fixture against the Blue Brazil was a tight affair with Lewis Vaughan's finish representing the main moment of quality in the match. Brechin were dispatched with a midweek battering before a trip to Livingston saw the home side take a bonus point after a 0-0 draw. A tense draw was played out at home to Alloa as Rovers secured their position in the knockout stages after 'winning' on penalties (their position had already been assured at the top of the group with Livingston unable to get ahead on goal difference).


The league cup saw Rovers gradually relax into 'McGlynnball'. There were real moments of quality from the likes of Vaughan, Tait and Spencer throughout the games and the addition of Christophe Berra at the back looked like an excellent bit of business: as mentioned earlier Rovers didn't concede a single goal and a large part of this was due to a solid partnership forming between the ex-Hearts defender and Kyle Benedictus.


The situation with Berra does remind me of chatting to a Hearts fan at work about Shane Duffy's time at Celtic - at the Hoops, the Ireland internationalist would've played a far higher line than when lining up for a club like Brighton who are more likely to be fending off attacks. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that McGlynn can get the best out of Berra compared to a side like Hearts who will be going for the jugular most weeks.


With the group stage of the Premier Sports cup out of the way, Rovers opened their league campaign with what can only be described as one of the most surreal matches to be seen at Stark's in living memory. Brian Rice's newly relegated Hamilton Accies side came to town having endured a difficult start to the season.


The game opened at a frenetic pace but Rovers took the lead courtesy of a Lewis Vaughan penalty. That advantage was doubled through what will probably be one of the goals of the season: Jamie MacDonald rolled the ball out to Tumilty who played an outrageous cross-field pass to Dario Zanatta. The Canadian winger cut inside past his man and unleashed a rocket of a strike into the far corner. It was a finish which did 'numbers' on twitter and would've been fit to win any game. So far, so good.


The second half saw Aidan Connolly add a third with a near finish in the penalty area before Vaughan doubled his tally for the afternoon with the cutest of dinks over Ryan Fulton. With 65 minutes on the clock you could forgive veteran supporters who started to reminisce about the 7-0 demolition of promotion favourites St Mirren back on the opening day of the 92/93 season. Despite their monumental advantage, Rovers could've had more: Zanatta and Varian had missed one on ones with the woodwork being struck on several occasions.


There's definitely a degree of cynicism you develop after following a local club. Most fans will claim their club are the worst for never doing things the easy way (it's particularly galling to see this from Old Firm fans). A few Rovers supporters were casting their mind back to the 3-3 game at Dumbarton under Ray McKinnon where they'd thrown away a seemingly unassailable lead. There's been other close calls in other games against Dumbarton and Montrose.


Yet history somehow repeated itself. Kieran MacDonald inspired a comeback firstly by bundling home a cross to give Accies something to build from. Then, Andy Ryan hammered home from a tight angle for the second. Each goal saw a sense of unease rise among the home support. By the time MacDonald added the third goal for Hamilton, it was clear this had manifested on the pitch as Rovers struggled to contain the Lanarkshire side.


In spite of this, Rovers were still creating chances. None more gilt edged than when Kai Fotheringham broken through in injury time. With Aidan Connolly screaming for the ball at the back post he leathered the ball past Fulton only to hit the bar. Moments later, the ball was poked past Jamie MacDonald to level the scores in what had seemed impossible 25 minutes earlier. You can't sugar coat a situation like that: it was rough to take.


The following week saw a trip to Inverness where Caley Thistle ran out 1-0 winners in a familiar tale in the Highlands as Roddy MacGregor's wondergoal separated the two sides. Last Saturday, social media saw quite a lot of reactions borne out of frustration. Some said McGlynn needed to go, others said that Smith should take the main job. You had some people levelling criticism at summer signings saying they wouldn't be good enough and that the club were destined for a struggling season. Some questioned the work ethic of those on the pitch.


Myself? I don't think I could be more contrasting. Throughout the Accies match, Rovers hadn't just been in control until the changes in the match: they had utterly dominated. The first 65 minutes showed that McGlynnball was still very much here to stay. It was revealed after the match that Vaughan and Spencer would both miss roughly 6 weeks which made the trip to Inverness even more problematic.


While everyone is entitled to their opinion, it certainly felt last weekend that there was a huge amount of reactionary posts being put up: whether it's true feelings or one-upmanship from supporters is hard to say. The only thing I'd definitely wager is that the management and players themselves will known they should have taken a minimum of three points from those two matches.


There was quite a lot of criticism aimed at the additions of Connolly and Zanatta, in particular after the Caley game. With the evolution of social media, fans and players have more interaction than ever. I've been guilty of saying things which in hindsight weren't necessary. I've found that players can have perceptions built up around them which have very little foundation. You'll see people talking about "work-rate" when it's hard to quantify when looking at different positions. We don't see the time away from the pitch where players might be doing additional work at the gym for instance.


Since returning, I've felt that Zanatta and Connolly have both been outstanding. Zanatta has picked up three man of the match awards so far and scored three goals. After being a focal point for Alloa, he'll be the first to admit that he had a difficult time at Partick Thistle and Ayr. It's easy for fans to lay into players where they might not have met expectations, but Zanatta has all the attributes to go on to be a key player for Rovers.


He certainly looks to have found his groove with his start since returning and his confidence looks be growing on a game by game basis. Following the win against Aberdeen, he was very vocal in saying how this is the most he's enjoyed his football at this level. If we've learned anything from the rise of Kevin Nisbet, it's that the sky is the limit when players are given the right circumstances and build their confidence up.


Similarly, Connolly was a player who impressed in his first spell at Stark's Park under Ray McKinnon. He left to join York City before spells at Dunfermline and Falkirk. Last season, he was part of the league 2 winning Queens' Park team but his arrival was met some fans uncertain. With a full pre-season under his belt, the winger has been a key creative outlet for Rovers chipping in with the goals already. While he isn't as direct as Daniel Armstrong, he still has the ability to cause headaches for defenders and his finish against Accies shows he has an eye for goal and will get into the right place.


Today's game against Aberdeen came at a perfect time for Rovers. It was a free hit against a team who are competitive in Europe with very little expectation. While the Dons rung the changes to their starting eleven and controlled the first half, it was clear to see in the second 45 that Rovers weren't afraid. Berra was imperious at the back while Tumilty and Dick both showed their willingness to bomb forward and create opportunities.


In midfield, the returning Ross Matthews had one of those games which managers tend to appreciate more - he quietly went about his business breaking up attacks and dictating the play alongside Tait and Riley Snow. Having been caught out for one of Accies goals a few weeks prior, Blaise put in a really solid shift and put in a performance where he linked midfield to attack nicely. Connolly and Zanatta both got did well to link the ball up with lone striker Ethon Varian who netted his first senior goal.


Ultimately, it was Rovers pressing which got them their win. Nerves had started to creep into the Dons defence and when Joe Lewis palmed out a shot from Riley Snow, Jack Gurr hesistated and allowed for Zanatta to rob him of the ball and to hammer home what would be the winner.At this point, the Dons had introduced several big name players including Scott Brown. They struggled to find any rhythm in a game where they were now chasing and ultimately couldn't show the same opportunism of the Rovers front line.


One of the most positive aspects of the day from a Raith perspective was the introduction of Aaron Arnott. The Fife Elite graduate had an impressive preseason last term, but didn't get a chance to make any inroads into the first team. It would be an intimidating task to go on the pitch to face to face with Celtic's nine in a row captain. It didn't phase the 19 year old in the slightest as he zipped about the pitch showing no hesitation to get on the ball. Arnott is definitely one to keep an eye on in the future and it wouldn't be a surprise if McGlynn calls on him a lot more this season.


The full time whistle saw the Penman stand erupt in celebration. Another famous victory in a cup against Aberdeen but in very different circumstances to seeing Tade hit the roof of the net from two yards. It felt very much like a moment of "nature is healing". People across the country have been restricted from matches for a long time. Fortunately, the rollout of the vaccination programme has allowed for some feeling of normality at football matches as fans can walk back in. Watching live games via stream is something you appreciate but it doesn't match being in the stand. Returning to matches does give you that buzz on a Saturday afternoon when you walk out the door.


Naturally my big hope is that Rovers can strengthen on the success of last season. It's easy to get frustrated at games but I really hope that fans will be more patient with players and try to get behind the squad. The atmosphere in the second half in the South Stand today was brilliant. We've all missed the simple things like hearing the lads at the back creating songs on the spot for our new signings. I'd encourage everyone to trust the manager and to give the players their full backing - we've retained a lot of key players from last season. McGlynn looks intent to try to have us playing the same style - lets hope the more it's changes, the more it's stays the same.



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