Today marks the 7th anniversary of arguably Raith Rovers finest hour since the turn of the century. On the 6th April 2014, late on a Sunday afternoon John Baird latched on to a rebound from Greg Spence shot to seal a 1-0 win in the Challenge Cup Final against Rangers. It was no less than Grant Murray's team deserved for a heroic battling performance. So what better opportunity than to look back at why a "diddy cup" match is up there as one of my favourite days out ever?
To set the scene, we first need to go back and take a trip down memory lane. Historically, Scottish football had always been marketed ineffectively and skewed towards the two Glasgow giants. The old league set up had largely remained the same since the late 90s, with the only change of significance being the introduction of promotion and relegation playoffs back in 2005/06 into the old first and second divisions. You'd be lucky to see clubs in the lower tiers get more than a weekly summary of their match in a national newspaper on a Monday. Twitter hadn't been created yet and Youtube had barely started in 2009. So by and large, you were reliant on local journalists and forums like Pie and Bovril.
There was a complete lack of due diligence from the sports media in Scotland when Craig Whyte entered the scene to purchase Rangers in 2011. Tales of wealth of the radar were put to press to indicate how the club was in safe hands. When it turned out that Whyte wasn't the mogul promised, years of overspending under David Murray's regime quickly caught up with the club and they fell into administration before their subsequent liquidation. Rangers re-entered (or were introduced depending on who you ask) into the Scottish Football League Third Division in the Summer of 2012. This wasn't due to a lack of effort from within Scottish football: there had been talk throughout the early Summer of 2012 of trying to 'parachute' Rangers into firstly the top flight then latterly the second tier.
Fans of lower league clubs were incensed and, in particular, the Raith chairman Turnbull Hutton took to question the 'sporting integrity' of what was happening. While the likes of Stewart Regan and Neil Doncaster were doing powerpoints about "Armaggedon?", the long suffering lower league fans made it clear. Rangers deserved no special treatment given how they'd lorded it up over other clubs. This was an opportunity to bring about wholesale change and it turned into a watershed moment for Scottish football.
Gone were the days of two clubs leading the remaining forty. There was a feeling that change was needed and this is exactly what happened. The SPL and SFL merged to become the SPFL and the league structure was tinkered to offer clubs in the Championship an additional route to promotion via playoffs. The prize money was split in a fairer manner at the cost of changes to the voting structure. But these changes weren't celebrated universally. Rangers fans, incensed at what had happened, adopted a siege mentality and there were unsavoury moments as they felt that 'sporting integrity' was merely a rod to beat their club.
Rangers worked through their way through the Third Division as expecting but it wasn't all plain sailing. They were firmly embroiled in the 'banter years' and some embarrassing result were easily highlighted: there were losses to Stirling Albion (away), Peterhead and Annan (home) with numerous draws. The 2013-14 season saw them start in the second division where they had a procession to the league going unbeaten throughout. With the league in hand, the Ibrox club beat Stenhousemuir in a Challenge Cup semi final at Ochilview to secure their place against Raith Rovers.
So the speculation began in earnest about what would happen. Rumours started to circulate that the tie would be played at Ibrox with Rovers accepting a fee. These were put to bed when it was revealed Easter Road would host the tie. It was familiar territory for Raith having already knocked Hibs out of the Scottish Cup thanks to Grant Anderson's 'backwards header'. The match quickly sold out and it was anticipated as a match that Rangers should win easily.
One of the distinct memories from that day was waiting outside the Omni Centre near Waverley station for my mates to arrive from Kirkcaldy. I was slightly worse for wear having spent the night before down the Cowgate until the early hours but even then I still had an unshakeable confidence that we were about to see something very special. As we waited, my friends and I chatted about how we felt the game would go: while Rangers were unbeaten in the League I felt they still had their weaknesses. Moments before we started to head along London Road towards the stadium, I saw a middle aged man walk past in a full Union Jack Suit with a matching bowler hat. It was a surreal sight. But we'll come back to this later.
We took our places in the upper tier of the Famous Five stand moments before the teams came out. For all the people there that day I was delighted to see just behind us were some of the regulars I've met over the various away trips across Scotland. It can be easy to get lost in the 'day-trippers' on big occasions so it was nice to see folk that you've met before and continue to see at away days across Scotland.
A lot of the chat online prior to the match had been about this being "Rangers' first cup final on the journey" and how it was a chance to show up Turnbull Hutton. With all the subtlety of an atom bomb, their fans unveiled a Tifo from the opposing end "Place the Victory Crown on the Pride of Glasgow Town". The Famous Five stand responded in unison: "you're no' Rangers anymore" prompting a response of froth and finger pointing.
The game kicked off and from a Rovers perspective the match went perfectly. This was never going to be one for the neutrals and Grant Murray's side were never going to pass Rangers off the park. Not that Rangers were doing much passing: while there were moments of danger throughout the match, Ally McCoist's side were set up in a direct manner and shelled long balls in an attempt to find Jon Daly up top. If there was one player on that pitch designed to handle such a situation it was Dougie Hill. The centre back had an outstanding performance alongside Paul Watson at the heart of defence. Even after suffering a shoulder injury in extra time Hill still saw out the 120 minutes whether through adrenaline or a sheer willingess to win.
There were moments where Rovers did shine on the offensive. There were half chances and Calum Elliot had a potential penalty claim turned down by Kevin Clancy. Joe Cardle had a goal chalked off and Callum Booth shanked wide a decent chance after using his standing foot. But for the most part, this was a performance of defensive heroics. Lee Robinson had struggled during his time at Stark's Park: the ex-Queen of the South goalkeeper had previously won the cup the season before with the Doonhamers and he kept that going against Rangers. The Gers peppered the goal with shots but Robinson was saving his best performance in a Rovers shirt for that day.
When Nicky Law struck the woodwork in first half of extra time, the sense of frustration in the Rangers fans that the plucky underdogs hadn't been put away started to boil over. The tired legs of the Raith players plodded on and stuck to the task at hand. Penalties were in sight and even then, there would be no shame if they lost the match now. Any predictions of a mauling had been well off. But as we all know, spot kicks weren't needed. Captain Jason Thomson's long ball up the pitch wasn't dealt with properly by the calamitous Bilel Moshni. Richey Foster, who was being harried by Grant Anderson, fired the ball back up the pitch to alleviate some of the pressure, only for Liam Fox (another who had his finest game in a Raith shirt) to nod the ball back about 30 yards from the Rangers goal.
Greg Spence is a player I've probably been unfairly critical to, particularly in his first spell at the club, but I'll be forever in a form of footballing debt to him for what happened next. With the ball bouncing away from him, he hooked it over Moshni as both players tried to regain their balance. Suddenly, there was confusion in the Rangers defence: Lee McCulloch went to take the ball out wide but only hit it into Foster who knocked it back towards goal unintentionally. Spence moved in quickly to take control of the situation. His shot was right at Cammy Bell who failed to handle it properly as it spilled out ten yards from goal.
Enter John Baird. Much like Gordon Dalziel in the final minutes of the League Cup 20 years earlier, Baird did something you love to see any goal-scoring forward do: he went for a second ball...just in case. Baird had left Rovers before as a fans favourite having spent two seasons with the club. Spells at Dundee and Partick hadn't quite worked out meaning he returned to the club as a man with a point to prove. The Ramsden's Cup final allowed for him to write his name into Rovers folklore.
After smashing home the rebound, Baird ran behind the goals and did his usual celebration. He reached the advertising boards, looked into the crowd and you can almost see the moment that he realises that he's scored a goal against one of the Old Firm in a cup final as he puts his hands to his head. The players who had given everything suddenly charged down the pitch to celebrate. The full substitutes bench were in front of the home fans.
Grant Anderson has done a few interviews on both occasions he has left the club but when asked the question he makes the same point: everyone in the media had written off the Rovers prior to the game so to go a goal ahead with four minutes left there's a huge pressure not to slip up. "You've never wanted anything more in your life".
The match restarted but it felt like the clock slowed down. Nicky Law fired a free kick wildly over the bar. In one final desperate attack, a long ball was met by Paul Watson who knocked it in to the path of Callum Booth who hammered a clearance up the pitch. The Rovers end was united whistling for full time. Booth's punt up the park would be the last touch.
The familiar piano from Rockin' All Over The World started up as the Rovers squad streamed down the pitch to celebrate the cup upset. The victory crown was coming to Kirkcaldy town while the blue and white sea which had covered three ends of the ground quickly turned green as the subway loyal tried their best to get distance from the latest embarrasment. As my friends and I took photos and celebrated with people we knew, I noticed a plastic Union Jack bowler hat poetically rolling along the far touch line in the wind.
The stage was set and Rovers had a trophy to collect. There's probably a slew of people who might not be fans of the late Swedish DJ Avicii but who hold a special place in their hearts. The song 'Levels' which blared out as the Rovers support watched Jason Thomson lift the trophy. In ordinary circumstances, the Challenge Cup is often seen as a diddy cup, more now than ever with the involvement of colt teams. But with the build up to the game and the involvement of Rangers, the trophy felt like it had extra meaning. This was their day. The trophy was meant to be theirs. Yet Rovers would be the kings for the day. The victory crown was heading to Kirkcaldy, not Glasgow.
Outside the stadium, fans started to make their way home whether via bus or train. It was incredible to walk along the street seeing people you've know for years from Stark's Park and laughing about the win. It was a perfect example of how football can melt away your worries in life: unhappy at work? personal issues giving you grief? For myself, I was in a job I didn't want to be in at that point and trying to come to terms with the loss of a friend who had unexpectedly passed away months before. I sat in a pub in a strange euphoric trance catching up with a couple of mates who hadn't been at the game.
John Baird would leave Rovers at the end of the season. Grant Murray would leave at the end of the following season. When he returned to Stark's Park with Queen of the South and latterly Falkirk, Baird had a habit of scoring against Rovers leading to some fans giving him stick. Myself? I never uttered a word. How could I? This is the guy who came back to deliver us a trophy against one of the biggest clubs in Scotland.
Fortunately, Baird didn't hold any grudges for abuse either and it was fitting that he scored the final goal which would return us to the Championship prior in the curtailed 19/20 season. This only added to his status at Stark's Park: even though he's jetted off to Australia to start a new life he's still happy to get involved with interviews for the club website, podcasts or radio.
Sometimes, sport can give you an unparalleled collective happiness. Anniversaries like today are a reminder that every fan has their story to tell on why they love the beautiful game: hundreds of anecdotes and memories based around one day in the sun. It's reminder to never write off the underdog. That smaller clubs can enjoy the glory days. And always hope your forward is ready to pounce on any rebounds.