Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Every football club has their legends who spend season on season grafting away for the badge. Most fans can recant off lists of names of players who have made hundreds appearances or scored hundreds of goals: for those of a Raith persuasion they'll be familiar with Dalziel, Young, Leigh and McNaught when discussing this. And yet, in spite of this each club has a band of players who never played thousands of minutes or topped scoring charts consistently but still are spoken of just as fondly: the cult hero.
Cult heroes are a truly fascinating breed. They can appear out of the blue and disappear just as quickly. It isn't uncommon for them to arrive from foreign countries to embrace the Scottish winter. Just ask the Airdrie fans: It could well be the case that French midfielder Thomas Robert, son of former Newcastle winger Laurent Robert, leaves the club without ever playing a match in front of their crowds. Yet he will remain a talking point for his goals and trickery which he's showcased over the last few months for the Lanarkshire club. Thomas has joined Airdrie as part of a summer transfer window which has been very much out of left field (another signing is a Swiss loanee Griffin Sabbatini from Dnipro-1 in Ukraine).
Cult heroes don't necessarily need to be the most talented or put in the best performances. It might just be for a particularly memorable match or series of moments. Some go on to bigger and brighter things where they become household names - others disappear off the face of the earth. The combination of globalisation, international travel and the Bosman ruling has meant that footballing leagues throughout Europe have become a melting pot for diverse backgrounds - the last thirty years has seen players arrive from locations as far flung as Australia to Canada.
If you ask any fan as to who their cult heroes are you might get a diverse range of answers. The definition of what one is might vary from person to person: you could argue this blog's namesake is a cult hero for instance - a player who the fans still have a connection to this day to the point they have websites named about them. Other Rovers fans may look to Francisco 'Paquito' Ortiz - a player who arrived in the early 00s from Las Palmas in La Liga. You might hear about Tony Rougier's performances between 1995 and 1997 which led to a career in English football.
Nowadays, players and agents utilise YouTube highlight reels to showcase abilities - within minutes fans will have at least a rough idea of what they can expect from players. Life has changed a lot from times when you'd see an announcement in the papers with little idea of what to expect from your new player who had rocked up from the third tier of French football. It's a far cry from Ali Dia appearing for Southampton on the back of a phone call from someone claiming to be George Weah's cousin.
My favourite cult hero in terms of Raith would have to be Damian Casalinuovo - a player who played a little over a dozen games and scored five goals during two brief stints and yet is still spoken about like an old friend by fans of the club. We've already briefly discussed the Argentinian before in the preview for the Fife Derby here. He endeared himself immediately to the Rovers support with a debut goal in their first derby win in almost a decade. His initial display was tremendous - Dunfermline had convincingly beaten Rovers earlier that week in the League Cup but he was a complete menace throughout the game - at 6 foot tall he offered a physical presence but also looked like he was willing to take chances and shoot from anywhere. In the first half, he was unlucky in the first half to open the scoring when his lobbed shot went over the bar and onto the roof of the net - it was a sign of things to come.
Fast-forward to the second half and 'Casa' was leaping over the advertising boards. After a tremendous counter-attack, he gave Rovers what turned out to be an unassailable 2-0 advantage. I don't think anyone could doubt that he'd have been in the crowd had he not been on a booking. The game ended with Rovers going top of the first division - something which had been unthinkable after the drubbing earlier in the week where they'd been given a footballing lesson by their rivals. It was an incredible introduction to the fans for Damian who was one of the key performers.
The following week saw Raith face Partick Thistle at Stark's Park: the Jags were an established First Division side at the time and had a dangerous frontline having recently signed Kris Doolan (who was in his first season of a spell which would last 10 years and culminate in 107 goals scored). Rovers were helped when Liam Buchanan was sent off for an off-the-ball incident but once again, it was the loanee from Dundee United who gave Rovers the advantage when Robert Sloan whipped in a corner which was header perfectly home (the game finished a 1-1 draw after a late equaliser from Doolan).
By this point, it looked like Rovers had struck gold with the loan deal: Casalinuovo looked more than comfortable in the first dvision- he was strong, physical and had an eye for goal. He made a third appearance against Greenock Morton and looked to be forming an excellent understanding with Gregory Tade. The French forward scored a double that day before Mark Ferry curled in a fine finish to complete a 3-0 win.
Rovers were flying - they headed into the international break top of the league and enjoying their return to life in Division 1. By this point, Dundee United manager Craig Levein decided to recall Casalinuovo back to Tannadice. His performances had understandably impressed the ex-Hearts and Leicester manager who wanted to utilise him up top alongside David Goodwillie and Jon Daly. United did have the courtesy to send a new loanee as a replacement in the shape of future Scotland internationalist Johnny Russell.
It would be a memorable season for both all three of the parties - Rovers enjoyed their Scottish Cup run which ultimately saw them knocked out by the Arabs at Hampden. United would go on to win the tournament by beating Ross County in the final. Damian played his part in the triumph scoring a controversial goal against Partick Thistle in the early rounds though unfortunately didn't make the squad for the final.
When Rovers went to face Dundee in the Quarter final of the cup, fans saw the United squad outside Tannadice waiting for their travel to the hotel before they faced Rangers the next day. Pleasantries were exchanged between the Raith supporters (chanting Argentina!) and Casa - it was clear that neither party had forgotten about the earlier escapades from earlier that season. After his spell at United, the forward had a short stint at Hamilton Accies before returning to Buenos Aires having suffered a back injury.
But the love affair wasn't done yet. In January 2012, Rovers were embroiled in a relegation dogfight along with Ayr United and Queen of the South - the club had struggled with an inexperienced squad and injury issues. The front line of Brian Graham and John Baird hadn't quite clicked yet and our Argentinian cult hero was looking for a second crack at Scottish football. So phone calls were exchanged and the long trip from South America to South Fife ensued. Casa would supplement the squad during the January transfer window joining along with Pat Clarke and loan deals for Jason Thomson and Jamie Walker from Hearts.
It wasn't all plain sailing for the striker. Unlike his first spell, it took a while for the forward to find the net. As you'd expect, fitness was an issue and he had competition with other forwards - Brian Graham would start a scoring spree which would continue on at pretty much a goal a game for the rest of his time in Kirkcaldy while John Baird would continue to chip in with the occasional goal.
Despite this, Rovers still struggled to find a break in terms of results - the opening 8 games of 2012 saw 4 draws and 4 defeats. A win against Partick provided hope before a 5-0 demolition of Morton gave even more cause for optimism for fans. They were brought down to earth with a 1-0 loss away to Queen of the South which left the club rooted at the bottom of the table.
Then on the 17th March 2012 Ayr United came to town. At this point, the two teams had been well acquainted. Rovers had come out on top in the 2008/09 title race where Ayr had looked to have taken the impetus with just under 10 games to go (Bonus vintage Youtube - keep an eye on the left hand stair case at Ayr's goal at 3:30 to see a parent drag their toddler as they charge down the front). Ayr would win promotion via the playoffs.
The following season saw the Somerset Park side relegated but things might have turned out different were it not for David McGurn's triple save and Stephen Simmon's 90th minute headed equaliser : . Rovers had historically had the better of Ayr but 2012 threatened to be a different story: a loss to the Honest Men would leave Rovers 5 points behind the visitors with 8 games to play including tough trips to the top 4 teams (Ross County, Dundee, Falkirk and Partick).
This was to be one of those games where I will point back for the rest of my life and use it as a justification for going to run of the mill Scottish football games: it was one of the craziest 90 minutes I've ever experienced in a football ground - it had every element of drama you could hope for in a match. The game opened with Brian Graham (who had undergone a hernia operation in the winter) continue his fine run of form. Rovers had started strongly and it seemed a good omen that their form player had opened the scoring - fans optimistically pondered whether Rovers could put pressure onto an Ayr side with a poor goal difference. .
Within 25 minutes of the goal, Graham went from hero to villain. After being bundled over by centre half Chris Smith, the forward reacted when full back Eddie Malone threw a ball at the back of his head. The pair went head to head and both went down clutching their faces - referee Crawford Allan was left with no option but to put Rovers down to ten men.
From there, Rovers appeared to have doubled their advantage but Iain Davidson's header was adjudged to be offside. Ayr midfielder Michael McGowan picked up a booking for a rather blatant dive. The visitors had grown into the match and were then rewarded with a penalty which was dispatched by veteran Mark Roberts. Things got worse when Eddie Malone fired a free kick past David McGurn to give the away side the advantage. The Stark's Park side weren't getting any breaks: John McGlynn tried to freshen things up by introducing Pat Clarke and Jamie Walker - Walker was promptly booked for diving in an attempt to win a penalty as the home side looked out of sorts.
If there was an element of frustration among the fans at this point, it was then taken to a thermonuclear level as the game creeped into stoppage time. After a knockdown from Casalinuovo (who had been brought on for Dougie Hill), the ball broke to Pat Clarke who hammered a volley towards goal which cannoned off Ayr centre half John Robertson's outstretched hand - the Rovers fans and players all looked immediately to Crawford Allan and screamed in unison the question of "Handball?". But no whistle came. The atmosphere then turned venomous as the home fans to a man, woman and child all began to unleash tirades of abuse at the referee for the injustice.
Ayr hoofed the ball clear after the incident and might have had a chance to counter but Allan had to blow his whistle having been surrounded by blue shirts. Iain Davidson, a player who has never been the most stoic, incredibly didn't receive a straight red card to reduce Raith to 9 men as he towered over the referee and pointed accusingly in his face. Captain Grant Murray waded in to try to reason with Allan but there was no change on the decision.
It looked like Rovers luck had run out and that they'd be marooned in 9th place in a dogfight with Queen of the South to avoid the bottom spot. But every story needs a hero and in waded big Damian. Sometimes, you witness a player score a goal and it almost seems like destiny - the right player at the right time in the right game - for example John Baird's second spell at Rovers when he poached the winner in the Ramsden's Cup. The Argentinian's goal against Ayr falls into that category.
A cross into the box was knocked down by Grant Murray. In slow motion, the ball fell across the goal towards the Main Stand at Stark's Park where Damian Casalinuovo stood alone - a forward who had travelled to Scotland after being out of luck with injuries and was struggling to break his goal duck. Fans had been waiting for him to score for two months and the striker later said in the post match interview he saw an Argentinian flag being put away in the crowd moments before. As the ball bounced up, it fell perfectly and he hammered home a half volley into the net past Kevin Cuthbert with an unstoppable strike.
Carnage. Limbs. Scenes. The atmosphere in the home end went from one of fury to delirium. Casalinuovo charged in front of the home support with his arms outstretched - he looked every bit of the impassionate South American footballer cliché that the world knows and loves. He was promptly engulfed by teammates and some fans who had vaulted the wall at the bottom of the stand. The stewards tried to usher fans back leading to this fantastic video of the aftermath.
Rovers lived to fight another day and the cult hero added another chapter to his story. Following the Ayr game, Casalinuovo added to his tally a goal against Dundee and an outrageous lob over David Hutton in a 2-1 win over Hamilton Accies. Rovers would win 5, draw 3 and lose just 1 of their final 8 games. On the 28th April, a 3-1 win against Queen of the South meant that they moved 11 points clear of the Dumfries club. More importantly they had a 17+ goal difference over Ayr United meaning that there was no realistic chance of relegation (a win on the final day saw them move above Morton for a 7th place finish).
The summer of 2012 saw a clearout at Stark's Park. Casalinuovo would return to Argentina having helped save Rovers from a drop to the third tier. Ultimately, it would be the last time he would play professionally and in true cult hero style he switched careers to become an accountant.
Given the universal love of the sport, Casalinuovo is one of numerous stories of how the beautiful game can allow for players from incredibly diverse backgrounds can cement themselves into a folklore of a football club half the world away. During his two spells at the club, fans would enthusiastically chant "Argentina! Argentina" at the forward and he repaid their support with some tremendous performances. It's incredible to think of how someone who played only 15 games for a club can have had such a profound impact: people can talk about the true greats of the game like Messi and Maradona who have inspired La Albiceleste but there's always a small part of me that will associate Argentina with him.
So here's to Damian Casalinuovo and cult heroes across the globe!