For Raith Rovers, the decision to appoint Gary Locke was the heavy stone in a calm lake. The Ground Zero. Every mistake in a tumultuous season can be traced back to that appointment last May. But it’s not only Locke – a totem of failure – who is to blame for a season which might see the club relegated to League One, writes Andy Harrow.
The club had finished last season on a relative high. A narrow first-round defeat in the 2015/16 promotion play-offs was a commendable achievement given the strength of Rangers, Hibernian and Falkirk last term. After a traditional mid-season slump, manager Ray McKinnon had signed smartly in January and the revitalised squad had made sure of a play-off space with weeks to spare.
Fast forward 12 months and Rovers go into the final week of the regular season knowing anything but a win on Saturday will consign them to a play-off at the opposite end of the table.
Raith’s form has been well-documented, but to summarise: three months – 17 games – without a win in any competition; four points from the last six games; no wins away from home since 22nd October. It is relegation form.
It sees Raith sit two points adrift of St. Mirren – a side they were 19 points ahead of on December 3 – and knowing a win at home to Ayr might not be enough to avoid the play-offs. There is plenty of blame to go around for the state of affairs.
Gary Locke – by all accounts, a nice man – looked a bad appointment from the start. I wrote it about in the summer on this very site, but I was far from the only one to voice concern; the majority of Rovers fans expressed befuddlement that a man who’d failed in his two previous managerial spells could be the best man for the job.
Expectations amongst most Rovers supporters were instantly lowered. Promotion play-offs would be a happy surprise; a season sat somewhere between fifth and seventh suddenly seemed more likely.
Despite being knocked out of the League Cup to Alloa, the team started the Championship season in surprisingly positive fashion. Three wins in a row and an impressive performance in a draw away to Dundee United left Raith second, two points behind Hibs. That was as good as it got.
Locke was sacked in February after six league defeats in a row. By that stage, the form had become too perilous for the board to ignore.
Locke struggled tactically throughout his tenure. Unlike during the worst periods at Hearts and Kilmarnock, his Raith side rarely took heavy beatings, but they could not score goals. He could not find a balance between defensive stability and a side capable of creating or taking chances and so, often, his side would whimper to defeat. There was no guarantee that opposition goalkeepers would have a save to make.
His biggest weakness was his transfer strategy. Jean-Yves M’Voto has been his only cast-iron success; his performances have meant he’ll avoid another season at Stark’s. As for the others, Declan McManus went four months without a league goal until last midweek; Rudi Skacel is playing purely on fumes; Ryan Stevenson joined in January and made an appearance in goals before announcing his retirement from football; while David Syme and Robbie Crawford were signed and never made an appearance before disappearing back into the ether from whence they came.
Stevenson came to the club as part of one of the most ludicrous deals in recent Scottish football history. Craig Fowler has detailed the “swap” deal between Stevenson and Vaughan previously, but it was bitterly fitting that Vaughan scored the Dumbarton goal on Saturday which practically guaranteed their Championship safety.
Stevenson, of course, at least proved his worth as an auxiliary goalkeeper. He performed commendably at Ayr United, but the damage had been done in the days and weeks previously. It began with Locke’s baffling decision to use his sole Over-23 loan option on a reserve goalkeeper. Aaron Lennox seemed competent, but he was second choice to Kevin Cuthbert and suffered a serious injury in a development game. With Cuthbert also out, Connor Brennan was signed to take over between the sticks and Rovers continued without a substitute goalkeeper. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off; Brennan pick up an injury at Palmerston and, although he limped on until the final whistle he was ruled out for weeks.
Celtic’s third-choice goalkeeper, Logan Bailly, was seemingly lined up to play at Somerset but at the last minute he backed out. Raith’s board had been loath to bring in an under-21 goalkeeper – and couldn’t sign an over-age ‘keeper because the crocked Lennox inexplicably remained on the books – so, with all their eggs in the Bailly basket, were forced to issue a statement decrying the SPFL’s inflexibility, while accepting Ryan Stevenson would play in goals.
As if loaning the best striker to a rival and failing to sign a goalkeeper despite a week’s notice wasn’t bad enough, the club were involved in a third perplexing deal in 2017. It has been galling for the Rovers support to watch David Bates play for Rangers over recent weeks. While Bates seemed too rough-around-the-edges for regular first-team football at Stark’s, the promising youngster was surprisingly released to Rangers in January for nothing. In exchange, Rovers had Jordan Thompson’s loan deal extended, brought in Ryan Hardie on loan (a success) and re-signed Scott Roberts (whom Rangers had already released). The feeling that Rovers had been bullied into an unnecessarily bad deal was hard to shift.
When the rumblings from the support grew louder following the Bates deal, chairman Eric Drysdale released a statement where he claimed that the deal had, in fact, been a good one from Raith’s perspective. Not content to leave it there, he continued by blaming fans for not attending games in large enough numbers and for the “somewhat disappointing level of backing” for the opaque Development Fund. He rounded it off with a passionate defence of the maligned Locke, describing him as “by some distance the most co-operative manager I have dealt with”.
The board sacked Locke less than a month later.
On the Vaughan transfer, the board seemed split. Val McDermid appeared to tweet her frustration that Vaughan had been allowed to leave, while there are suggestions that other members of the board – who were happier to sanction the deal – used Locke as a human shield when the criticism got too heavy.
The board had made several correct decisions the season before – not least the appointment of McKinnon – and there had been a concerted effort to improve the traditionally poor relationship between the club and its fans. This season, the relationship has been shorn away. There is now only distrust and anger.
Where it would be hard to blame the board is in their appointment of John Hughes. Hughes’s track record, primarily at Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, was solid. Without a club, he also made financial sense. Even if there were concerns that his style of possession football wouldn’t be possible with the squad of players at his disposal, it was hoped he’d at least instil confidence and organisation into a squad who – by and large – made fourth last year.
How wrong that thinking now seems. Hughes has been quick to distance himself from results and, far from inspiring confidence, has rarely been anything other than scathing towards the squad of young men he’s inherited.
“We’re not a great football team,” he said after the 4-0 defeat at Dumbarton. “Training ground players,” he called them after a loss to Falkirk. Ahead of a game against Dunfermline he admitted that, “in terms of looking after the ball and being a better team than them, I don’t know if we are good enough to do that”. After the 3-2 defeat to Hibs he admitted he’d take ninth spot – even though Raith were in eighth and knew a win at St. Mirren would keep them up. After the shellacking in Paisley he tore into the players for a full eight minutes on Raith TV. “We’re not a great football team,” he said again. If the post-match interviews are anything to go by, it’s no surprise that the players have retreated even further into their shells; that they have abdicated responsibility.
The squad, of course, must take a large portion of blame for the season. The new signings haven’t been good enough and the existing players haven’t performed to the same levels as last season. They have lacked confidence, they have lacked invention and nous. Defeats such as the reverses to Dumbarton and the 5-0 last weekend aren’t entirely due to the manager – the players are culpable for failing to do the basics. Too many have been anonymous and too many have raised questions over their attitude.
But they were let down by Locke initially and have been hung out to dry by Hughes since. Despite what he tries to portray in the media, the current manager must shoulder his fair share of blame for the performances. His attempts to shoe-horn three centre-backs into a back four early in his tenure failed badly and has frozen out the best striker (Hardie). His proclamations post-match that he needs battlers has been undermined by continually picking those (Chris Johnstone, Jordan Thompson) who are the complete opposite.
There’s a feeling amongst the support that Hughes, quickly realising the size of the task ahead of him, has spent the last few months washing his hands of the job. His next career move is on the horizon and only needs to limit the damage to his reputation in the meantime.
Raith may yet avoid relegation – either on Saturday or through the play-offs – but not many supporters would risk much money on it. If the worst-case scenario happens, the hard work over the past decade will be washed away thanks to a catastrophic twelve months.