COMMENT: Time to rebuild Raith Rovers after a self-inflicted relegation

Raith loan striker Ryan Hardie holds his head in his hands after defeat to Brechin which confirmed the club's relegation. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Raith loan striker Ryan Hardie holds his head in his hands after defeat to Brechin which confirmed the club's relegation. Pic: Fife Photo Agency

The post-mortem on the remains of Raith Rovers' season does not make good reading for those in charge of the affairs of the Kirkcaldy club.

The disastrous 2016-17 campaign will go down as one of the most self-inflicted relegations of all time as the Stark's Park club embarked on a season of self-harm that took them from a Premiership play-off to League One in the space of just 12 sorry months.

From the decision to appoint Gary Locke last May, to the manner of the defeat to Brechin City on Saturday that confirmed their fate, the club has imploded at every turn.

A campaign of catastrophes both on and off the park.

With two failed managerial appointments, the ludicrous Lewis Vaughan loan, and the goalkeeper fiasco at Ayr (the list goes on), the club made things harder then they ever needed to be.

For many, it started with the recruitment of Locke, an appointment so baffling and unpopular that it instantly alienated and disillusioned the support before a ball was even kicked.

Locke defied the critics, and his record at previous clubs, to get off to a good start, but doubts were always bubbling under the surface, and it soon became apparent that his recruitment policy had failed, as it had it Kilmarnock, and once the rot set in after October, he was powerless to turn things around.

Big wages were wasted on the likes of Rudi Skacel and Ryan Stevenson, players who were not only past their prime, but past their sell-by date, while another expensive recruit, defender Jean-Yves M'voto, was brought up from England despite already having four centre-halves on the books.

One of them, David Bates, a home grown product with huge potential, was frozen out of the first team, and eventually gifted to Rangers in January in exchange for temporary loan players. A move which contradicted the club's message over the player development fund.

Worse still, the club's brightest young striker, a player recovering from a season out injured, and who should have been rested then reintroduced to the side, was instead shipped out to Dumbarton on loan to score the goals that ultimately kept them in the division at the expense of his parent club.

In a season of baffling decisions, the mismanagement of Lewis Vaughan was the biggest blunder of all, and the sight of the youngster in tears on Pratt Street on Saturday should shame all who were involved in putting a 21-year-old in an impossible position.

And that is not said with the benefit of hindsight - everyone and their granny reacted negatively when the move was made.

After four months without a win, and six straight defeats, Locke was sacked in February, along with assistant Darren Jackson, with the club languishing in eighth place, four points clear of ninth, and 11 ahead of bottom club St Mirren. Raith were in trouble, but far from doomed.

In recruiting the highly-regarded John Hughes for the remainder of the campaign, Raith appeared to have got the right man for the job. An experienced coach with an impressive CV, his appointment also pacified the fans, with whom he appeared the number one choice.

However, it would be fair to say that Raith did not get the manager they were expecting. Hughes was supposed to galvanise and inspire, instead his bizarre, rambling approach only made things worse.

Results improved at home, but on the road Raith lost every game. His constant barracking of the players, both in the media and in the dressing room, sapped confidence, deepened divisions, and contributed hugely to the club's relegation.

There was also the debacle at Ayr when, with no fit goalkeeper, Raith were forced to field Ryan Stevenson in goals, and ultimately lost a key game in the battle against the drop. Hughes and Raith tried to pass blame to the SPFL, but most in football agreed that the club were guilty of another huge own goal.

By the time it came to the 5-0 mauling at St Mirren, Hughes had long since lost the dressing room, and his demeanor, as well as his tactics and team selections, were becoming more and more questionable.

Behind the scenes, senior players spoke of how they felt belittled, patronised and downtrodden by the manager, as well as confused by his messages.

It all culminated in a dressing room feud after the Brechin match on Saturday, where in the midst of his final verbal attack, players demanded Hughes accept some responsibility for the situation. Instead, insults were traded, and things got so heated, it almost came to blows.

The failings of two managers, however, do not excuse the players. This squad should have been more than capable of keeping the club in the division and some did not pull their weight. For that, they deserve all the criticism that comes their way. There are also players, however, who did all they could in difficult circumstances, and who deserve the chance to bring the club back up to where it belongs.

For some, the buck stops with the board, in particular CEO Eric Drysdale, and his involvement in all of the above arguably makes his position as untenable as the managers he worked alongside.

However, it may not have seemed it at times, but Eric, along with his fellow board members, have the best interests of the club at heart.

The boardroom is full of well-intending individuals - all of them Raith supporters - and we don't need to look too far back the history books to see what can happen with the club falls into the wrong hands.

The people currently in charge have helped steer the club through tough times before, succeeding where other clubs have failed in balancing the books, and they have shown they CAN get decisions right - shrewd appointments of Craig Easton and Ray McKinnon the proof in point.

But the club appear to lack direction and leadership from the top, something that must be addressed moving forward, whether it be through a change of roles, fresh appointments, or new investment. It's time for the club to rebuild.

Trust between the boardroom and the support has been eroded but it's worth clinging onto the fact that the people running the club are doing so because they care for it, and rest assured they will be doing all they can to right the wrongs.

Whether they are the right people to do so or not is irrelevant. There doesn't appear to be a queue of wealthy Raith fans willing to take over, so until a white knight rides into Pratt Street, this is the board we've got.

We can only hope they have learned from this disastrous year, put it behind them, and lay the right foundations in place to ensure the club can bounce back stronger. The turn-out and backing for the games against Ayr and Brechin, albeit at lower prices, shows the fans are willing to rally.

After two failures, the next managerial appointment is make-or-break. They simply have to get it right this time or risk a repeat of the post-Anelka years that saw the club languish in the third tier for three long years.

The man for the job, in my opinion, is Craig Easton. He did not want the job the last time it was available, and although circumstances have changed, his position may have not. After all, there is plenty to consider before taking your first step into management, most of all, whether he feels ready himself.

However, the club would be making another mistake if they didn't at least give him first refusal.

His work with the development squad this season has been exceptional. Not only in winning the U20 league, but in building a tight-knit squad from scratch, his involvement in off-field activities, his relentless work ethic and his overall positive energy.

He's a bright, modern coach, youth-orientated, and for a club like Raith, particularly now they are in League One, he ticks all the boxes, particularly as he knows first-hand what went wrong, and will already have an informed opinion on what is required to fix it.

If Easton doesn't want it, after all nobody can force him and he may feel he has unfinished business with the development squad, then it has to go to someone who is prepared to work closely with him, and who will look to build a first team around a mix of youth and experience.

For all these are dark times for Raith Rovers, it's not all doom and gloom. There are good young players at the club and good experienced pros who can help bring them through.

They can come back stronger, it just needs the right man to guide them.