The future of Raith Rovers has never looked brighter thanks to the work being carried out by development squad head coach Craig Easton.
The 37-year-old was appointed to the new post in June after the club identified the need to bridge the gap between the Fife Elite Academy and the first team.
A youth development squad has since been established, operating under and alongside the first team at the club’s training base at the Michael Woods sports complex in Glenrothes.
“I’m thoroughly enjoying it,” Easton told the Press.
“I had a lot to do to get players in initailly, but we’ve got a small core of players now that’s really starting to show a lot of promise.
“At the moment we’ve got four apprentices, plus Andreas Thorsen and Yaw Osei from the first team involved with me in the U20s.
“We’ve also got Josh McDonald who is a signed amateur, and Finn McLeod who has signed a pre-contract and will be joining in January.
“I’ve built that up over the last few months. I didn’t want to come into the role and just sign anybody straight away.
“I wanted to get the right type of players in before I was committing to anybody, and I think the ones we’ve got in are quality players.
“It’s great to see three of them - Jamie Watson, Finn McLeod and James Berry - all local Kirkcaldy boys. Jamie just lives at the back of Beveridge Park.
“It’s good to get the Fife lads in and we’re looking at another couple for next season. There is definitely talent in the local area.”
Indeed, not since the days of Colin Cameron, Stevie Crawford and Jason Dair has the club has so many local youngsters on its books.
Easton’s net, however, is being cast far and wide.
“I’ve been going to the Fife Elite games because that’s where our primary source is going to be and we’ve got a good relationship with them,” he said.
“I go to their games and see how they are doing on a Sunday and I know Stephen Wright (head of FEFA) from my time at Dundee United.
“We’re also in the process of setting up a scouting network.
“Unofficially we’ve got guys looking in Edinburgh at clubs like Hutchison Vale - Jamie Watson came from them - and we’ve got a good relationship with them.
“We’re trying to widen the net up to Dundee as well, and we had 20 lads down playing a bounce game over the October holidays.
“We’re trying to identify players in Fife first and foremost, as well as spreading our net to Dundee and Edinburgh, and hopefully we’ll catch a few good boys.”
After starting with just four full-time apprentices Easton now regularly trains with a squad of between nine and 12 players, which includes a few trialists.
“At the start it was a bit of a challenge with just four or five, but it’s a time you can use to get to know the lads, and you can really work on certain aspects of their game individually,” he said.
“From a tactical perspective we’ve been needing more bodies, but we’ve got them now and next season we’ll hopefully have a core of 12 –you can do a lot with that.”
Raith have had players emerge from the youth ranks in recent years– the likes of Ross Callachan, Ross Matthews, Lewis Vaughan and David Bates – but the development squad aims to produce more home grown players on an even more regular basis.
“We’re trying to get a more concentrated push and structed way of doing it,” Easton said.
“We’ve been finding good players, but there’s a way to do it that’s more structured, and we’ve got things in place now that will help us identify more players and really focus on their development.
“It’s tough to make the breakthrough as it is, but if there’s something in place, as there is now, it gives them that extra chance of making it.”
While viewed as vital for the club’s future, the development squad is an extra expense that the club cannot afford to meet on its own so a player development fund has been put in place which asks fans and businesses to sign up for montly payments towards the initiative.
Some fans have responded and standing orders have been set-up. but the club is still short of its target, and without extra funding. the scheme could collapse, which would put a bright young coach out of a job, and the development of the club’s young talent at risk.
This would be a huge shame given the impact Easton has already had in a short space of time, and the high hopes he has for the players at his disposal.
“We’ve made a wee dent in the fund but we need more people buying into it,” he said.
“I want people to recognise that every bit of money they put into the development fund is going directly towards the future of Raith Rovers.
“We’ve got players in that small group of mine who will be Raith Rovers players in the next two to three years.
“I genuinely believe they are good enough and I think they will improve. There are players there that Gary Locke will want to use in the next two to three years.
“What people need to think about if they are considering contributing is that they are going to have a direct impact on that.
“I was at the Hall fof Fame show last week and a guy like Iain Davidson is a good example, and other people before him. It’s very rare, but the best thing for me would be to see boys like James Berry, Finn McLeod, Jamie Watson, Ryan Stevenson and Dave McKay up there getting in the Hall of Fame for Raith Rovers one day. It would be amazing.
“Or, if it’s not going to happen, that they go and play in the first team and we sell them on - that’s how we’ll get a return from them - either on the pitch or through transfer fees that keep the club going.
“It’s something Raith fans can say they are part of, and that’s what we’re trying to get more people involved with it.”
Easton’s playing career started at the age of 17, spending nine years with Dundee United followed by spells at various English clubs including Leyton Orient and Swindon Town.
He is an experienced campigner and is encouraged by the good vibes around Stark’s Park at the moment.
“There’s a great feeling about the place,” he said. “I’ve been at a few clubs and, I’ll be honest, I’m enjoying being here so much. It’s hard work, but it’s the best job ever.
“Seven months ago I was on a building site while doing bits and pieces of coaching to keep myself ticking over. I’m really recognising how much I was wanting to get back into full-time football, and this couldn’t be a better role for me.
“Everybody at the club is pulling in same direction. It’s just got a good feeling about it - top to bottom.
“They are trying to make everything better and if you go and ask the board for something they try to give you the best they can provide you with - and that’s not just with the youths.
“We’re a Championship club but trying to operate the way we would if we were a Premiership side.
“From the board to the kit man, physio, sports scientist, goalkeeping coach - everybody is doing their best in their own role for the players to make them as good as they can. That’s all we can do.”
Easton is also enjoying working alongside the management team of Gary Locke and Darren Jackson.
“We’ve got good chemistry and work well together,” he said. “I’m learning from them all the time and we’re always bouncing off each other.
“I’m more than happy with what I’m doing right now but I’d love to be a manager in my own right in the future and this is setting me up for it.
“It’s a great grounding in terms of doing a bit of everything and I’m there with the first team on a Saturday.
“I can’t really get a better apprenticeship.”
For more information on Raith Rovers Player Development Fund, click Raith Rovers Official Website