He spent 20 years avoiding the limelight, but Mario Caira’s pivotal contribution to Raith Rovers is to finally take centre stage.
The 75-year-old will be inducted into the Raith Hall of Fame at the sold-out Adam Smith Theatre this November having ended his long stint on the board of directors last year when he sold his shares to John Sim.
In true Mario style, the former ice cream manufacturer and hotelier has had to be coerced into accepting the award, but of all the people to have passed through the Rovers boardroom in the past two decades, none are more deserving of the honour than he.
Not only for his financial input with regular cash injections – amounting to a substantial six-figure sum – helping to stave off the threat of administration, but also his time and expertise which have proved equally valuable.
Former Rovers director and chief executive, Eric Drysdale, who joined the board on the same day as Mario back in December 1998, believes the club would not exist today had it not been for the Italian-born businessman.
“Without him the club wouldn’t be there, no ifs or buts about it,” he said.
“Turnbull Hutton was the leader and figurehead, but it was the combination of him and Mario that kept Raith Rovers going all these years.
“Both of them were hugely generous with their money and their time.
“It was all done quietly, especially by Mario, behind the scenes without fanfare or looking for thanks.
“There were regular occasions where there was a need for a lot of money to be put in to pay the wages, but it was the quiet things that Mario did that made him so special.
“Because he was the director in charge of the stadium for much of the time, he would get things repaired, or new things put in, using his local traders and just pay for it all himself.
“It never went through the club accounts.
“If Mario hadn’t done that the stadium would quite probably have fallen to bits by now.
“He never ranted and raved, and he was often quiet at board meetings, but before and after was when he did his talking, nudging and cajoling people into what he believed to be the right direction.
“He was great at dealing with internal conflicts and smoothing these over, being pragmatic, and a voice of reason to counter what might otherwise have been a hotheaded reaction.
“Turnbull was famous for his rants and bellows, and shooting from the hip, but you’d never hear that from Mario and that’s why it was the combination of the two that was integral to keeping Raith Rovers going over the last 20 years.”
Having grown up on the outskirts of Cassino in Italy, it was his uncle David who encouraged Mario to move to Kirkcaldy in 1961 aged 18.
Within a few years he had set up his own ice cream business before purchasing the Victoria Hotel in 1981, which he ran until 2009.
Mario become involved in the football club soon after his arrival in Kirkcaldy, initially through helping his uncle David run the catering on matchdays.
“That’s where I got the passion for Raith Rovers. I was sucked in!” he said.
Mario took over the catering contract in the mid 1970s, which he maintained up until two years ago. He also acquired shares in the club but it wasn’t until 1998 that he joined the board amid concerns over £1.8 million debts.
Mario came on board as part of a new consortium with Danny Smith installed as chairman, but the club remained in a perilous financial state, and it was only a last gasp intervention from Mario in the early 2000s that averted a major crisis, as the club was left with just £2000 in the bank and a £40,000 wage bill to meet.
Drysdale explained: “Mario came in with what was labelled a last minute loan, but turned into a donation, to enable the wages to be paid.”
And this was by no means a one-off.
Another example of Mario’s generosity came a few years later when the club came within seven minutes of administration in the face of a hefty unpaid tax bill.
Drysdale added: “Again it was Turnbull and Mario’s money that saved the day and we managed to pay HMRC just minutes before the midday deadline. People should be in no doubt that Raith Rovers would not be there if it wasn’t for them.”
Mario accepts that the club is unlikely to ever be in a position to repay him, but he was just glad to be able to save it from possible extinction.
“It wasn’t a pleasant situation but it gives me bit of pride that I was able to do that to keep the club going,” he said.
Mario was also involved in the sale and lease-back of the stadium – a deal which prevented liquidation in 2003 – but it was the following year, and the arrival of Claude Anelka on the scene, when troubles resurfaced.
“I had no problem with the Glasgow boys on a personal note, but things started to go wrong when they insisted on bringing Anelka in,” Mario explained.
“They pushed it through without getting myself and Turnbull on board and that’s when things started to go sour a wee bit between us.”
The financial fall-out from that episode led to the Reclaim the Rovers campaign and a takeover led by Thailand-based businessman John Sim.
Once again, Mario made significant sacrifices to allow the takeover to take place, agreeing to waive significant loan sums in order for the deal to be completed.
“Turnbull and I lost a lot with that deal,” he said. “But at that stage supporters had invested £100,000 in the club and I just wanted to help.
“I was prepared to lose out, but I wasn’t in favour of John Sim ending up with 51 per cent of the stadium. We’d previously had a four-way split and I wanted that to continue in some form, but it never happened that way.
“I wasn’t happy with the way things were handled, but it could have ultimately ended up with the club going down the tube, so Turnbull and I went along.
“If I could go back and change anything it would be to put my foot down in 2005 and say it’s either administration or it’s getting done my way.”
While his share in the stadium was diluted, Mario remained the club’s majority shareholder after the takeover but asked Turnbull to take on the chairmanship, with himself as vice-chairman.
Under their stewardship Rovers moved back onto an even keel, with promotion to and consolidation in the Championship under John McGlynn, a Scottish Cup semi-final, and a Ramsdens Cup win under Grant Murray providing good times on the pitch.
The sad passing of Hutton in 2015 left Mario without his right-hand man, and after growing increasingly frustrated with the structure of the club, he agreed to sell his shares to John Sim last year, allowing the stadium-owner to take control of the football club as well.
“In spite of the tough times, I really enjoyed my time at the club, and I miss being involved,” he said.
Mario’s modest nature means he has never received enough credit for the time and money invested in the club over the years.
At the Adam Smith on November 11, Mario will finally get the recognition he deserves.