Raith Rovers’ emotional rollercoaster that led to the Second Division title

They say the toughest step to take in sport is the last one. The line which stands between championships and runners-up medals.
Raith Rovers win promotion in 2003Raith Rovers win promotion in 2003
Raith Rovers win promotion in 2003

In 2003, Raith Rovers became Second Division champions, but securing the silverware, and promotion, was a nerve-shredding affair which took their fans on a rollercoaster from Stranraer to Forfar and back to Fife before the team could say job done.

This is the story of how it all came right...eventually.

Rovers started the 2002-03 season with Antonio Calderon at the helm.

The Raith Rovers squad celebrateThe Raith Rovers squad celebrate
The Raith Rovers squad celebrate
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Going into the home straight, Raith were top of the table, but their form was crumbling.

Promotion was all but secured - they just needed that final push to put the issue beyond doubt.

Hopes of doing that on the road to Airdrie United evaporated when the game ended 1-1.

Sandy Stewart, Airdrie’s player manager, limped off after 23 minutes and Raith took control.

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They went ahead after 28 minutes when a high ball caused confusion, and it broke off Scott Wilson into the path of Andy Smith who finished well inside the box,

Seven minutes from the interval, Airdrie equalised with a sucker punch - Jerome Vareille was given too much space on the right to collect a pass, and his powerful shot from inside the box was too much for goalkeeper Ramiro Gonzalez.

He could only parry the ball, and Alan Gow hammered home the rebound.

One point, one step closer to the title.

The spotlight switched to Stark’s Park and a rallying call to fans to turn out in number for the game against Forfar Athletic.

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Victory would seal promotion if Stenhousemuir didn’t beat Brechin City.

That proved to be irrelevant as Rovers went down 1-0 in front of 2000 fans in a game that was meant to signal their return to Division One.

The game will best be remembered for Martin Prest running on to Calderon’s sublime through ball, beating the keeper and then seeing his shot roll inches wide just as an entire stand of fans rose to acclaim the goal.

Next stop Glebe Park, home of second top Brechin.

Victory for Rovers would take them nine points clear with three games to play and a superior goal difference over their hosts.

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Over 1000 fans, the biggest travelling support of the season, headed north in expectation – outnumbering the home support three to one – only to see their team consumed by nerves.

A 1-0 defeat meant Rovers had found the net just once in four games.

Alvaro Valdes was handed his first start of the season, and the ex-Athletico Madrid player ended it with a red card for inexplicably kicking Martyn Fotheringham in the stomach in a midfield tussle in the dying moments of the match.

Roddy Grant fired Brechin ahead.

Rovers made an early change, hooking the off-form Martin Prest after just 35 minutes.

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His disgust was evident as he ripped off his shirt and threw it into the dug out.

Stair Park, Stranraer then beckoned.

Scene of the club’s famous 1987 promotion clinching victory under Frank Connor, hopes of lighting striking twice were vanquished as Raith lost 1-0 once more.

“Raith must get back on track to avoid a collapse of Roman empire proportions” said the Fife Free Press.

The pressure was evident as even the mild-mannered Calderon – who had just become a dad for the first time – substituted himself and hurled his tracksuit top into the dug-out.

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He headed off to spend time with his new family in Spain, leaving assistant, Paquito, to run the show.

He too was baffled by the collapse in form: “I cannot explain what has been going on. It is incredible the last three games have been the same result.”

But all good things come to those who wait.

After putting their fans through an emotional wringer, they triumphed on home soil.

After nigh on four and half games without a goal, they beat Berwick Rangers 1-0, with Andy Smith’s 82nd minute header being met with a wall of noise from the terraces.

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Brechin’s draw with Dumbarton meant all Raith had to do was close out the game to become champions.

Come the final whistle, the fans streamed on to the pitch. One man sank to his knees in the centre circle, head bowed, and let the emotion pour out in a flood of tears.

Promotion meant everything to everyone at the club.

The Press noted: “A club in a dangerously downward spiral, crippled financially and facing a season of low crowds changed tack, and took on Calderon.

“He brought his own methods to the club, and built a new team with young players and a backbone of experience.

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“It didn’t always work, mistakes were made, players came and went, and deep rooted prejudice which still exists in Scottish football towards ‘outsiders’ made it clear some people would have been happy for Raith to fail.

“But by 5pm on Saturday, this new path the club chose to follow had been vindicated and all the fans wanted to do was celebrate.”

And they did.