Raith Rovers' management's only aim was survival
Raith Rovers management team John McGlynn and Paul Smith say their only priority last season was to keep the Kirkcaldy side in the Championship.
In the first of a two-part interview, the pair look back over a season that saw Raith defy expectations and make it all the way to the Premiership play-off semi-final despite many having tipped them to struggle at the foot of the table after coming up from League One.
Manager McGlynn says that he made it clear throughout the season that the objective was to remain in the league and that was as far as it went .
“When you've been out of the Championship for three seasons and you've seen other teams going up, you've got to respect it,” he said.
“Our aim was to stabilise and stay in the league, so we looked at the squad. John Baird went to Australia. Steven McLean took up a coaching role at St Johnstone. We needed to sort out the right-back position, but we had kept our central midfielders.
“With all the turmoil over the summer, it made it hard to attract players because for a while we didn't know what league we were even going to be in
“We used the loan market as we have done over the years, and we have been very fortunate in that we've done well there and we brought in Ethan Ross from Aberdeen.
“We needed strikers and we needed height in the team, both for attacking and defending at set plays, so we brought in Manny Duku and Gozie Ugwu, then right towards the end of the window, we managed to get Lars Lokotsch.
“Probably the most disappointing thing is that we didn't get Lewis Vaughan back from injury as quickly as we would have liked.
“Jamie MacDonald came in. He’s a quality goalkeeper and has proven to be a great signing for us, as has Reghan Tumilty at right-back. He's been different class.
“Frankie Musonda at centre-half has unfortunately had three injuries across the season, but when he’s played he’s done a great job.”
With their squad assembled, Rovers readied themselves for their assault on the season, but on the eve of their first competitive match in the Betfred Cup, McGlynn, 59, became ill leaving assistant Smith to take up the reins.
His lengthy spell away from Stark’s Park was down to complications following a routine gallbladder removal.
“I had two periods in hospital,” he said. “I got the operation after the East Fife game and got out a couple of days later.
“Two or three weeks then went by, but I just wasn't right.
“It was worrying because I didn't know what was going on.
“You're used to being fit and healthy and running about all day, but then I had no energy, no get-up-and-go, didn't want to eat, couldn't sleep. I was shaking and freezing cold. It was horrible.”
The Raith gaffer was suffering from a kidney infection and was once again hospitalised.
“I went back in to hospital and was there for 10 days. I watched the Cowdenbeath match from the stand and gradually I got better,” he recalled.
“I got the drain which was clearing the infection taken out just before Christmas and that made a big difference and I kicked on after that.”
Assistant Smith says he was faced with a fragile balancing act.
“I was trying to weigh up how often do I phone John and not put him under too much pressure,” he said.
“My biggest concern was his health. It was trying to get that balance right, but I was hoping that the performances from the boys on the park were helping him as well.
McGlynn says the team’s form was the perfect tonic, explaining: “When the team is winning, it takes a lot of pressure off you, even if you're not there physically.
“It definitely made a difference.”
Smith, 58, said: “We were happy with the way the pre-season had gone, and going into the Betfred Cup, you never know how it's going to go, but we got a late goal to beat East Fife, and in the Hearts game I thought we had a couple of big decisions go against us. It was a bit unjust, but we took a lot out of it.
“From there, we had the 3-3 draw against Inverness and I thought we played some unbelievable football and then we went on to get a win at Cowdenbeath.”
Raith kicked off their league campaign after three seasons out of the Championship with a home match against Arbroath and recorded a confidence-boosting 3-0 win.
“For the first 15-20 minutes, Arbroath were the better team, but then we had a fantastic 15-minute spell when we scored three goals,” Smith remembers.
“From there, confidence grew among the boys and it snowballed from there. We went down to Queen of the South the following week and scored five goals, then we got a draw at Dundee before scoring another five at home to Morton.
“It was a fantastic start to the season, and that can only help the players' confidence.
“As a management team, though, you always worry because you know how tight this league is. You can have a good start and it can flip and you have a bad spell. There’s a lot of good teams in the Championship and they can quite easily catch you up.”
Despite being away from the ground, McGlynn was in contact with Smith throughout, and he says that excellent first few games gave the team a strong foundation to go forward from.
“It was a great start and we could only really build on that, and the confidence that it gave everyone was with us all season,” he said. “In those first nine games, we couldn't have asked for much more.”
A loss away to Inverness, the first real disappointment of the campaign, saw the team then kick off December with their first Fife league derby for three years and one which should have seen Rovers win.
Smith said: “Performance-wise in the first half, we were absolutely different class.
“In the second half, we got to 2-0 and I'm thinking keep it tight for five or 10 minutes, but unfortunately they got two goals back fairly quickly.
“We could have maybe nicked it at the end.
“The biggest disappointment really was that the fans weren't there.”
A 0-0 draw at Ayr was followed by yet another five goals, this time away at Alloa, before ending the year with their worst performance of the season at home to Queen of the South with a 2-0 loss.
“Everything had been going so well and we scored five goals away to Alloa just a few days before,” McGlynn said.
“I think teams had started to recognise what we were good at and were setting out to make sure we weren't allowed to play that way.
“That was the first game that a team had made it really difficult to play and we didn't get up to the standards that we had set previously. It wasn't the best way to finish the year.”
However, Rovers would bounce back with a famous win but not before a Covid-19 outbreak at the club in a season truly like no other.
Part two of our season review follows next week