John Sim insists his vision for Raith Rovers remains unaffected by the club’s failure to win promotion back to the Championship at the first attempt.
In a detailed interview with the Press, the majority shareholder revealed his reasons for standing by manager Barry Smith for a second season in League One, while pressing ahead with the installation of an artificial surface at Stark’s Park, with work due to begin next week.
“We signed Barry for two seasons and we’re sticking by that,” Sim explained.
“We came very close to promotion, and if there was one defining moment that probably affected our season more than any, it was Hearts taking Ross Callachan on transfer deadline day.
“That was my call. I didn’t think we could stand in his way, but it made it very difficult to replace him.
“Also, some of the players didn’t perform to their full potential, and we had some injuries. It was a two-horse race, but we were 15 points ahead of the third placed team. Ayr invested a lot of money in experienced players, and we ran them to the wire.
“Sure, we’re all upset, especially Barry, but do you throw everything away or continue with the plan you had in place?
“I know it’s frustrating for the fans but I can promise them that behind the scenes we’re making a lot of progress.
“We’re starting to get the right people in the right seats, but we did dig a very big financial hole that we’ve got to climb out of.
“That goes back to 2005. We didn’t get it right. We went into a cycle of losing £100,000 a year, we didn’t make any investments in the stadium, we let everything run down, and on top of that, we were unlucky enough to get relegated.
“Now we’re building back up from the foundations, starting with the pitch. And once we’ve finished there, we’ve got to turn our attention to the stands.”
Since arriving on the scene as part of the Reclaim the Rovers takeover in 2005, Sim has had ambitions to transform Stark’s Park into a hub for the local community.
The 66-year-old, who operates out of Thailand as the global CEO of accountancy firm PKF International, is both the majority shareholder in the football club and Stark’s Park Properties, the company which owns the stadium.
The first phase of his vision will begin early next week when work starts on ripping up the Stark’s Park turf to be replaced with a high-quality synthetic surface.
No expense will be spared in ensuring the pitch is one of the best in the country, with the surface set to cost a whopping £700,000 to install, entirely funded by Stark’s Park Properties.
“As best I can tell, for its size, it will be the most expensive artificial surface in Scotland,” Sim said.
“It is based on the Falkirk model, but we’re told with a far better irrigation system, and with a bitumen layer between the foundations and the carpet. All of these things are expensive, but it makes it far easier to replace the surface in seven to 10 years, and also reduces the likelihood of undulations in the pitch.”
Raith’s surface will also consist of green pellets, as opposed to the unslightly black ones used on cheaper models, while it will also be thicker than the standard depth, coming in at 60mm instead of 50mm.
“It just means they put more pellets in which supposedly makes it easier on knees, and means you can play rugby on it if you want to,” Sim added. “Over time we want to look at developing a community asset for the town, not just somewhere Raith can play 20 times a year. That’s been the vision from the start.”
The pitch will initially be used by the Raith squad for training and games, both at first team and reserve league level, while it will also be made available to Raith Ladies and the Raith Foundation, which hosts walking football sessions among other activities.
The plan is then to open the pitch up to full community use in the summer of 2019.
While the initial financial outlay is significant, with a further £200,000 quoted for necessary floodlight improvements, Sim insists Raith will save money in the long term.
“If we weren’t replacing the pitch, repairs to the grass surface this close season were estimated to cost at least £30,000,” he said.
“We know we can’t survive with a grass pitch, now we’ve got to see what the economics are with an aritificial surface.”
The spending on the pitch, however, will not affect Barry Smith’s playing budget next season.
“The two are totally separate,” Sim added. “Stark’s Park Properties own the ground, so it will make the investment in the artificial surface.
“In terms of the football budget, I know that Barry is looking at who he wants to keep, and who might be available. We’ve learned a bit from this year, and we’re just going to have to see how much it costs to get what we need to have a very good chance of getting promoted.”
Another area for development is the currently disused and dilapidated Railway Stand, with former club chairman and Kirkcaldy property developer Alex Penman stepping forward to take a leading role.
“We have a plan, and thanks to Alex, we’ve now got a concept for the redevelopment of the Railway Stand area, which is very ambitious, but also includes some of the additional facilities we’re going to need at some point going forward,” Sim revealed.
Asked whether Penman will be investing in the project, Sim added: “We’re not at that stage, but he has invested time and effort working on a concept for which we are very grateful. We certainly don’t have any funds to proceed immediately but we will be progressing the project. I’m sure Alex be involved in some way or another.
“There’s room for everybody in the club. We’re basically a volunteer organisation with limited resources for full-time employees. We just have to see how it develops.”
Sim added that while his focus remains on stadium upgrades, newly appointed chairman Bill Clark will play the leading role in running the day-to-day affairs of the club.
“My focus is the overall structure and particular emphasis on how we find funding to do what we need to do in the stadium over the next five years, and Bill will focus on running the football club,” he explained.
“But we want everyone to be in it together, whether it’s Barry and the team, the board, Stark’s Park Properties, Raith Foundation, Raith Ladies and all the various supporters groups. Everyone has got something to contribute.”
Sim was taken aback by the 4400 turn out for the final league game of the season, and although the failure to clinch the title resulted in overwhelming disappointment, the support from the town left him encouraged for the future.
“To be honest, it was a complete shock,” he said. “That gives you an idea of the potential if the club was to get its act together. We just need to get everybody singing for the same hymn sheet, and we’ve got a lot of community building to do to get there.
“That’s not something that will happen overnight - that’s a five to 10 year project.”