This season Rangers Report will run a series of Match Previews entitled, the Big Three, prior to each match. Rather then write in generalities about teams I rarely see – we will ask people who follow the opponent on a daily basis to provide some insight on their club. Their task is to identify a Big Three — three aspects of their club that Rangers supporters should keep an eye on.
Its been 17 years since Raith Rovers and Rangers locked horns in a league match. The last encounter, a 6-0 win for Rangers at Stark’s Park, came at the fag end of the 1996/97 season, a dismal campaign for the Kirkcaldy club, which saw them finish bottom of the top-tier with just 25 points. The intervening years have seen both of Friday evening’s protagonists undergo transformations, and while Rangers travails are widely documented, Raith too have had their fare share of problems.
An ill-fated attempt to bounce straight back up to the Premier League in the late ’90’s almost proved financially ruinous to the club, while Claude Anelka’s claims that he could turn Raith Rovers into Scotland’s third force, were predictably calamitous. Relegation to the third tier occurred in 2005, and under Gordon Dalziel, the Kirkcaldy club became a lower, to mid-table Second Division side, a position that was turned around by John McGlynn, who led Raith Rovers to the Second Division title in 2009.
The fallow decade or so that followed relegation from the top flight in 1997, has made way for a period of relative stability in the Championship, with the current campaign their sixth successive season at this level. However, only once in that time has the club posted a top half finish, and while the fans aspirations for this season remain realistic, Grant Murray’s team are expected to kick on from last season’s mediocre seventh place finish.
Raith Rovers: The Big Three
1. The Traditional Great Start
Perhaps Rangers should be relieved that this fixture wasn’t scheduled to be played in August, as over recent years, the month has been an extremely productive one for home side. Admittedly they were swept aside by an impressive looking Hearts team during the opening few weeks of this season, but three wins out of three against the trio of part-time sides, meant that Rovers ended the month in third place, level on points with Rangers who sit second.
Impressive starts have become something of a tradition at Stark’s Park in recent years, and since the 2007-08 season, Raith have played 32 league fixtures in the month of August, winning 20 and losing just 4. The handy habit of being quick out the blocks, means that during the last eight seasons, they’ve ended August top of the league three times, and been either second, or third, twice.
Unfortunately that form is rarely sustained, and although a good start has become the norm, so too has a collapse in performances during the late part of the season, as was witnessed during the last campaign, when Rovers won just five out of their last 25 league matches, after an extremely encouraging start to the season.
If they could find some consistency in the latter half of this term, then it should guarantee at the very least, a reasonable finish come the season’s end.
With Raith Rovers malaise during the second half of last season partly attributable to injuries to key players such as Paul Watson, David McGurn & Calum Elliot, the Board announced during the close season that it would be releasing funds to build a bigger squad for this campaign. What they couldn’t have anticipated however, is just how acute Raith’s injury problems would be, at this formative stage of the season.
Defenders Craig Barr & Dougie Hill have yet to play at all this season, with the former Airdrieonians player out with a knee injury, while Ramsdens Cup final man-of-the-match Hill, is recovering from a groin operation. While they will definitely be missing, there was also some doubt over ex-Rangers centre-half Ross Perry’s participation, after he limped off during the opening minutes of the last league fixture against Cowdenbeath. However, it appears that the international break gave Perry the chance to recover ahead of the match with his former club.
That 3-1 win at Central Park also saw Kevin Cuthbert, a goalkeeper who has greatly impressed since arriving from Hamilton, injured in the warm up, which handed young goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw his first start of the season.
Christian Nadé was forced to come off during the League Cup defeat at Dundee, with the initial reports stating that he’d be out for a month with a hamstring injury, although Grant Murray has since made claims that the French forward may play some part in Friday night’s match.
Additionally, Calum Elliot and Kevin Moon have just made their way back into the side after a few weeks out, while David McGurn has been made available for loan, as he looks to battle back from the achilles injury which ruled him out for the best part of the last 12 months.
One of the criticisms surrounding Grant Murray is that when it comes to setting his team up, he very rarely deviates from the traditional 4 4 2. The Raith boss did alter his formation in the cup matches last season against Premiership sides, with Greig Spence on his own up top during the 3-2 win against Hibernian at Easter Road, while Gordon Smith played the same role during the 3-1 home defeat to St. Johnstone in the Scottish Cup quarter-final.
Both those games however, took place during a period of time when Calum Elliot was out injured. If he’d been available, there’s every chance that Raith would have started with two forwards, as Elliot’s style of play generally sees him dropping deep to help the midfield.
The manager Murray may also be swayed by just how easily the central pairing of Liam Fox and Martin Scott were swept aside against Hearts during the recent 4-0 home defeat. Rather than adding another player into that area though, Scott may move out to the right, to accommodate the returning Kevin Moon, with Mark Stewart pushed further forward, partnering Nadé or Elliot if they’re fit, or even teenager Lewis Vaughan if they aren’t.
With Rovers expected to be on the back foot for the majority of the match, the worry would be how well the team is suited to a counter-attacking style, due to its lack of real pace. Of the anticipated starting XI, only Stewart is blessed with it in abundance, although Grant Anderson, who has been used sparingly this season, will be a fleet footed option from the bench.
If Raith do see less of the ball than normal, then set-pieces could be vital, and left sided midfielder Ryan Conroy has already demonstrated that he is adept at delivering an excellent free-kick, with goals against Dumbarton and Cowdenbeath.
On the opposite side, full-back Jason Thomson will attempt to get forward to provide some width, but with neither of the central midfielders, Liam Fox or Kevin Moon the type of players to provide late runs into the box, clear cut chances could be at a premium.
You can follow Shaughan McGuigan on Twitter @ShaughanM & read his work over at Tell Him He’s Pele