Stark’s Park is a bit of an odd ground these days. Raith have been playing there since 1891, but its current character was defined in the 1990s when – perhaps a little unluckily – Raith’s period as a minor force in the Scottish game happened to coincide with the impetus that led to the SPL. In particular, the ground criteria, under which every SPL hopeful would have to have their own 10,000 seat stadium, and to have it ready before achieving promotion.
In the few years before these daft rules were relaxed – both in the size and in the timing – a number of clubs saddled themselves with white elephants, and Raith are one of those left with a ground far larger than they need. Accordingly, the Railway Stand down one side of the pitch has been closed for a few years now. On the opposite side the Main Stand extends only half the length of the pitch, though it does go round the corner a bit at the end. It was state of the art when it was built – in 1923 – and supposedly it took the club until after the war to finish paying for it.
But most of the fans sit in the two big new stands behind the goals, home support in the South Stand, away support in the McDermid Stand at the opposite end of the pitch (sponsored by Val McDermid – does anyone else have a stand sponsored by a crime writer?). In the second division days, when some sides would send barely a single coachload of fans, it made for some curiously atmosphereless matches.
This weekend, however, all of that is forgotten. For once, the ground doesn’t feel too big and you can hear the other supporters. It’s derby day, the Pars are in town, and with both sides having made a flying start to the season, it’s one of the most hotly-anticipated derbies for years. (The eventual gate of a little over six thousand is about three times normal size.)
Not that there have been that many derbies in recent years. Raith and Dunfermline may be the two biggest of the four Fife clubs, but for most of the past decade they’ve been missing each other. With those mid-90s glory days long gone, Raith have been languishing in the Second Division, while Dunfermline have mostly been riding high in the SPL. It made the rivalry, such as it is, seem a little one-sided for a while, Dunfermline fans having been able to look down on “the wee team” with amused disdain while they got on with the more serious business of hating Falkirk (of whom a mutual dislike unites the two sets of fans – and indeed, most of the rest of Scottish football). Last season, for the first time in nine years, they found themselves back in the same league – the First Division. And this season there are grudge matches galore, having been joined in the same division by a third Fife side in Cowdenbeath. And, for good measure, Falkirk.
Few deny that Dunfermline are still the bigger of the two teams here – bigger ground, bigger gates, bigger wage bill, (bigger debts). And probably better players, though not by much. (And you’ll notice I didn’t say “better manager”.) They’re the ones who have higher hopes to be in the promotion race come the end of the season, and they’d started it with back-to-back wins. Andy Kirk has been scoring the goals but before this game much of the talk was of their two wingers. On the right, Willie Gibson is one of the division’s most talented players and caused Raith all kinds of problems in several of these fixtures last season. And yet, whenever I mention him in glowing terms to Dunfermline fans they generally look a bit underwhelmed – for all his talent there seems to be a bit of a suspicion that, some days, he just doesn’t fancy it.
On the other flank, Joe Cardle is another who has had some doubts expressed about his attitude during the course of his career. Highly-rated in his youth at Port Vale, he drifted somewhat, and prior to his arrival at Dunfermline he’d been released early by Airdrie after being sent off for punching a teammate. Again though, a talented player, and the word was that he’d started the season on good form.
Raith have form of their own and also came into the game on two wins from two, thanks in large part to new signing John Baird who scored four goals in those two games. To understand why Raith fans are getting so excited about him, it’s sufficient to note that it took well into March last season for any of their players to notch up the same tally. Baird has struck up an early understanding with Gregory Tadé, himself something of a cult hero at Stark’s, and they have a goal threat that was all too often missing from otherwise decent performances last year.
Raith were unchanged, despite club captain Iain Davidson being available again after suspension, while Dunfermline rather surprisingly switched to 4-5-1. It looked to be working pretty well to begin with. Although Raith started brightly and Ian Williamson might have done better with a free header, before long Dunfermline took control and dominated possession for most of the first half. Raith were struggling to clear their lines, and under pressure started to make mistakes in dangerous areas. It felt like a goal was coming, but actual chances were few and far between – Nick Phinn had a shot saved after a good run, Kirk saw a header cleared off the line by Willie Dyer and Gibson sent a hopeful shot wide, but not a lot else. For once I was starting to see what they meant about Gibson. To be fair he was caught by a nasty tackle early on, for which Steve Simmons – one of several ex-Pars in the Raith team – was lucky to escape a booking, and perhaps he was injured. But every time he had a chance to run at the defence he turned back, either passing it or cutting inside for a speculative shot. He limped off after an hour without having beaten his full-back once.
Cardle was kept reasonably quiet too, though he did send in a very dangerous low cross which Laurie Ellis cut out but could only slice the clearance narrowly over the bar. It was probably as close as we came to a goal in the first half.
But five minutes into the second half, it was the home side who got a break with one of those technically correct but rather soft penalty decisions, Baird going down under the challenge of goalkeeper Chris Smith. Smith made amends with a good save from Baird’s spot-kick, and yet it was Raith who seemed to take confidence from it and came more and more into the game. The next twenty minutes were pretty even, though it was Phinn came closest to breaking the deadlock with a fierce shot that skimmed the bar.
With twenty minutes left, it was time for Davidson to make his entrance. Another player who has had problems with his temper on occasion, on and off the field, Davo rather divides the home support. But whatever you say of him, you can never accuse him of hiding or shirking a challenge, and within the first couple of minutes he’d made his presence felt. His first contribution was to miscontrol the ball for a throw-in; his second was to concede a foul; his third was to make his way forward and stretch out a leg to ram Tadé’s knock-dowm past Smith for the opening goal.
If there were some doubts about how much they deserved the lead, Raith set about justifying them retrospectively, and for the remainder of the game there was only one team in it. The second goal came five minutes later when Ellis was first to a near post corner, and there might have been more, most obviously when Tadé shot over the bar from Jamie Mole’s cut-back. But the game was won by then, and it’s Raith who maintain their hundred per cent record at the top of the league. To some extent, John McGlynn’s men will gain even more confidence from winning despite an under-par performance – the ability to nick points when not at their best is not entirely down to luck even if they did ride theirs for long spells during the afternoon. Dunfermline have the opposite problem, they can be quite pleased in some respects with the way they played but Jim McIntyre will be concerned at the way they caved in once the game turned against them.
Bragging rights to Raith meantime, but with ten team leagues such rights don’t last long. Last year Raith won the first of the league derbies by the same score, only to lose the next three. I still expect Dunfermline to finish the season as the higher of the two sides, but they’re going to find the wee team a more difficult proposition this time round. As to whether either side has the potential to be in the SPL next season, I remain sceptical.
22nd Aug 2010