Season 2015 – 16 marks the 40th anniversary of the promotion campaign of the mid-70s, and the 20th anniversary of Raith Rovers first foray into European competition.

 To mark these significant anniversaries in Raith Rovers history some of RRFC’s official website volunteers have trawled their memory banks (and the archives) to bring their recollections of 7 memorable seasons and matches to life…..

The fourth article of the 7 was penned by Match Reporter, Andrew Fairlie:


With Raith’s league campaign underway in the 1995/6 season, and those members of the Starks Park faithful who had braved the trip to the Faroes safely back on Fife soil, Tuesday 12th September saw the UEFA Cup first round first leg at Starks Park.


While the preliminary round ties against Gotu I.F. were tentative and joyous, and the crescendo of Raith’s historic fixtures against Bayern Munich memorable and tumultuous, the two matches against Akranes of Iceland represented cup-tie football at its best – a crackling atmosphere, two sides with gifted forwards and robust defenders, and real swings of momentum between the two protagonists.


By mid-September, the balmy summer evenings of August had been replaced with a freshness representing the onset of Autumn. In perfect mid-week weather for football, and with a pitch showing the qualities of a summer’s attention, the first-leg saw Raith and Akranes serve up four goals over a ninety minutes which showed the heights which Jimmy Nicholl’s team had reached during this glittering spell for the Kirkcaldy club.


While the two matches against Gotu had sandwiched a visit from Arbroath in the Coca-Cola Cup, the run-up to the home Akranes tie could hardly have been more testing for Raith. Mentally exhausting home and away defeats to Celtic were followed by a resounding league defeat at Ibrox. The sense of injustice following the extra-time Cup defeat at Parkhead contributed hugely to Raith’s no-nonsense approach to the visit of their Icelandic challengers.


As Scotland’s only remaining representatives in the UEFA Cup, Raith staff and fans alike listened to the UEFA Cup draw with conflicting thoughts – with the competition being cleared of the lesser names, would one of Europe’s footballing aristocracy be drawn from the UEFA Cup hat, or would another competitive tie be a better result? Could Raith’s European adventure clear another hurdle?


The confusing seeding system of the UEFA Cup paired with regional separation to minimise travelling distances for smaller clubs left the pre-draw speculators with much to chew on. Motherwell’s conquerors MyPa-47 were one possibility; another option was a trip to Moldova – surely feared as much by Kirkcaldy’s travel agents as by those with an aversion to anti-climax. Four English teams alo entered the competition, following their enforced absence from European competition in the previous decade. If Raith’s European adventure was to end at first round stage, better a blaze of glory than a late-night highlights package formality, remembered by no-one?


Akranes were champions of Iceland. Having knocked six goals past Shelbourne in the preliminary round, and stabling numerous Icelandic thoroughbreds with international experience, on paper Raith did not look favourites. Having said that, the draw was one of the better Raith could have hoped for if progress was the aim – PSV Eindhoven, Malmo, and Standard Liege were all northern European sides who could have been tasked with a trip to Starks Park. French, German, and Russian diners from football’s top table also remained in wait.


Akranes also boasted some genuine star quality. Twin brothers Arnar and Bjarki Gunlaugsson were on loan to Akranes from Feyenoord, captain Olafur Thordurson had 72 caps for Iceland remaining to this day one of Iceland’s most capped players, while former Sheffield Wednesday defender Siggi Jonsson has recently been shortlisted as one of Iceland’s greatest ever players.


Raith started well. Anticipating that the early stages would be Raith’s best chance to make an impact, Jimmy Nicholl sent his side out to attack from the off. With Davie Kirkwood’s sizeable presence anchoring the midfield determined to reduce the space available to the mobile Gunlaugssons, Crawford Cameron and Rougier attacked from the opening moments. The tackles flew, the crowd generated an electric atmosphere, and the players responded – on fourteen minutes, Raith led. McAnespie fed Lennon, and with the visiting defence hesitating, Lennon swept a 20-yard finish beyond Thordarson’s outstretched right hand.


Continuing the fight, a Dennis header was palmed away at the last moment, and a Barry Wilson pile-driver from distance was superbly saved by the visiting keeper. Raith were growing in stature by the second.


Having begun defensively, Akranes upped the tempo as half-time approached. The Gunlaugsson twins – having both scored in the away leg against Shelbourne – fizzed and sparked around the Raith back four. Kirkwood and Broddle were both booked. Raith’s momentum was further dented with the withdrawal of Rougier on the half-hour, Jason Dair the replacement.


With Raith fans at both ends of the ground, the noise within Starks Park had reached ear-splitting levels with Lennon’s opener. With moments to go before half-time, a hammer-blow – Bjarki Gunlaugsson drew Sinclair out of position, allowing captain Thordursson to race into space away from Dennis, slipping home his compatriot’s inch-perfect through-ball beyond the on-rushing Thomson.


As the Icelandic players celebrated the crucial away goal, Starks Park resounded with a resiliant roar not heard for years at the old ground – home supporters urged their team back for the restart, and gave a raucous standing ovation as the teams departed for the interval moments later. Raith had fought battle after battle to reach this stage, the home support were saying – there was fight left, notwithstanding the Akranes leveller.


Energised by their equaliser, Akranes started the second spell on top. Arnar Gunlaugsson lobbed Thomson only for the adventurous effort to drift over the home cross-bar, and brother Bjarki slid the ball home on 55 minutes from an off-side position. Against the run of play, a snap-shot from Lennon followed a Kirkwood cross, and Raith led once more.


With Ally Graham on for Crawford, Raith began a more direct phase of play. The burly Icelandic centre-halves had a direct physical challenge in Graham’s muscular presence under the high ball. With the home support filling the North terracing as well, the vast majority of the 5,824 home crowd bellowed for a Raith third.


Perhaps the turning-point over the two legs occurred with fifteen minutes to go – a neat through- ball down the inside right channel let Arnar Gunlaugsson sprint beyond Broddle and in on goal. With Starks Park holding its breath, keeper Thomson raced from his line and spread himself to make a superb save with his feet to block the talented Gunlaugsson’s effort to safety. And within minutes, with a move of top-drawer European pace purpose and precision, Raith extended their lead. Cameron twisted away from his man, and with the buccanneering Barry Wilson thundering inside from his wing like an express train, Cameron’s slide-rule pass invited the perfect finish. Wilson, his team-mates, and the Raith crowd, celebrated in raptures.


Raith fans, by now experts in the UEFA Cup’s away-goals rule, knew the significance of Wilson’s third. While Icelandic newspapers reported the task facing their champions difficult but possible in the second leg, Raith’s players and staff could hardly have hoped the night would go better. Players of genuine quality and with league-winning experience had been taken on and beaten, with an attacking performance of bravery, verve, and pace from a home side truly by now living the European dream.


A scan through the UEFA Cup results from that evening is still a breath-taking exercise. AC Milan, Inter, Barcelona, Seville, and Lazio all looked sure to progress. But Raith would surely be tested in the second leg – could we dare to imagine a second-round tie at Europe’s top table?

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