In over 50 years participation in European club competition Scotland has consistently punched above its perilously puny weight. The respective European Cup and Cup Winners Cups which adorn the trophy cabinets of Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers, combined with the appearances of Dundee, Dundee United and Hibernian in the latter stages of elite European competition, testify to this unlikely modicum of achievement.
Yet the heroics of the past are not confined solely to clubs who, for the most part, populate the top half of the Premier League. The pot luck format provided by the domestic cup competitions has occasionally provided some of Scottish footballs lesser lights with the opportunity to compete against the cream of European football.
This footballing anomaly was emphasised as recently as this season, as Queen of the South made their brief but entertaining European debut as they gallantly but convincingly lost to FC Nordsjaelland of Denmark. The recent past has also provided the likes of St. Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Dunfermline, St. Mirren and Gretna the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Cup Winners and runners-up of Europe’s best leagues.
Competing in the rarefied atmosphere of European club football and acclimatising to the general step up in quality however, has consistently been met with inconsistency on the part of the smaller Scottish sides. 1999 saw St. Johnstone come close to matching former European Cup finalists Monaco, while on the other hand Gretna suffered the spectacular indignation of a public spanking from Irish minnows Derry City.
Undoubtedly falling into the more preferable and respectful category of Euro performance, as demonstrated by St Johnstone, is that of Raith Rovers, whose 1995 foray in the UEFA Cup is difficult to recall sans a nostalgic “oh aye”.
Having qualified for the competition by famously beating Celtic in the 1994 Coca Cola Cup Final, the Fifers somehow managed to stop “dancing in the streets of Raith” in time to prepare for their European travels. Jimmy Nicholl’s legendary interview faux pas however, ensured the classic Martha and the Vandrellas tune was to soundtrack their forthcoming adventures and provide scope for all Raith Rovers inclined to dance in the aforementioned streets once more.
The 1994/95 season had seen a young and extremely talented Rovers team cruise to the first division title. With a squad containing future Scotland internationals Colin Cameron and Stevie Crawford they comfortably acclimatised to the Premier Division as they reaped the rewards for the previous year’s consistency.
Yet despite reclaiming a place at the top table of Scottish football, it was the mystique and aura of continental competition which generated the most excitement for Rovers players and fans alike as for the first time in the its 112 year history, Starks Park would play host to European football.
The first of the continent’s elite to be welcomed to Kirkcaldy were the not so heavyweight Faroese champions Gotu Ittroterfelag. Despite the formality of the game, the sense of occasion as Raith Rovers made their European debut was something to be cherished by all present. Jason Dair, further engraved his name in the club’s history books as he scored Rovers first European goal, before Steve Mcanespie and Danny Lennon added to the tally to seal a 4 – 0 victory.
The convincing nature of the first leg victory ensured the second leg in the Faroe Islands was academic and a 2 – 2 draw safely ensured Rovers passage to the first round proper of the UEFA Cup where they would face Icelandic champions Akranes. A 3-1 victory in the first leg at Starks Park, thanks to a goal from Barry Wilson and two from Danny Lennon, ensured Rovers had the upper hand. However the away goal scored by the Icelanders would ensure a tricky tie in the return leg in Reykjavik. Despite nearly 90 minutes of uninterrupted Akranes pressure, Rovers managed to ride out a 1-0 defeat in Iceland, thus earning their passage to the next stage thanks to a 3 – 2 aggregate victory.
The excitement of tournament progression however, was somewhat tempered in the game’s aftermath, as midfielder and star performer against Akranes, Steve Mcanespie was transferred to Bolton Wanderers. Although Rovers received the fair sum of £900,000, they lost one of their driving forces whom they undoubtedly struggled to suitably replace.
The feeling of loss however was soon to be tempered by that of anticipation as the draw for the next round provided Jimmy Nicholl with the match of his dreams as three-time European Cup winners Bayern Munich were paired against the Fife side.
The town of Kirkcaldy was giddy with excitement at the prospect of the local team encountering the likes Oliver Khan, Jurgen Klinsmann and Jean Pierre Papin. Such was the interest, Starks Park could not meet the demand, meaning Rovers would stage their home leg at the more facilitative Easter Road. Although moving the tie to Edinburgh somewhat reduced the romanticism surrounding the occasion, it ensured that over 12,000 people could attend the biggest game in the club’s history.
Interest in the tie was not solely confined to Kirkcaldy however. The event captured the imagination Scottish public, who on the whole have an inherent if slightly masochistic love of the underdog. This tie would provide the perfect opportunity for the nation to indulge its love for self-defeating past times.
In front of a packed Easter Road crowd and millions of TV viewers Raith Rovers took to the field determined to make the most of the biggest stage the club had ever graced. Yet despite the early optimism, Bayern’s experience, professionalism and quality were palpable. With only six minutes on the clock World Cup winner and celebratory diver Jurgen Klinsman clinically punished a Shaun Dennis slip as he gracefully chipped the ball beyond the on-rushing Rovers keeper Scott Thompson, giving the Germans an early advantage.
Somewhat stung by this early set back Rovers managed to compose themselves and repel Bayern until half-time, allowing them to the opportunity to reorganise. The second half commenced in a very different fashion, as Rovers forced the Germans onto the back foot, culminating in a spectacular Ollie Kahn save to deny Colin Cameron an equalising goal.
Unfortunately the temerity to compete and threaten an equaliser had the effect of galvanising Bayern and within minutes they had doubled their advantage. Again, it was the deadly Klinsmann who provided the ultimate touch to a fine move, thus ending the game and in all probability the tie. In the aftermath, most observers concurred in their assessment and what would follow in the return leg in Munich.
“Rovers had battled bravely and could be proud of their performance, but the tie was over. Any notion to contrary was unrealistic.”
The mood amongst the Rovers squad however, was not so apathetic and defeatist. Buoyed by their performance and strong showing against one of Europe’s most famed and decorated sides, the return in Munich would provide another opportunity to demonstrate their collective ability, this time in one of Europe’s footballing cathedrals.
Steeped in sporting history the Olympiastadion in Munich had played host to the 1974 World Cup final and the 1976 Olympics as well as being the professional residence of the likes of Franz Beckanbauer and Gerd Muller during the 1970s. Pele and Johan Cruyff had also graced the famous turf and the stadium provided a spectacular backdrop to Marco Van Basten’s famous volley in the 1988 Euro Championships final. Now adding their names to the pantheon of champions to perform in this most illustrious of arenas would be Fife’s finest.
The grand occasion was not lost on the intrepid band of travelling Rovers fans. Still acclimatising to supporting a successful football side and the luxuries success brings – such as the excuse to visit European cultural beauty spots on the pretence of supporting a football team – the 1,000 or so fans who travelled did so in high hopes and were intent on enjoying themselves.
And that they most certainly did. Having seen Jean Pierre Papin balloon an early penalty, the white-shirted Rovers shocked the 27,000 crowd by taking the lead on the stroke of half time. A Danny Lennon free kick was given an extra ounce of swerve as it nicked off a Bayern defender before finding a resting place in the home team’s net. Cue delirious and unhinged outpourings of joy, not only in the away supporters section but on the field, as Danny Lennon somehow managed to survive a pile up containing the bulky frame of Shaun Dennis.
The Rover’s goal seemed to knock the Germans off balance. The control and calmness under pressure they had hitherto subtly exuded seemed to desert them as Rovers ratcheted up the pressure. The convenient intervention of half time didn’t help Bayern as the second half began as the first had ended. Rovers maintained control of the game and came tantalisingly close to levelling the tie as Tony Rougier somehow contrived to hit the side netting when the simpler task would have been to score.
As in the first leg however, the realisation of just how close Rovers had come to levelling matters seemed to anger Bayern into action. Within minutes of Rougier’s miss Klinsmann had scored to level the tie on the night and shortly after Marcus Babbel made it 2 – 1 to Bayern, thus ensuring their passage to the next round.
Rovers returned to Scotland the following day defeated but unquestionably dignified and with pride more than in tact. The Scottish press eulogised over their performance, seemingly genuine in their disappointment at how close a plucky Fife side had come to shocking one of Europe’s most famed clubs. Although much admired at the time, the mammoth scale and quality of Jimmy Nicholl’s side’s performance over the two legs became apparent in the following months as Bayern Munich effortlessly brushed aside the likes of Benfica, PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona, before demolishing Zinedine Zidane’s Bordeaux in the final.
When surmising the campaign, Bayern manager Otto Rehhagel described the games against Rovers as “the toughest we endured during the competition”. Such words were certainly testament to the talents and abilities of this Raith Rovers team and in an era where Scottish clubs once famous European reputations were rapidly dwindling, their bravery and performances restored a modicum of respect to the Scottish game.
Although they ultimately lost, the Raith Rovers team of 1995 can remain proud of their UEFA Cup performance. In a year which saw the supposed Scottish giants – Celtic and Rangers – meagerly succumb to teams infinitely inferior to Bayern Munich, Scotland was certainly proud of them.
Published in Issue Five of The 12th Man Scottish Football fanzine. For more information on our Fanzines please go to: http://scotzine.com/fanzines/