By Jamie Spreng
We caught up with John McGlynn, Raith Rovers manager recently on how COVID has affected his football and personal life, returning to Stark’s Park, that crazy season in League One, Raith’s strong return to the Championship and what the future holds for his beloved club.
Raith Rovers have not been immune to the problems COVID has thrown at clubs this season. But whilst John himself did not contract the virus, separately in the Autumn he underwent an operation to remove his gallbladder. The recuperation period in hospital however meant he was unable to see his family.
“Because of COVID I couldn’t get any visitors in the hospital so that was more difficult from that point of view. My wife or daughter couldn’t get in so that was different from the norm”.
And whilst John had his issues surrounding the restrictions, clubs this season have had to get used to the ever-changing restrictions the JRG (Joint Response Group) and Scottish Government have outlined as the season has gone on. As this interview goes out, Raith sit 2nd in the Championship and John has nothing but praise for his squad as they adapt to a new way of working in professional football
“The players are the ones who have to take all the credit. They are the ones who are on the pitch putting in the performances, reacting to the challenges, bouncing back from defeats which they’ve done on virtually every occasion.”
And with players now effectively working in their own bubbles until new guidance is produced, John fully empathises with the players on how tough this can be for them both professionally and mentally.
“There’s not a lot of social interaction between the players, maybe virtually and on social media. But with regards coming together for periods of time that would normally happen and even building up these relationships with new players coming in, that’s not happened. I’m not suggesting you need to drink to have a good night out, I’m not a big drinker myself. But the guys would normally have team nights out and that’s quite normal and common and it can be very good. So, it’s been difficult for them in that aspect. Even just eating at the football club, normal things like showering. You’re not even getting a shower at the moment. You’re not going to the gym. It’s completely different.
“Tactically, we try to keep giving the players as much information as we can without jeopardising their situation they are in and keep social distancing for a limited amount of time with ventilation.”
And Raith were involved in what would become an infamous legal battle, the likes Scottish Football had never seen before. More on that to come.
When clubs are faced with the task of replacing their manager, the inevitable rumours start to circulate. Will the club go for an up-and-coming manager, go for the experienced head or in some cases, go back to what they know?
In September 2018, Raith Rovers did just that. After a 6-year absence, John McGlynn was back at the helm at Stark’s Park. By no means was he the favourite for the job, nor even in the top 10 in the bookmakers’ odds. So, when the appointment was announced, it took fans by surprise.
“I’m quite a private person, I’m not on social media, I don’t really speak with every Tom, Dick and Harry in football, so no one would really know I’d be interested in the job other than the main people at the club. So, the media and pundits will go with who’s in and around at that time. I threw my hat in the ring.”
“There was a period where there was an internal manager with Kevin Cuthbert in charge and it was after the Montrose result at home (0-0) that the board got back in contact with me and offered me the job. I had a meeting with John Sim (Chairman) and it was more or less concluded a few days later.”
John’s second spell could not have begun any better. A 5-1 win away at Dumbarton had Rovers fans in ecstasy. However, inconsistent results would mar their season and ultimately, they would finish 3rd behind eventual champions Arbroath and over achieving Forfar Athletic. And whilst they would reach the promotion play off final against Queen of the South, the club would come up short, losing 3-1 over 2 legs and faced their 3rd season in League One.
Despite these disappointments, their campaign was not without its positives. Arguably the result of the season came in a 3-0 Scottish Cup victory over their great rivals Dunfermline Athletic, something John rates as one of his best results as a manager.
“It’s your main rivals from along the road and it means so much to your fans. The atmosphere, it was a Scottish Cup tie, everything about it made it exciting and we’ve come out on top. In the 2nd half we played particularly well. Lewis Vaughan was key and he’s held in great esteem by the fans and no wonder! I signed Lewis when he was 14 for the football club so I’ve known him for a long time. To score 3 goals in that particular game will live in the memories with many fans and obviously Lewis is never going to forget it either!”
The 2019/2020 season would be a season like no other. The strength of the league had grown with Falkirk’s relegation to League One and Airdrie adopting a similar hybrid system to Raith Rovers, mixing full and part time players. John, now in his first full season, in his second spell, was up for the challenge.
“We went into the season wanting to be champions. I like to think I’m a winner, so you’ve got to install that mentality into the players otherwise you’ll accept losing, you’ll accept mediocrity so you have to set standards to the players and if they can tick those boxes then the success, performances and results follow on.”
John and his team knew Falkirk would probably be their closest challengers, but in March, and rumbling on into the Summer of 2020, lockdown began across the UK. All professional sports were stopped immediately, leaving the SPFL to declare, after some deliberation, that Celtic, Dundee Utd, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers won their leagues retrospectively. John argues whilst it was unfortunate, there could only be one outcome based on the facts.
“Falkirk were the big spenders in the league so we expected them to be up there. But Falkirk couldn’t beat us. They got a lot of sympathy and had all the opportunities to get above us but for 22 weeks out 28 we were top of the table! That sounds like consistency to me and if it was based on who was top of the table the longest, there was only one winner!”
And whilst Raith would benefit from the season ending in one way, in another, their Challenge Cup journey has still not been completed. Victories over Ross County Colts, Glenavon, Elgin City and a Friday night thriller at Firhill against Partick Thistle secured their first cup final since that famous day at Easter Road in 2014. Yet as we reach nearly a year to the day the original final was scheduled, the club have yet to find out a new date.
“I’ve never heard anything for a long time. It was discussed earlier in the season. There is a desire to get it played but I’ve not heard since October (2020) anything about the Challenge Cup. But it is only one game and I would be disappointed if they couldn’t find a gap between now and the end of this season just to play that one game.”
“From a purely selfish and personal point of view I’ve taken 3 different clubs to cup finals and never managed to take a team out to one yet. So, I would be extremely disappointed if this game was shelved and never played.”
After Raith’s successful legal battle over the Summer, resulting in them being awarded their Championship status, the club got to work on building a squad capable of establishing themselves as a team worthy of their promotion. Their start to the campaign, was a strong one. 3 wins and a draw from their 1st 4 games saw Rovers sit 2nd in the Championship in what would be a shortened 27 game season.
“You anticipate it’s going to be a difficult season. Our very 1st league game was against Arbroath and we all know they did exceptionally well to win League One fairly convincingly. They go up and finish 5th or 6th in the Championship last season so you’re expecting a really tough game. The players were outstanding on the day. A very comfortable 3-0 victory . There were moments at 0-0 that maybe it could’ve went another way. Then to go down to Dumfries. 5-2. To score 5 goals, all of a sudden, you’ve scored 8 goals, 2 against and everything’s really looking rosy. Then a draw up at Dens, getting a late equaliser. You would take that!”
“The start was beyond our expectations without doubt. I was in a hospital bed at this particular time or at home trying to recuperate. It was great to see the games and see how the team was evolving. Paul and everyone did a great job! We took 15 points from the 1st 9 games. We’re sitting right now (at time of recording 2nd March) on 12 points from the next 7 games so we have an opportunity to make it 15 (Raith’s match with Dunfermline was postponed for COVID reasons a day later).
With the season starting, continuing and likely finishing without fans in the stadium, players are now becoming used to an eerie silence that comes over the grounds. But John and his players, like many clubs, have now accepted the new the normal but welcome the day fans can return.
“There’s no doubt we would prefer to have fans in the stadium but we’ve got used to it. We train on our pitch when it’s empty. It’s nothing new to us. We have every training session there so it’s an advantage to us to an extent.”
“Of course, it can work both ways, like Saturday for example (27th Feb vs Alloa) we take a long time to equalise. Would the fans be as patient as we were? Hopefully in the future, like this example, be patient with us, don’t get on the players back, because we’re actually playing well. Yeah, we’re a goal behind but we can still do this. We wouldn’t be the only club that would come into this kind of category.”
“I think it will be very emotional when fans do get back in. We’ve never had a chance to celebrate the fact we’ve won the league. Some of the performances we’ve put on this year I’d just love to have all the players together with fans in the stadium just so we could all recognise, together, what’s been going on and what we’ve achieved.”
As the season reaches its climax, Rovers sit in a strong position in the playoffs with a very outside chance of a title push. And whilst the club harbour ambitions of promotion via any method possible, John spoke about the clubs plans for the future and where he sees the club heading.
“We will be full time next season. Now we’ve drawn up a plan where if the club is in League One there’s a distinct possibility it could be a hybrid system. If the club are higher than League One, i.e., the Championship or Premiership then they would be full time. And god forbid that we ever get into League Two, well that would probably have to be part time. So that’s the sort of structure the club have put in place. We found in the Summer that a couple of players we approached to bring to the football club, guys that were 20-23 years old, still have potential to kick on. They didn’t want to be in a hybrid situation, so we lost out on a couple of players. These guys don’t want to be working on a Tuesday and Thursday night and they maybe don’t want to be involved with part time players. So, we don’t want to be losing out on players so we have to get that level playing field. If they don’t come to us, they’re going to some other team we’re competing against.”
We’d like to thank John for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us and wish Raith Rovers all the best for the rest of the season.