When the Raith Rovers support drifted home after the last home game of the 2003/2004 season the overall feeling was of grudging satisfaction. The 1-1 draw with already relegated Brechin City had been scrappy and difficult to watch, much like the rest of the season but with it came the confirmation that the club would be spared the dreaded trapdoor of relegation from the first division.
This fact could only be seen as a sign of progress coming as it did at the end of a period of ignominy that saw the club lurch from the highs of going one nil up in the Olympiastadion against Bayern Munich to the lows of being regularly beaten by the likes of Berwick Rangers and Stenhousemuir all within the space of 9 years.
Under the guidance of popular Spanish player manager Antonio Calderon Raith had won the 2nd division the previous season playing a brand of football that was easy on the eye although at times it seemed unsuitable to the more agricultural standard of play that was on show from the other teams in the league.
Integrating a mix of players from Britain, Argentina and his native Spain it appeared Calderon had managed to consolidate the progress that had been made on the park while the fans could tentatively forget about the financial issues that had also dragged the club into the mire over the previous few years.
Just a few days later however that idea was to be blown out of the water with one of the most incredible and eventually farcical chapters in the club’s history.
Claude Anelka, brother of Nicolas was introduced to the Raith fans as the season ended after he approached the Raith board and offered them £200,000 to take over the running of first team affairs.
He appeared to be a real life version of the letters people receive telling them they’ve won the Nigerian lottery. Unfortunately for the long-suffering supporters the Raith board didn’t realise that his claims of becoming the “third force in Scottish football” were too good to be true. The upheaval was immediate.
First to go was manager Antonio Calderon who understandably wasn’t keen on taking his orders from a man who was essentially an agent. Claude didn’t regard this as an issue however and decided that he himself was capable of becoming the head coach. As a result, this meant that Raith Rovers would start the season managed by a man who had never played nor coached in football at any recognised level.
In fact Anelka’s CV only included stints as a part-time adviser to his brother Nicolas and stints as a DJ. Neither of these past times left him looking particularly suitable as the man to lead a Scottish first division football team. Undeterred however he was keen to speak to the media about his plans for Raith Rovers future.
In an interview with The Scotsman after he took over, Anelka said: “It is time to show what I can do, I want to win promotion next season and for that I must bring in more quality.”
The disassembly of the squad started right away and although Raith already had a limited squad, even the better players from within it were cut adrift. Anelka claimed that he would be recruiting skilful players from his homeland but the names of his first few signings, Moussa Ouattarra, Amar Benaissa, Mehdi Eloudji and Jules Tchimbakala were not familiar to even the most knowledgable of fan.
Indeed the turnaround in the squad was such that the official SFA website gave up attempting to inform the fans of the transfer dealings that summer and incredibly just featured 3 lines for the club that said,
Raith Rovers: Out – Spain. In – France
To begin with it didn’t seem worrying that the squad was full of players that nobody from these shores had heard of, but when it became obvious that no-one from France had heard of them either then the alarm bells started to ring amongst the Starks Park faithful.
Anelka had decided that Scottish football was at such a poor level that players brought in cheap from the 7th tier of French football could be brought in to win the Scottish first division. To put that into perspective a club from that level, which is completely amateur, would need to rise over 100 places in the French league pyramid just to reach Ligue Un. Claude’s claims that he wanted to overtake Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen to challenge the Old Firm was reliant on players who had never even played professional football before.
An opening day home defeat in a B&Q cup tie against 3rd division Albion Rovers was a sign of what was to follow as the season began in an abysmal manner that was depressingly predictable. The first league game of the season ended in a 2 0 defeat to Hamilton followed by another cup exit at the first hurdle to lower league opposition, this time Stranraer in the League cup.
In fact in the first 13 games of the season Raith Rovers would register 11 defeats and 2 draws. Anelka’s French revolution was in tatters. Off the field things were going from bad to worse too. Assistant manager Dave Martin left the club before the end of August citing disagreements with the new man at the helm. He was replaced with former Chelsea manager John Hollins who lasted less than a month after a fallout with the Frenchman regarding team selection and tactics.
The fans meanwhile had decided enough was enough and began demonstrating to have Anelka removed from the club and by the end of September he had stepped down as the manager with a record of played 10, won 0, drawn 1, lost 9. He would continue in his role as director of football for another 2 weeks but after falling out with other members of the board and under pressure from the fans he cut all ties with the club mid way through October.
Speaking to the BBC after he left Anelka said that his plans for Raith had outstretched his ability and that his idea to bring “an Arsenal type of play, pass and move, one touch flowing football” had been beyond him.
How he envisiaged playing one touch football by investing in players who needed 3 touches just to control the ball is still a mystery.
Interviewed after Anelka’s departure, replacement manager Gordon Dalziel revealed the scale of the problem, recalling a tale where he informed Mehdi Eloudji that he wanted to release him to free up some of the wage bill. Distraught at the news Eloudji informed him that he’d never actually played 11 a side football before as he and other players had actually been recruited from a Paris 7’s league. If he could stay however he would happily paint the offices and take up the position as the clubs odd job man.
Gordon Dalziel was unable to halt the slide and the club were relegated at the end of the season, only returning as recently as 2009 under the stewardship of John McGlynn.
For a man who took up number 9 in the Guardian’s 2008 list of the worst 10 managers of all time you’d think all clubs would be far too wary to install Anelka as manager and that a life of advising his brother on mega bucks deals while playing lamentable French dance music in clubs would dominate his future. Think again.
In January of 2010 Anelka was appointed coach of NASL side AC St Louis who were set up in the newly formed 2nd division under the MLS. Once again, promising exciting one touch football Anelka showed just what his new club should expect from his tactical acumen in just his first match.
After handing in the team sheets for their first ever competitive match St Louis player Manuel Kante realised he didn’t have his ID which would be required for him to start the match. As the sheets had been handed in Anelka had 2 options.He could either sub Kante as soon as the match began so AC could start with 11 players or begin a man down and wait on him to return home and gather his identification. Incredibly Claude plumped for option B, and played the opening half hour with 10 men by which time they were already 2 0 down.
Anelka would again only last 5 months and by June last year he was gone, winning only 2 games from his 10 in charge. Unfortunately for St Louis the club itself has also disappeared, crippled with financial problems it closed its doors for the final time in January of this year.
Although Raith Rovers fans still curse the name of Claude Anelka, the fate of AC St Louis shows that they should perhaps consider themselves fortunate the same issue did not befall their own team. The excellent rebuilding work that has been over seen by John McGlynn means that at last the side have now stepped out from the shadow caused by the mismanagement of both Claude Anelka and a board who ran the club with little concern over the damage being done to the finances.
As for Claude, well surely now his coaching career is at an end, after all his latest escapade in management must have pushed him even higher up the Guardian’s list of management disasters. If he does yearn for another crack at it, perhaps someone should advise him that he’d find it cheaper shelling out for Championship Manager rather than an actual team.