When the dust settled on a difficult season last term for Scottish First Division side Raith Rovers it seemed that most fans were accentuating the positives. The final quarter of the season saw the team second only to champions Ross County in terms of consistency and points won, survival was finally guaranteed with a game remaining and a final day flourish in Greenock against Morton saw the team finish in a respectable seventh position.
Last August, looking ahead to the coming season offered cause for conservative optimism. A minimum of eight Fife derbies against promoted Cowdenbeath and relegated Dunfermline along with short trips to Falkirk and Livingston meant that Division One was shaping up to have a real local feel about it.
The geographical closeness of the teams mean that Raith fans weren't expecting the opening game of the season to be a 500 mile, 11 hour round trip to Wick. That however was what they were faced with when the club was paired with Wick Academy in the first round of the Ramsdens Cup.
While the distances involved make the game difficult to get to, it's not the first time that Raith have embarked on long journeys. While the League Cup winning side of 1994 may have had it relatively easy in their sojourns to the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Germany on their European run, the same could not be said for another Raith team, with 2012 being the 90th anniversary of Raith's tour to Denmark.
The 1921-22 season saw Raith finish behind the Old Firm in 3rd place in the old First Division and as a bonus for their most successful ever season the squad was rewarded with a trip to Copenhagen. While reaching Scandinavia these days is arguably easier than getting to Wick, in 1922 it wasn't quite so simple.
The May 6th edition of the Fife Free Press of that year published the squads travel plans. Leaving from Leith on the 10th May they would travel to Copenhagen via London, and Esbjerg, eventually arriving in the Danish capital on the 13th.
Describing the trip as "pleasure mixed with business" the paper, on the 20th May, described the journey as ‘eventful’ with most players coming down with sea sickness. It must have been a relief to finally disembark and participate in the three challenge matches that had been lined up.
After arriving in Copenhagen on the Saturday, the Rovers players were given a day to re-acquaint themselves with dry land before tackling B1903 Copenhagen at the national stadium in front of 20,000 spectators.
B1903 ran out 3-1 winners and the local press weren't entirely impressed with the Scottish visitors, describing them as dirty and physical as well as pointing out that a gulf existed in class between the Old Firm and the rest of Scottish football.
The Danes were described as genial hosts throughout the stay and treated the Scottish side to a gala dinner before a sightseeing tour and a visit to the local circus. The rest and recuperation must have done the players good as they won their next match 2-0 against a Copenhagen select side with the Danish press specifically singling out Raith player Archibald for praise describing him as "agile, strong and with a set of crooked legs." They finished off the tour with a 2-0 defeat against another Copenhagen XI.
The success of the visit led to a longer and even more eventful journey the following year. Despite a less successful season which saw Rovers finish 9th, a tour of the Canary Islands was planned. While the trip was a success on the park, it’s fair to say that logistically it was less so.
The Raith party of players and officials left Scotland on the 27th July 1923 on the steamer The Highland Loch which was transporting meat and passengers to Buenos Aires via the Canary Islands. Included in that group were two players who would eventually go on to bigger and better things.
Alex James would become one of Arsenal's greatest ever players. Described by his manager at Highbury, George Allison, as being "the greatest exponent of all the arts and crafts of Association Football." Also in the team was Tom Jennings a man who would later be voted one of Leeds United's finest servants, scoring 117 goals in 174 appearances for the Elland Road side. In one remarkable purple patch in the 1926-27 season, he scored 19 times in just 9 games.
While these two players would experience much in their careers, it’s unlikely that they would ever face as much drama as they did during Raith's summer tour.
The passengers were roused from their slumber in the early hours of the first of July, first by a huge crashing sound and then by the cries of "man the lifeboats". The steamer had ran aground near the port of Currubedo and despite everyone being told to abandon the sinking vessel immediately Tom Jenning's described in an interview in The Courier newspaper from 1967 what the Rovers squad actually did next.
"Being good Scotsmen, the lads nipped back below to grab all their money before getting off the ship"
All the passengers made it off safely and the Rovers team were taken to a nearby village called Villa Garcia where there was only enough accommodation for 16 of the party, meaning they drew lots to see which 4 men had to spend their evenings in an outhouse.
The local Kirkcaldy press bizarrely described the drama of the ships grounding as "somewhat exciting" and actually gave more column inches to a Burntisland man having his bike stolen. While the media may have thought it was a minor incident the extensive damage to the liner revealed that those caught up in it had a close escape.
While the tour itself may have been less dramatic it was still full of incident. The first game against Vigo took place in a bullring surrounded by 12 foot high rolls of barbed wire. The match report at the time indicated that the Raith players received rough treatment at the hands of the Vigo players and most specifically their employment of the "knee trick".
Despite the conditions, which included a pitch that had no turf whatsoever and a large, hostile crowd, Raith won 3-1 with Jennings scoring twice. Jennings would also reveal that after having stones pelted at him, Raith player Bill Collier attempted to scale the wire surrounding the park to remonstrate with the fans, eventually being hauled back by his team mates.
Raith would play three more games on the tour, winning them all. Victoria of Las Palmas were beaten 4-0 and Gran Canaria 5-1. They played the best local side, Marino, last, winning 2-1.
On their return from Spain the Fife Free Press carried an interview with Rovers boss Alan Logan who stated that when it came to football "the Spanish had still a lot to learn". With 2 European Championships and a World Cup under their belts it appears they've taken Logan's comments on board.
While the modern-day player and fan may grumble about a long away trip, unlike the 1920's generation they are at least safe from the dangers of seasickness, shipwrecks and wire clad bullrings. When compared to that even a journey to Wick doesn't sound that bad.
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