THERE was a time when playing in the shadow of Ibrox was the closest Grant Anderson thought he might get to senior football. He was with Harmony Row, the youth club now well known because of Sir Alex Ferguson’s patronage.
The former Manchester United manager helped fund the club’s relocation to Braehead, where they now play home games. But back when Anderson was in their ranks, the home ground was the astroturf pitch at the back of the main stand at Ibrox. Early arrivals at the stadium for the Rangers game later that afternoon would drift by and sometimes stop and watch, possibly to see whether any of those on view looked the part.
Some might recognise the dark-haired winger lining up for Raith Rovers in the Ramsdens Cup final tomorrow from these days. Anderson, now 27, is not only looking forward to the prospect of playing against Rangers, but doing so in a cup final in front of a sell-out crowd at Easter Road. Anderson has gone from strength to strength since those days with Harmony Row although it took what seemed like a blow at the time – being made redundant – to seal his comparatively late move to full-time football.
A project manager with an engineering firm, Anderson was given this bleak news while with Stenhousemuir. A number of clubs were interested in him but Hamilton Accies were the first with the firm offer of a full-time contract. “Ronnie MacDonald [the Hamilton owner] was honest with me,” he recalled. “He knew I’d been made redundant and said that’s why they were offering me the deal. Effectively, I’d to take a pay cut.”
But it was a way in at least. After 12 months of form that he describes as “blowing hot and cold”, Anderson moved on to Raith. His brother, who is also in the engineering trade, still teases him about how easy a footballer’s life is by comparison.
But Anderson earned his stripes playing in the junior game, where he saw others shrink back into their shells. “Everybody has different experiences,” he said. “I am quite quick so I was always going to attract attention from guys who couldn’t run. There was a few straight reds dished out against me but if you are going in there young you need to cope with it.
“There were a few boys we brought in from Clyde on loan and they weren’t interested at all. They didn’t like the physical side at all. I never played pro-youth. I never played tidy, nice football. So I was used to the elbows and the pushing. I just got on with it. That probably helped me.”
His earlier days with Harmony Row were perhaps more formative, however. He stayed for five years – from 16 to 21. “We would kick off earlier if Rangers were at home, because of how busy it got, but you would still have a few hundred fans turning up early and watching some of our games,” he recalled. “The guys were selling scarves, the burger vans were there and fans would watch us, because there was nothing else to do. I doubt any of them would recognise me from those days though.
“I could never have imagined back then that I would one day be playing against Rangers in a cup final,” he added. “Never. I would look across the stadium and imagine what it would be like to play on that pitch. Even playing at Ibrox empty in a charity game would be great. This final isn’t at Ibrox, but even then it will be a great experience in front of a full house. I thought the best it would get for me would be playing in front of 400 people against Auchinleck Talbot.”
Anderson has already scored a winning goal this season at Easter Road. It was one of the most unusual goals of the campaign – a flicked back-header that left Hibs goalkeeper Ben Williams flailing in the back of the net. The strike, the decisive goal in a 3-2 fifth-round win, finished just behind Peter Pawlett’s winner against Celtic for Aberdeen in the goal of the month competition. “It was the first time I had scored competitively against a Premiership side,” said Anderson. “The fans were great that day and there will be even more this time around.”
This pressure is something Raith manager Grant Murray knows could render redundant their attempt to practise penalties in recent days. No-one needs to remind him that this is how the Kirkcaldy club won their only major trophy in 1994, when they prevailed in a penalty shoot-out against Celtic after a 2-2 draw. Last year’s Ramsdens Cup final between Queen of the South and Partick Thistle was also decided in this way.
Perhaps tellingly, Celtic did not practise penalties back in 1994, with skipper Paul McStay seeing his crucial kick saved. “If there’s a chance that could happen again then why not practise them,” reasoned Murray. “Mind you, there will be 20,000 people there and so it will be a different pressure. But if the players want to be comfortable with tucking the ball away we have to practise them.”
Murray recalled his first experience of a cup final as a substitute when Hearts defeated Rangers in the 1998 Scottish Cup final. He never left the bench but appreciated being involved in such a significant cup triumph, with Hearts having not won a major trophy for 36 years. “I had played in previous rounds but just to be named as a substitute was a great achievement,” he said. “I enjoyed the week, and the build-up and I have tried to express that to the players this week. We are not going to make up the numbers, we are going to win the trophy. We want to bring it back to the town of Kirkcaldy. We want to give the fans something to enjoy.”