Forget Joey Barton, Scott Boden or any of the 16 signings Hearts have made - Raith Rovers’ decision to loan striker Lewis Vaughan to Championship relegation rivals Dumbarton could be the worst transfer move of the Scottish football season, as Craig Fowler writes
There’s a good possibility Raith Rovers striker Lewis Vaughan will return to his parent club this summer having played a significant role in relegating them from the second tier of Scottish football.
The 21-year-old was shipped out to Dumbarton in the January transfer window on a six-month loan deal having struggled to get back up to speed following a cruciate knee ligament injury sustained at the beginning of last season.
Since joining the Sons he’s been one of their better attackers, netting three goals, all of which have helped win his new club points in the battle to avoid relegation at Raith’s expense.
Why did it happen?
In a bid to add more firepower, Raith Rovers recruited Ryan Hardie and Ryan Stevenson in January. The latter deal was a classic case of Gary Locke nepotism. The attacker had played well for Locke when he was manager of Hearts, but since leaving Tynecastle, Stevenson’s form had dropped off dramatically. Indeed, he struggled badly at Dumbarton in his first six months of the campaign before basically being involved in a swap with Vaughan.
With two new forwards on an already bloated squad, there was a need for Raith Rovers to get someone off the wage bill, even if it was temporarily.
Other than a couple of strikes against Cove Rangers and Montrose in the Betfred Cup, Vaughan hadn’t score for Raith all season. Although, in fairness to him, he hadn’t started a game since the 2-0 loss to Falkirk on 10 September.
Locke’s reticence to use the player from the starting XI from that point forward was curious. While Vaughan may not have scored himself, Raith netted nine times in the five league games he did start. They’ve badly struggled for goals across most of the season since then, only notching 20 strikes in the following 27 matches. Vaughan hadn’t played particularly well, but the same could definitely be said of Mark Stewart and Declan McManus, who continued to receive chance after chance in the starting XI.
Before the Dumbarton switch, Raith made it known they still valued the player as a prospect for the future, extending his contract until 2018.
What happened next?
Immediately it looked like a bad move. Though he did not score, both Dumbarton and Hibs fans raved about Vaughan’s performance after Hibs sneaked a 1-0 win at the Cheaper Insurance Direct Stadium on the player’s first start. He was undoubtedly the best player on the park.
Meanwhile, Raith continued to struggle, losing to Falkirk and Morton before going down 3-1 to a Vaughan-less Dumbarton side at Stark’s Park. Stevenson was not providing the club with the added impetus it needed, while Hardie struggled to rediscover the form which made him a fans’ favourite in his loan move the previous season.
Things eventually came to a head with Gary Locke losing his job on 7 February immediately after a 1-0 home defeat to Morton, extending Raith’s winless run to 14 games. He was replaced by John Hughes, but while they’ve managed to pick up a couple of victories, on the whole results have remained poor and they remain in ninth place.
Two places and two points above Rovers in the table are Dumbarton, who have continued their knack of pulling out a big win when things have began to get a little nervy. The latest of which came against Morton where Vaughan netted the only goal of the game. He also struck in a 2-2 draw with Falkirk and hit the equaliser in last weekend’s 1-1 draw at St Mirren.
Stevenson, on the other hand, scored once in eight games, played as an emergency goalkeeper and then retired from professional football. He’s recently signed for Peninsula Strikers who play in the fifth tier of Australian football.
What happens now?
Currently in the relegation spot, Raith have four games in which to save their season. They face Morton, Hibs and a resurgent St Mirren in their next three. On paper they could scarcely ask for a tough trio of matches, but they could have finally run into some luck regarding the timing of those fixtures. Morton have failed to win in any of their last five, Hibs could well be Champions and nursing Scottish Cup semi-final related hangovers by the time they meet on Wednesday 26 April, and St Mirren could similarly have little to play for if their current form keeps up.
Even still, it’s difficult to back Raith with any sort of confidence to take advantage of those special circumstances, and they could well go into the last day of the season with Ayr United desperate for any result that doesn’t relegate them automatically.
Dumbarton also have a tricky run-in, but they’ll be looking to put some distance between themselves and the rest when Dunfermline visit the Rock this weekend. They then travel to Queen of the South - a club who are, more of less, the only team in the division with nothing to play for - before visiting Dundee United and finishing their season at home to Falkirk.