It is no surprise to see Raith Rovers’ pursuit of second place in the Championship come down to a fixture against Hearts. Football, after all, is a slave to narrative.
These two clubs have been inextricably linked since the Scottish game descended into civil war last year, with verbal volleys being launched across the Forth like cannonballs during a summer of discord.
But while the respective boardrooms have not exactly seen eye-to-eye over the past 12 months, the respect in the dugout is palpable. Rovers versus the Jambos has swiftly become a feisty rivalry off the pitch, but it is a wholly cordial one on it.
Raith manager John McGlynn was Robbie Neilson’s first coach at Hearts as the 16-year-old right-back sought to pick himself off the canvas after being released by Rangers.
McGlynn has previously cited Neilson’s ‘composure, discipline and professionalism’, even as a teenager. Those attributes stood him in good stead to — by his own admission — maximise his talents and enjoy a fine career, north and south of the border.
He has been similarly successful in the dugout, winning his third Championship title — and second with Hearts — this season. Neilson also boasts European qualification on his Tynecastle CV despite, at times, being a divisive figure among the Gorgie faithful.
“There is no doubt they have been the best team this season; the table doesn’t lie,” said McGlynn, when Hearts’ title win was confirmed, praising Neilson’s achievement’s without hesitation.
The admiration is a two-way street.
While Hearts are deserved champions, Raith Rovers have played some of the most attractive football the Championship has seen this season; Regan Hendry and Brad Spencer conducting an orchestra of Kai Kennedy, Dan Armstrong and Lewis Vaughan has made for beautiful music.
“I think John has done a fantastic job and that’s no surprise,” said Neilson yesterday. “I’ve known him for almost 25 years.
The most awkward title celebration ever? 🤔
Hearts lift Championship trophy in low-key fashion…
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) April 24, 2021
“He was a youth coach when I first came in [to Hearts] and progressed to the reserves, first-team and eventually became the manager — and he’s been successful with just about every club he’s been at.
“He has a good group at Raith who play good football so they aren’t in a false position. They’ve earned the right to be there.”
McGlynn, of course, sat in Neilson’s chair for the first eight months of the 2012/13 campaign. It was his dream job at an inopportune moment, with brutal cost-cutting and impending financial meltdown hampering his efforts.
The expectations of a demanding fanbase at Hearts, fresh from defeating Hibernian 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final under Paulo Sergio, did not recalibrate in line with the challenges behind the scenes.
Yet, he did guide the club to the 2013 League Cup final — he was sacked three weeks before Gary Locke’s Jambos lost the showpiece 3-2 against St Mirren — and was mere minutes away from taking Liverpool to extra-time in the Europa League.
The Raith dugout on Friday night will also contain assistant boss Paul Smith, briefly a Hearts player in the mid-90s, and Darren Murray, another former Tynecastle coach.
Throw in 2012 Hampden hero Jamie MacDonald between the sticks, and Rovers should be every favourite Jambos’ second team.
They are not.
Last summer saw a souring of relations between the clubs as Raith Rovers — fearing their promotion from League One would be in doubt — joined Dundee United and Cove Rangers in opposing a bid from Hearts and Partick Thistle to overturn their relegation from the top-flight through Scottish FA arbitration.
Hearts owner Ann Budge raged: “What has been allowed to happen in Scottish football, where fellow member clubs and our governing bodies have stood back and allowed totally disproportionate financial damage to be imposed on three of its members, can only be described as shameful.”
However, ex-Raith Rovers chairman Bill Clark, who is now back on the board of directors following a short period away from the club, vehemently defended Rovers’ position
“It became very clear early on that if Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer were to be saved from relegation it meant that three other clubs had to be prevented from getting their promotion,” Clark stated.
Clark added, in conciliatory fashion: “If that was to spoil a good relationship, as we’ve had for 60-odd years with Heart of Midlothian, I think that would be a very sad thing for both clubs and supporters and for Scottish football in general.
“I am very much in a position where I want to build bridges.”
It would be fair to say those bridges are still under construction but, having played each other three times since the travails of last July, feelings are less raw and — certainly from a Rovers perspective — the matter is consigned to history.
Memories at Tynecastle are a little longer, while you can bet that supporters have kept the receipts; nevertheless, when McGlynn and Neilson bump fists on the sidelines on Friday night, the approbation will be mutual.