New Raith manager Barry Smith has wasted no time in bringing in two experienced strikers to boost their chances of a title charge next season.
Greig Spence, 24 and Liam Buchanan, 32, were strike partners at Alloa during Smith’s tenure at the League One club, with the Rovers boss hoping that they will continue their goalscoring form into this season at Starks Park.
“We knew that these players were available,” explains Smith. “They [Raith] didn’t score enough goals last season, so, we have looked to sort that out by bringing in quality players such as Greig Spence and Liam Buchanan. Lewis Vaughan is also back in contention and we have got young Jonny Court next season too. At the minute, this area of our squad is strong and it needs to be as if you want to win the division, you are going to need to score goals.”
Spence and Buchanan have had mixed fortunes in their careers so far. After a positive start to his youth career at Alloa, Spence moved to Celtic, but, ended up in Kirkcaldy where he made his first impact on senior football; while, Buchanan, spent the first five years of his career in the Third Division with Cowdenbeath.
“For the two years I was originally at Raith, I gained a lot of valuable experience,” recalls Spence, “I played in the Championship, won a Ramsdens Cup against Rangers, scored 26 goals; I think I became their Young Player of the Year in my first season there and I finished top goalscorer at the club in my second season there, so I have a lot of good memories from my first spell with the Rovers.”
“At that time, I felt it was a challenge, going to Cowdenbeath and trying to get into their first team,” says Buchanan, who scored 41 goals in his last two seasons at Central Park. “A lot of the players I had been playing with had went to so called ‘bigger clubs’, but, I feel that stagnates you a little bit. By going to Cowdenbeath, I managed to get a lot of competitive games under my belt and get used to the professional environment. You are always learning; if you are listening to your managers then you can only improve.”
Buchanan then moved up to full-time football as he progressed his way up the leagues; he joined Partick Thistle and then Raith’s Fife rivals, Dunfermline.
“I worked with a really good manager at Partick, Ian McCall. I think it is important that you play under managers who believe in you and give you confidence, and that is certainly what he done. He made me feel as if I was the best striker, and barring a few injuries which set me back a little bit, I learned a lot there and I enjoyed my time at the club.”
The experienced striker then decided to look towards a new challenge as he moved to Ireland, to sign for Sligo Rovers.
“I had been offered a new deal by Dunfermline, but, I thought the opportunity of going to Ireland was a good one to pursue. I was quite surprised, to be honest, with how good the standard actually was. I played with a lot of good players and we won the league, too, which was excellent. [On coming back to Scotland] it probably took me a little bit of time to get going again, though. From that sense, it maybe wasn’t the best of moves; I couldn’t play as soon as I came back and I felt really sluggish when I tried to play games also. But winning a title and playing with good players made the overall experience well worth it.”
After spells at Ayr and East Fife, Buchanan joined Barry Smith’s Alloa where he teamed up with Greig Spence.
“I am still close to Greig; I think we will be able to kick on from where we left off at Alloa. He is proven at this level – he is more than capable of scoring goals. We also have Lewis Vaughan, too. He is an excellent player. If the three of us can work as a trio, and all chip in with goals, then it can only benefit the team.”
While Spence added “They [Buchanan and Vaughan] are two exceptional players at this level. I think Lewy will have aspirations throughout his career to go higher up, but, it is great to be working alongside him again. It is exciting playing alongside someone like him… you just don’t know what he is going to do next! He will pull defenders everywhere, tie them up in knots and that will allow spaces in behind which suits my game. With Liam, you know what you are going to get – he will score you goals, he will work hard and he will always give 100%. Playing alongside both this season is something I am really looking forward to.”
Spence has had two spells at Alloa, both with mixed emotions. From scoring a winner against Rangers to losing in the play-off final, his journey back to Kirkcaldy, hasn’t been an easy one.
“I left full-time because I felt it was the right thing to do for my career, at that point. I feel like I am coming back a completely different animal: I know this league inside out now. It’s one of the things I’ve learned – you need to get your head down, work hard and you’ll get the rewards. I’m not expecting to come back and instantly score goals. I need to be the hardest working player at the club. I scored 26 goals last season but anyone that knows me will know I’m not happy with that – I should have scored at least 36! I went a few spells last season where I didn’t score in 4 or 5 games,” continues Spence, “and I need to work on that; for that to happen I need to work even harder than I have and being full-time allows me to do that.”
Both Buchanan and Spence have played full-time and part-time in their careers and their experiences of what it takes will be crucial in the season ahead.
“There is only so much you can give [being part-time]; you are working all day then training at night. It is all a bit of a rush during the week to be honest. I was getting in the house at 10:30pm after training and was back up early the next morning for work whereas now I am back full-time, I can focus on my game, get myself really fit and get that extra 5-10% out of me. From the part-time clubs I have been at, when you train, you train twice as hard those nights compared to how you would train at full-time. I don’t think fitness is a factor, I think it is more sharpness.”
Buchanan, who scored 17 goals for Alloa as a part-time striker in the Championship a couple of seasons back, would agree with this assessment.
“That year, we had a very competitive Championship: there was Hibs, Hearts and Rangers in it. That season was the probably the best season I have felt physically. I think if you look after yourself, there shouldn’t be too much of a difference. It depends how much work you can add on to what you do training part-time. If you see it as a part-time job, you probably won’t get any fitter but if you put the hours in and work hard then in my opinion, there shouldn’t be too much difference.”
Both players will be eager to get more goals next season with Spence and Buchanan both admitting they would like to better their accounts from last campaign.
“It was a difficult one, turning down the opportunity to go and play again in the Championship,” reveals Buchanan. “I don’t feel I need to prove anything to anyone, however – I have been there an scored goals; I am more than capable of playing at that level. It was more to do with this opportunity – going to Raith Rovers and having that challenge of trying to get them back up into the Championship. It’ll be a massive task but it is one that excites me. Year on year, I want to improve. I want to get better all the time and I want to score more goals than the previous year. I’m hungry to go do it – I know it’ll be a big task to go beat the 27 I got last season, but, under Barry [Smith – Raith manager] we can play some nice football which will create chances then I can definitely go and do that.”
“Every year, since I was 16, I have always set my seasonal target at 25 goals,” explains Spence. “Last year was the first season I managed to get there. I would be happy with 25 again this season, but, if I am going to challenge myself I need to aim higher. Playing alongside Lewy [Vaughan] and Liam [Buchanan], they are also going to be scoring a number of goals so that may take my share of goals away slightly, but, the main thing is three points for the team.”
With promotion the main objective, Buchanan hopes to win another winners medal after picking one up with Livingston, just a few months ago.
“No matter how we do it, we must get back to the Championship. We would all love to win the league, but, it’ll be a big ask; there are a lot of good, and big, clubs in this league – but I think realistically the club need to go up this season. I will look to use my experience from last season in games: certain games mean you will set up differently and that means home games may see us play differently to away games. The gaffer is putting together a squad that is more than capable of competing and hopefully it is enough to get us promoted.”
For Spence, however, he had the horrible feeling of dejection after the play-off final defeat to Brechin just a few, short, weeks ago and that is soemthing that the 24-year-old doesn’t want to suffer this time around.
“Losing out in the final was probably the lowest I have ever felt in football. I need to use that feeling as an experience. Last season gave me a taste of being at a team at the top and competing to win the league – it has given me that extra motivation to get a good pre-season under my belt and start on fire because after being so close to success, you want to go and get it even more. This year I am going to work even harder and make sure Raith get promoted.”
So, are Raith favourites for League One this season, then?
“It is going to be difficult – if you forget about the three full-time clubs in the division, you’ve got teams like Stranraer; East Fife; Alloa; Arbroath; Forfar… they are all difficult matches. Every team has 7 or 8 boys who could probably go and play in the Championship. I don’t think there is much of a gap – there can’t be the mindset of “we are coming down from the Championship and we are full-time” as we can’t be expected to just turn up and beat teams, we have got to work hard and with that, hopefully we will get there. If I am being perfectly honest, I’ve seen a few people say “we’ve signed Greig and Liam, we are going to be favourites now” but, I think Ayr have to be the favourites. Their squad has been together for a few seasons now; they’ve just went full-time and are signing boys from full-time clubs, so, I would say they are the favourites and it is up to us to chase them down.”
Liam Buchanan concluded, by saying:
“Every game is tough in their own right. I don’t think you can make too much about us being full-time, to be honest. A lot of part-time clubs have decent budgets these days and they can bring in quality players. If you look at Alloa, Jim Goodwin has done a great job there and they’ve strengthened again this year. Stranraer also look a real threat this season with the signings they have made, so, it isn’t going to be an easy task. I think in terms of the size of the club, you can probably say that [that Raith are favourites to win the league] however, when you also look at Ayr United under Ian McCall, they will also be very, very, difficult to beat and he will probably have a decent budget as well, but I think it is up to us as a group of players – whether we have the favourites tag or not, all we need to do is prove we are good enough to go straight back up to the Championship.”