Football: Raith ready to roar at Bayern

Jonathan Northcroft talks to a manager set to pit his team against one of Europe's elite
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The Independent Online
HE IS not actually in the Reebok advert but at times you can almost see Jimmy Nicholl roaring at the midfield just out of frame behind Steve Coppell. Shirt tight, neck straining, not one of the United greats perhaps, but a greatly evocative player all the same.

He remains in the consciousness not through extreme gifts or guile but the force of his spirit; the same could be said of the team he guides into Tuesday's second round Uefa Cup tie against one of Europe's plum sides.

Raith Rovers versus Bayern Munich. To suggest it in Kirkcaldy even a couple of years ago would have raised only smirks among the locals of the hard-bitten Fife town. But such is the character of the side they now have that Raith will approach the tie not simply to make up a pair but with a genuine chance of snatching something.

"We just want to be on that plane with a chance," Nicholl said. "And we can do it. The team is playing well, we've changed our system in recent weeks to pull our two wingers more into the game. We can get something against Bayern playing the way we do."

Yet it is still some prospect: Bayern's pedigree against a lesser light from a lesser league catapulted into the big time by their first trophy, the 1994 Coca-Cola Cup, which they won against Celtic on penalties.

However it is not just the force of history that Raith will face but a team of internationals, good enough to leave out Jean-Pierre Papin, and whose current form - seven league wins from seven games - commands attention. Then there is Klinsmann. "How we can handle him will show how good we are," Nicholl said. "And yet it's not just about snuffing him out or even two or three others. They can score from any position on the park with any player on the park. They're technical, they've got physique, pace, strength. It's a hell of a job."

Despite his admiration, Nicholl says Bayern possess flaws which will be revealed on Tuesday. And he believes youth is on Raith's side. "Before the game I'll recap the season, recap the Cup final and tell them they've been through it all against Celtic. The kids are fearless. If you are quick and have ability you will go anywhere and handle anything."

During Nicholl's five-year reign, the kids have been handling more and more. The demands have lessened on experienced men such as David Narey, Gordon Dalziel and Nicholl himself, who aided the development of the young, largely local team. Between their eye-catching form in two cup competitions, the youngsters' consistency during a successful promotion campaign went almost unnoticed. This season, though, the 23-year-old full-back Stephen McAnespie has moved to Bolton for pounds 900,000, while goalkeeper Scott Thomson plus strikers Steve Crawford and 22-year-old Colin Cameron, a waspish attacker in the Beardsley mode, have also aroused interest.

Nicholl himself came close to a big move last season, linked first with the Northern Ireland job then Norwich City, though he says: "There's too much going on here for me to dwell on that."

At 38, managerial demands have all but extinguished his playing career, although he named himself substitute in the first round and will take the same precaution against Bayern. Even as he prowls the touchline in shirt sleeves one senses he has never really stopped thinking like a player, and the close bond between manager and team can be attributed to this. Nicholl admits he envies his players facing Bayern. Looking forward, the Ulster burr softens. "It will be excellent," he breathes.