CUP FINAL BECKONS FOR THREE-GOAL ROVERS
Two second-half goals from Calum Elliot helped Raith seal a Ramsden’s Cup Final place with a patient and professional semi-final win over League Two side Annan Athletic.
Having taken a first-minute lead, Raith showed a clear divide in class against lower-league opposition, dominating a second-half sprinkled with chances. Despite a strong first-half from the visitors, Raith never looked in difficulty against often robust lower-league opposition, and now have a first national Cup Final to look forward to since the heady days of Jimmy Nicholl and 1994.
Grant Murray kept faith with the starting XI which has consolidated Raith’s position in the top-half of the Scottish Championship. Fox and Moon were paired in midfield, Watson and Hill continued at centre-half, and Cardle and Anderson offered auxiliary attacking options on either flank.
Annan arrived at Starks Park in mid-table in League Two, and having lost only once since the end of August. Wins against Morton, Stranraer, and Highland League side Formartine had resulted in a third semi-final place since 2009. Top scorer David Hopkirk started the match upfront; out though was 23-year old Kenny Mackay, who has contributed four goals in all competitions this season after a free-scoring year last season in non-league.
Although the home side went into the game as favourites, Raith fans know better than to write-off lower-league opposition before kick-off. Last season’s Scottish Cup encounter with Deveronvale provided an excellent pre-match comparator – despite enjoying the better of the possession and opportunities to score, that day Raith were traumatised by a second-half sending-off, and required the relative indignity of a late free-kick to finally seal the tie.
Today’s semi-final also saw live national television at Starks Park, for the first (and hopefully not the last) time this season. Although without Gaelic sporting hero Hugh Dan MacLennan, BBC Alba were present in the unlikely form of Clyde manager Jim Duffy. The home end produced a boisterous atmosphere for the visiting cameras.
As if to grab the attention of the watching audience, the game burst into life with Raith’s opener within the first minute. From the kick-off, Cardle was clipped on the left-touchline by Mitchell. Having dusted himself down, Cardle’s vicious inswinging cross was turned into his own net by visiting captain Peter Weatherson, with Paul Watson in close attendance.
Annan responded straight away, keen not to let the early concession define the first half. Davidson headed narrowly back across McGurn. Annan’s own Watson – defender Peter – connected well with a Brannan corner after five minutes, the effort again drifting only marginally past the frame of McGurn’s goal.
In former Hamilton striker David Hopkirk, Annan have a striker with Premier League experience. His busy presence upfront reminded Hill and Watson constantly of their defensive duties. After ten minutes, Hopkirk was within a linesman’s flag of an equaliser. Brannan on Annan’s left conjured space from the close attentions of Thomson and Anderson, drawing a fine save from McGurn with a curling effort from distance. Although Hopkirk prodded home the rebound, the linesman raised his flag, deeming Hopkirk offside when the initial shot came in.
On twelve minutes, Annan fashioned a glorious effort on McGurn’s goal. Flynn squared the ball to right wing-back Mitchell, who took a touch to balance himself, and swerved a fizzing 20-yard screamer against the top of McGurn’s cross-bar.
Playing a 3-4-3 formation in the early stages, Annan’s two wide players Mitchell and Chisholm posed questions of Raith’s full-backs, creating numbers in the final third for the attacking threesome of Davidson Hopkirk and left-sided Brannan. Following a midfield tussle, Chisholm freed Davidson who’s rising drive was well-held by McGurn.
Although not creating many chances, Raith worked hard to close Annan’s dynamic forward trio in the early stages, winning and importantly keeping possession for several long spells. Slowly, Raith came back into the game. Despite prolonged spells being decidedly scrappy, manager Murray would have been more pleased with the steadier Raith ship which steered the game past the half-hour, the one-goal advantage still intact.
Following Annan’s opening flourish, Fox and Moon busily monitored midfield, effectively dampening the enthusiasm shown by Annan following the early goal. Toward half-time, Raith began to create chances of their own: a Grant Anderson cannon following a Cardle corner was hacked clear, a lovely Cardle burst from midfield came to nothing with a fractionally over-hit pass toward Elliot on the run, and Elliot himself clipped a dipping free-kick just beyond the post following a clumsy Weatherson foul on Anderson.
Calum Booth particularly began to enjoy acres of freedom on Raith’s left. With Cardle often cutting inside onto his favoured right foot, Booth was invited on several buccaneering overlapping runs. Shortly before half-time, one such run and cross allowed first Elliot then Spence shots on Arthur’s goal.
On the other touchline, Jason Thomson was also beginning to find space to move into. Intelligent forward-running from Elliot and a neat lay-off allowed Anderson a sight of goal – his drive clearing the cross-bar when perhaps he should have asked a question of the visiting ‘keeper.
For Annan to remain in the game, an early second-half goal seemed a must. Although Murray must have stressed the importance of a clean-sheet at half-time, a defensive error almost resulted in the equaliser the visitors sought. Thomson’s early slip let the busy Brannan dispossess him to feed Hopkirk. Davidson’s blast from Hopkirk’s square pass was spectacularly turned wide by McGurn, the Raith ‘keeper fully extended high to his left.
Having survived one let-off, Raith once again imposed themselves on their visitors. Cardle’s skimming drive struck the base of Arthur’s post, Anderson’s header from fully 16 yards bounced just wide, and Hill climbed highest to nod past from an inswinging Cardle corner.
With an hour gone, Raith were fully in control. A deceiving run and flick from Cardle allowed Booth to steam into the Annan box, his shot held well by Kenny Arthur. On the other flank, Grant Anderson’s shot from a narrow angle forced Arthur into another save after a neat header from Cardle.
Annan were now second-best, chasing through the midfield, and unable to cope with Raith’s smart distribution of play between left and right flanks. Particularly, Mitchell struggled to cope with both Booth and Cardle advancing down his wing, the Annan midfielder receiving little or no support in wide areas from his burly back three. A Flynn header straight at MGurn was all Annan had to show for a second-half largely spent chasing and closing as Raith moved their visitors around under the darkening autumnal skies.
Raith’s second in 73 minutes followed a spell of good pressure, and again came down Raith’s left-hand side. Cardle followed Flynn back into his own half, won a tackle and burst forward. He released Booth who stepped over Mitchell’s challenge, and crossed low and hard across the Annan box. Spence couldn’t connect at the near post, and Elliot was on-hand to turn home from close-range.
Further chances followed. The hardworking Spence chased a long clearance and held the ball from a posse of defenders, allowing Cardle time to support. The diminutive winger’s chipped cross was turned against his own post by a retreating Swinglehurst. From the following corner, Fox’s drive through a crowded box was a metre or so wide. Moments later, from another corner, Elliot’s powerful strike forced a tremendous reaction save from Arthur.
With two minutes remaining, Raith’s third and final goal came again from a high tempo and great work-rate. Spence foraging upfront forced Watson into a hurried clearance. Moon returned a pinpoint pass to the Raith No.9, who offloaded to Elliot. With time to consider and place his finish, Elliot chipped a lofted curling finish with his right-foot, the ball stroked over Arthur and nestling in the far top-corner.
As the final whistle blew, the crowd of 2119 rose to cheer a disciplined performance and a well-deserved victory. Raith held onto possession when required, restricted Annan’s second-half opportunities to rare forays over half-way, and created numerous goal-scoring chances, running out comfortable winners.
Raith, victorious in a national Cup Final…. unthinkable, surely?
Photographs: Tony Fimister Report: Andrew Fairlie
Photographs Copyright Tony Fimister 2013.
Davie Spoke to Grant after progressing to the Ramsdens Cup Final