RAITH DIG DEEP FOR THREE POINTS
Two second-half goals including a glorious breakaway goal from captain Jason Thomson secured a hard-fought three points for Raith at the expense of enterprising visitors Dumbarton. The victory keeps the Starks Park side in third in the Scottish Championship, three points behind leaders Hamilton.
Despite losing winger Joe Cardle to a careless second-half sending-off, and surviving a late Dumbarton fight-back, Raith adapted better to the blustery conditions to establish an unassailable two-goal advantage before the visitors’ late consolation through Steven McDougall.
Having played five out of their previous six games away from home, and for the first of two consecutive Saturday home league fixtures in the run-up to Christmas, Grant Murray handed Lewis Vaughan a starting shirt, partnering Calum Elliot in a 4-4-2 formation. Laurie Ellis continued in the centre of defence with Dougie Hill, with Ross Callaghan and Kevin Moon patrolling the midfield.
For Dumbarton, without a win in the league since 16 November, Kevin Smith and Mitchell Megginson dropped to bench following last week’s defeat at home to Queen of the South. Perhaps with an eye on the windswept conditions and wet surface, Dumbarton started with three upfront: the mobile Bryan Prunty, Chris Turner, and the hefty Colin Nish each asking different questions of the Raith rearguard.
Right from the off, the conditions dictated the style of play. Both sides adapted well to the rotten weather – long driven passes were the order of the day. Both sides’ passing covered much of the Starks Park pitch in the opening exchanges, not allowing the game to get bogged down in midfield.
Raith created the better early chances: Cardle blasted over early, Lewis Vaughan’s first shot on goal was blocked away by centre-half Aaron Barry, and a Cardle cross was edged away from the onrushing Elliot by a last-ditch clearance from Andy Graham. With a succession of early corners, Raith created a momentum in the first ten-minutes that established their authority as a team with possible Championship-winning credentials.
As Raith found in their hard-fought win at Dumbarton earlier in the season, the ‘Sons attack quickly and directly – from a midfield tussle, Turner ran at Thomson, drawing a foul. Referee Murray played a good advantage, allowing Prunty time to chip just beyond Laidlaw’s cross-bar.
Having started more slowly, Dumbarton began to flow as the first half progressed. Down the left-hand side particularly, winger Jordan Kirkpatrick attacked with pace and verve against Calum Booth. With the strong wind blowing from the Railway Stand across the park, Kirkpatrick saw much of the ball and was given space to test his opposite number. With twenty minutes gone, Kirkpatrick and Turner combined well with a short free-kick – Turner’s cross found centre-half Barry in space, who’s header bounced a foot wide.
The conditions caused problems for both defences – rushed clearances and poor distribution had both defences causing problems for themselves. Raith’s golden chance of a patchy first half came as Graham and Barry contrived to gift a clearance to the feet of Grant Anderson – the home winger’s rising retort clipping keeper Ewings’ cross-bar rather than bursting the net.
With the punishing wind and rain gathering force during the first half, neither side could establish sufficient rhythm to control possession. The match lacked a festive feel – the game lacked the bite or crackling Christmas atmosphere which often gives life to winter football. The torrid conditions got the better of both sides as the match struggled toward the interval. To further dampen the spirits, Dumbarton’s gifted Kirkpatrick was stretched off after lengthy treatment following a clash with Thomson. Although in Megginson, Dumbarton had a like-for-like replacement, the sight of one of the game’s most engaging protagonists leaving in such circumstances dulled any atmosphere the match had generated to that point. For players and supporters alike, half-time could not come quickly enough.
To their credit, both sides tried to re-engage in the second period using quality and craft rather than a more direct approach. Dumbarton’s Gilhaney scampered and crossed, Laurie Ellis clearing the danger; first-half substitute Megginson also tested Laidlaw with a bouncing shot from distance.
With their first concerted attack of the second half, Raith took the lead. Grant Anderson won two tackles on half-way, and Callachan switched play to Cardle. With full-back McGinn out-numbered, Cardle drew his man and slipped a pass to the overlapping Booth – his inviting cross was turned in by Vaughan at the far post. A rare moment of quality on a dreary afternoon – the Starks Park faithful must have felt Raith could kick on and establish a game-winning position.
Instead, Dumbarton continued to press. Megginson found excellent space, though his rushed shot flew well wide; full-back Linton’s centre deserved a finish; and Prunty collapsed with Hill at his back under another cross-ball, although his claims for a penalty were carried away in the wind.
The match came to life on the hour – following broken play in midfield, Cardle clumsily clattered into Murray. With both feet off the ground, Cardle gave referee Calum Murray no option other than to show a straight red card. Although the challenge may have been out of character, there could be no complaints with the decision.
The dynamics of the game changed straight away. With Raith dropping into a deeper more defensive formation, and with Dumbarton sensing weakness and more freedom to commit greater numbers forward, the match began to fizz. For Raith’s one-goal lead to survive, the home side would need cool heads and extra mobility upfront to take pressure from the defence. Elliot’s petulant yellow card soon after Cardle’s departure did not bode well.
As Raith’s travelling support will remember from this season’s early encounter at the Bet Butler Stadium, Dumbarton attacking with numbers can create real pressure for a back four. Turner, Nish, and Gilhaney all sought to over-load Raith’s left-hand side, exposing Booth and drawing Hill and Ellis across to cover. With their best chance of a tempestuous ten-minute spell, Gilhaney swivelled and shot just wide, following Megginson’s lay-off.
The temperature of the game remained high – Megginson and Turner both felled Elliot within moments of each other, while jerseys were pulled and ankles clipped in numerous feisty midfield exchanges.
With a quarter of an hour to go, and against the run of play, Raith doubled their advantage. Vaughan had had a shot blocked away following a smart back-heel from Elliot, but Dumbarton continued to commit numbers forward. Moments later, following a breakdown in midfield, Raith mounted a fleeting three against one break-away. Elliot raced clear and fed Vaughan, who cleverly returned the lay-off having drawn the retreating Barry. With Ewings racing from his line and the home support on its feet, the galloping Thomson reached the ball first to clip over the advancing keeper for Raith’s second.
The goal knocked the wind out from the visitors’ sails. Having committed all substitutes, a wretched afternoon for Dumbarton was completed with Turner withdrawn late through injury, cancelling out the away side’s numerical advantage as they sought an unlikely route back into the match. The late consolation from McDougall – a smart finish following Gilhaney’s cross after Booth was caught by a neat ball inside him – proved not to be enough.
On a worrying note for Raith fans, Grant Anderson sustained an ankle knock in the closing stages requiring lengthy treatment. Although the winger re-appeared from the treatment room before the final whistle to acknowledge the fans, the injury looked a nasty one. With Cardle suspended, manager Grant Murray will hope Anderson will be available for next week’s game against Cowdenbeath, lest he face the New Year without his two wide midfield outlets.
Although the distance between these two sides is now ten points and five places in the Championship table, for the second time this season Raith required to dig in and withstand pressure from Dumbarton’s attacking artillery before securing victory. With Hamilton and Dundee both dropping points, today’s hard-fought win should give Raith a real boost over the Christmas period.
Report: Andrew Fairlie Photographs: Tony Fimister
Photographs Copyright Tony Fimister 2013.
Davie caught up with Grant at a windswept Stark’s Park