SPENCE DOUBLE EARNS VALUABLE VICTORY
Two second-half goals from substitute Greig Spence gave Raith a hard-fought win over basement club Greenock Morton at Starks Park. The win lifts Raith above Alloa into seventh place in the Scottish Championship table, although Raith were pressed all the way by a Morton side now thirteen points adrift at the foot of the table.
Raith’s win arrests an alarming slump in form since Christmas, and gives Grant Murray’s side a much-needed boost heading into a critical stage of the league campaign with four more fixtures in the next two weeks.
It has been three months since Grant Murray named an unchanged side for reasons of injury, suspension, and form – he shuffled his pack again here, with Baird restored to lead the line with Smith alongside, Callachan dropping out of the starting line-up for the first time since mid-November. Watson started his second fixture back after return from long-term injury, partnering Dougie Hill at centre half.
Although Morton have remained moored to the bottom of the table since early-season, they came into today’s fixture with marginally better form than Raith. With a league win as recently as mid-January over Livingston, and only three defeats in 2014, Morton have played with a spirit not suggestive of their status as relegation favourites. Although Fouad Bachirou was missing, Morton otherwise named a strong side. Celtic loanee and Scotland under-21 international Stuart Findlay began at centre-half, and club captain and season top-scorer Dougie Imrie started on the left.
As in the most recent league game against Alloa, Raith began the stronger of the two teams. Fox shot wide after a clever chest-down from Baird, and Anderson was unlucky not to play in Baird after a clever flick. Morton defender Cole was booked in the second minute for time-wasting, referee Charleston shaking his head in disbelief as he brandished the yellow card.
Although the bearded Vine raced clear to cross marginally beyond his strike partner Campbell after five minutes, the raid was the exception rather than the rule of the opening spell. Cardle’s through-ball was cleared by Fitzpatrick, Anderson’s header back across goal was claimed by keeper Gaston, and Smith was crowded out by a combination of Cole and McCormick while bearing down on goal. While their interplay and understanding was often lacking, Smith and Baird both buzzed early on, leaving Findlay and Cole regularly tracking back to cover.
Again in common with the recent draw with Alloa, a fine goal against the run of play knocked the early wind from Raith’s sails. With Booth looking to advance, a long ball from Morton’s defence exposed his positioning. Vine, showing both excellent balance and real flair, lashed a superb cross volley inside Robinson’s far post from 20 yards. The visiting fans erupted in the cold March air, their team’s second foray into the Raith half rewarded in fine style.
Raith lost momentum, and for ten minutes struggled to regain the supremacy they had enjoyed since the first whistle. The crowd, mindful of Raith’s dismal recent run of league form, also turned. Loose passes and examples of poor control on the uneven surface were jeered, and for a spell Morton looked on top. A hurried shot high over the bar from Baird following Cardle’s lay-off was all the home side had to show for a troubled period following Morton’s opener.
Raith were playing with the wind in the first half, but if anything, the conditions more suited Morton’s rangy front pair. Vine and Campbell both ran inside channels well, chasing long diagonal balls from deep. With both Thomson and Booth eager to break forward, there was no shortage of space in the wide areas for Morton to profit. Having gifted space for Morton’s goal, Booth particularly struggled to keep his position – his body-check on an escaping McCormack earned the Raith full-back a yellow card. Anyone who has ever fallen on a blaize pitch at full speed (this author included) would have sympathised with Booth’s sprawling victim.
By the half-hour, the home side had battled to regain the authority – Fox’s dipping volley from distance was turned over by Gaston, and Grant Anderson had a clear sight of goal from the penalty spot after a cross broke to him, although the winger’s snatched finish was high and wide. Both Morton’s McCormack and Raith’s Booth were spoken to by referee Charleston following over exuberant challenges, as temperatures rose approaching half-time.
As half-time approached, Raith knocked on the door again. Smith’s flick from Thomson’s cross was cleared by a mixture of Gaston’s outstretched palms and Cole’s hefty clearance. Cardle was narrowly flagged off-side with Baird screaming for a centre, while moments later, the Raith striker’s shot was smothered at his near-post by the Morton ‘keeper.
Despite several chances in the run-up to the interval, Raith were booed off at half-time, the home support discouraged by the score if not the level of intensity shown by the home side. The teams were separated by the one genuine moment of quality in a first half full of endeavour and application, but mostly falling short of the level of composure needed to find the net. Grant Murray had work to do to rouse his troops before the second half.
Morton had the sea breeze at their backs in the second half, and began the brightest. While captain and top scorer Dougie Imrie had to be withdrawn at the interval through injury, Morton were purposeful from the off. Campbell stung the palms of Robinson from distance.
With ten minutes of the second half gone, Murray removed Gordon Smith and introduced Greig Spence to partner Baird upfront. Smith had struggled against centre-half and Celtic loanee Stuart Findlay, the young defender’s pace and positional sense denying the Raith frontman any real traction in the final third. Although ending up on the losing side here, the eighteen-year-old Findlay was impressive and showed composure beyond his years.
Both sides created chances as the tempo increased – Vine’s bouncing shot required Robinson to stretch following an excellent cross-field ball from Robertson, while Moon’s clever chip was cleared at full pelt by a retreating Cole with Baird lurking. A long-range blast from Findlay was on target before being blocked away by Hill.
Raith were also troubled by journeyman frontman Rowan Vine, relishing the freedom of a loose role behind his strike partner Campbell. Having started the season at Hibs following a successful spell at St Johnstone, Vine joined Morton in the New Year. His leggy style and excellent close control gave the Raith back four difficulty in picking up his movement across and in front of them. In sixty-four minutes, he beat Booth to cross, with Campbell unlucky not to make a connection.
Mid-way through the second-half, Raith were back on terms. Anderson squeezed between two defenders and was bundled over by retreating left-back Fitzpatrick. Substitute Spence lashed home the spot-kick high to Gaston’s right-hand, and raced back to half-way, exhorting his team-mates to press on for the full three points.
What a difference the goal made. Raith were much sharper, more precise, and keener into the tackle following the Spence equaliser. Fox and Moon won their challenges, with Spence and fellow sub Lewis Vaughan haring off down either flank. Following a midfield break, Cardle worked space to cross – with the home support on their feet, only Vaughan will know how he contrived to miss from within the six-yard box.
Within five minutes, Raith took the lead their overall play had deserved. While Morton may have had the more eye-catching individual performances, Raith’s midfield had been turning the tide in the home team’s favour. With Baird dropping deeper, Murray had created the extra man in midfield to build a platform for a final push for victory. Baird’s 80th minute through ball held up in the breeze, drifting in front of Spence and the back-tracking Cole. Spence showed good strength to hold off his man, and composure to finish low beyond Gaston.
A nervy final ten minutes followed. Findlay’s flicked finish from a corner was turned over acrobatically by Robinson. Morton’s final throw of the dice was a late cameo from former Hibernian front-man, Gary O’Conner. The sizeable striker, who’s days of running the flanks are clearly beyond him, gave a renewed focal point to the Morton attack – his jink and shot found the Raith side netting in the final minute.
As the referee whistled for full-time after an anxious four extra minutes, Raith players hugged in delight. Arguably having forgotten how to win, this victory gives Raith much needed impetus for the final exchanges of the league campaign. With all other teams in the bottom half of the table losing today, Grant Murray’s team now have some momentum and have ended the longest winless streak the club have endured in recent years.
Photos: Tony Fimister Report: Andrew Fairlie
Photographs © Tony Fimister 2014
Rovers gaffer Grant Murray chatted with Niall after the match