Hardie Hits the Winner
Raith Rovers made it three consecutive league wins against Morton this season when they edged out the Cappielow club 3-2 in a highly entertaining and absorbing Championship clash at Stark’s Park this afternoon.
Following a testing few weeks at the turn of the year, including a worryingly barren run in front of goal, Rovers appear to have rekindled their acquaintance with the net again, and for all the faithful won’t be counting their chickens just yet, recent results suggest that the play-offs are a real possibility for the club come the end of the season. Whatever the case, there can be little doubt that today’s win was hugely important in the sense that it was plundered against a side that played industriously from start to finish, on the back of an admittedly surprising but morale-boosting 3-0 midweek romp against high-flying Hibernian.
Rovers made one change from the side that saw off Livingston last week, with the returning Lewis Toshney replacing Craig Barr in central defence. If the weather was conducive to good football – an unfashionably clear blue sky and not a breath of wind – both sides opened the contest in a manner that suggested a good game was indeed on the cards, as they moved the ball around freely and with no little ambition. Morton may have tried their luck first with a speculative effort by Declan McManus that flew well over the bar, but Rovers quickly responded with a typically surging run for the by-line by Jason Thomson, although the captain’s inviting cutback evaded his team-mates. The full-back tried his luck again barely a minute later, but his searching cross narrowly missed the head of the lurking Harry Panayiotou.
Moments later, with barely ten minutes played, Rovers took the lead with a quite genuinely breathtaking goal. An array of neat passes down the left flank posed danger to Morton, although the ball appeared to have been cleared when it fell to Rory McKeown. However, the left-back quickly took control of the ball, strode forward, and from fully thirty yards lashed a ferocious shot high into the net beyond Morton keeper Derek Gaston.
Rovers fans, on their feet to acclaim the goal, would have been forgiven for momentarily thinking back to the days when Craig Brewster was in his pomp, such was the sheer audacity and quality of the shot.
Not that anyone within the ground had the chance to wallow in nostalgia for too long, however, as the visitors immediately sought parity with a number of raids deep into Rovers territory, and several corners were pinged into the heart of the box, causing a fair degree of panic and desperate defending.
Rovers were camped deep within their own half as Morton moved the ball around quickly and confidently, although Mark Stewart did his level best to respond when he latched on to a loose ball only to be thwarted by a lunging clearance by Gaston. A floated cross from Aidan Connolly then fell invitingly at the feet of Panayiotou, but the on-loan Leicester forward screwed his shot wide of the target.
A misplaced pass from Scott Robertson then exposed his defence to an audacious chip by Denny Johnstone, but Kevin Cuthbert gathered the effort with ease. As the visitors pressed, Lewis Toshney was sufficiently aggrieved by the robust tactics of Morton forwards Stefan McLuskey and Declan McManus to make his feelings clear to referee Northcroft, although the official appeared unmoved by the defender’s protestations.
As Morton continued to offer a significant threat with aerial balls arched into the Rovers defence, it appeared to those of a home persuasion that the away side’s forwards were frequently jumping into their opponents as opposed to seeking to win the ball, and when the referee did finally blow for a foul against Johnstone for a clear foul on Iain Davidson as the players vied for a floated cross, the ironic cheers reverberating noisily around the south stand could not have been lost on the official.
Rovers almost doubled their advantage on the stroke of half-tine with a lightening break out of defence, Stewart’s initial feed finding Callachan, and the midfielder’s quick pass played the ever-willing Connolly into a promising position just outside the Morton penalty area. However, the little winger’s shot lacked sufficient pace to trouble Gaston, who gathered comfortably.
HALF TIME: Raith Rovers 1-0 Morton
As could have been predicted, Morton sprang from the traps in the second period, pinning the home side back with tidy possession play, and McManus’s overly zealous disagreement with the referee’s decision to penalise him for a clear push on Thomson as the Rovers captain ushered the ball out for a goal kick spoke volumes for the visitors’ determination to regain a foothold in the contest. The Morton player earned the game’s first yellow card for his troubles.
The match ebbed and flowed from one end to the other at pace, as the two evenly matched sides sensed an opportunity to stake a claim for a play-off berth. A whipped McKeown cross caused consternation within the Morton defence before being booted to safety, before Johnstone did likewise on behalf of the visitors, although the striker’s cross was too high for his fellow strikers.
Thomas O’Ware could then count himself very fortunate to escape without a caution when he crudely clattered into Panayiotou from behind, although Rovers almost took advantage of this from the resultant free-kick. A floated cross was only cleared as far as the lurking Scott Robertson, and the Rovers midfielders’s low, raking drive from the edge of the box seemed destined for the corner of the net before Gaston’s dive diverted the ball away for a corner.
Joe McKee was less fortunate than O’Ware, deservedly finding his name in the referee’s book for a late trip on Robertson, although on the hour mark Rovers keeper Kevin Cuthbert was called into action with a fine save from Johnstone’s swerving shot.
James Craigen, who had drifted in and out of the game, came close with a free-kick that was touched over the bar by Gaston, before he was replaced by Ryan Hardie. Another new signing, Aiden Connolly, was growing in stature and influence as the game wore on, and he set up Roberston with an astute cross, although the midfielder’s shot lacked conviction and drifted well wide of the target.
Rovers continued to push as the match entered its final quarter, and good work between Hardie, Thomson and Connolly down the right side created space, with Connolly’s shot comfortably clutched underneath his crossbar by the Morton keeper.
So open was the game at this point that more goals appeared inevitable, and sure enough Morton fashioned an equaliser with twenty minutes remaining. An intricate move sliced through the Rovers defence, and the ball landed at the feet of Declan McManus, who wasted no time in despatching a low shot into the net from eight yards. Raith Rovers 1-1 Morton
The visitors’ joy was short-lived, however, as Rovers regained the lead a minute later. Panayiotou darted into the Morton box, before being firmly tackled. The ball broke free, and Aiden Connolly latched on to it, calmly steering the ball away from the sprawling defenders before rolling the ball into the empty net with the minimum of fuss. Raith Rovers 2-1 Morton
With ten minutes remaining of an intriguing match, Connolly limped off to be replaced by Grant Anderson. A double substitution saw Mark Stewart make way for Ryan McCord, as Ray McKinnon sought to shore up the middle of the park. McCord made an immediate impression, earning a caution for a tackle on McKee.
With five minutes remaining, and Rovers fans anxiously looking at their watches, Morton equalised for a second time. Lewis Toshney’s botched attempted clearance was punished by a darting raid into the Rovers box, and following a scramble within the six-yard box Declan McManus squeezed the ball over the line despite various desperate tackles. Raith Rovers 2-2 Morton
It seemed that Rovers would have to settle for a draw, but one last incursion into the Morton box brought a winner as the game entered the 90th minute. Various Morton defenders attempted to halt Ryan Hardie’s run, but the young striker showed sufficient tenacity and strength to shrug aside his opponents before prodding the ball home to the lusty acclaim of the home fans assembled behind the goal.
From then it seemed an age before the final whistle sounded, but when it came a deserved victory from a thrilling match was keenly celebrated by the Rovers fans.
FULL TIME: Raith Rovers 3-2 Morton
With a busy schedule of fixtures to come in March – starting with a midweek trip to league leaders Rangers before St Mirren travel to Kirkcaldy next Saturday – Rovers have established momentum and a return to goal scoring form which augurs well for the remaining games.
Photographs © Tony Fimister 2016
RaithTV spoke with the Gaffer after a thrilling match against Morton
Greenock Morton are the visitors to Stark’s Park this Saturday, fresh from producing one of the results of the season in midweek.
Their 3-0 win at Easter Road made Rangers the overwhelming favourites for the Championship title, but more importantly to Jim Duffy’s team, it moved them just one point behind Raith Rovers in the table.
The impressive victory continued Morton’s fine away record this season, with only the the top-three, Rangers, Hibernian and Falkirk having a more impressive record on the road this season.
If they’re to sustain that however, they’ll need to overturn a poor recent record at Stark’s Park, and against Rovers in general, with the ‘Ton without a win against Raith in seven attempts, and without a win at Stark’s Park since January 2010. Looking back even further, Morton have registered just two league wins against Rovers in their last 19 attempts.
Both of this season’s previous meetings have went right to the wire, with Raith winning both by two goal to one, and both with late goals.
Mark Stewart put Rovers in front just before half-time at Stark’s in October, before Thomas O’Ware appeared to secure a point with an equaliser with eight minutes remaining. However, Jason Thomson’s winner, four minutes into injury-time sealed a dramatic win.
The return match at Cappielow in December saw the away team on the back-foot for much of the first-half, but Morton could only take a one goal lead into the interval, thanks to an Alex Samuel strike. That lead was soon wiped out in the second-period by a deflected Ross Callachan effort, and the comeback was sealed by James Craigen’s penalty as the full-time whistle approached.
Saturday’s match is the start of a hectic sequence for Rovers, with eight games between now and the end of March, a fixture flurry which will go a long way to deciding who wrests control of the final play-off position.
Saturday’s match referee will be Mat Northcroft.
Head-To-Head League Record At Stark’s Park:
Raith Rovers Wins: 29 | Morton Wins: 15 | Draws: 16
Raith Rovers Goals: 100 | Morton Goals: 64
Raith Rovers: L-L-D-L-D-W
Raith Rovers: Mark Stewart 8 | James Craigen 5 | Kyle Benedictus 3 | Grant Anderson 3
Morton: Denny Johnstone 11 | Stef McCluskey 7 | Alex Samuel 4 | Joe McKee 4 | Ross Forbes 4
Raith Rovers: 8/5 | Morton: 17/10 | Draw: 23/10