PLAY-OFF DREAMS DASHED WITH DEFEAT
Raith’s season ended in heroic failure at Easter Road on Saturday, as two early Hibs goals overturned Raith’s slender advantage from Wednesday night’s first leg. Although Raith enjoyed a strong second half and threw bodies forward in the final minutes, the Starks Park side couldn’t recover from the home side’s whirlwind start which saw goals from Tom McGinn and Darren McGregor eclipse Raith’s first-leg advantage.
While the immediate aftermath was one of disappointment and dejection for the away support, Raith supporters should be proud that their side matched Hibernian for long spells, holding possession well in the second half, and came up only just short at the Championship play-off quarter-final stage.
This second-leg between the Championship’s third and fourth sides posed numerous questions for both managers. Raith’s starting eleven showed one change from Wednesday night – Louis Longridge starting with Aiden Connolly dropping to the bench. Ryan Hardie played upfront on his own, the onus placed with Craigen, Longridge, and Callachan to support their loan striker. Toshney and Davidson would sit in front of Barr and Benedictus, packing the central areas, inviting Hibs to pass their way through the Raith rearguard.
Alan Stubb’s selection looked more attacking – Dylan McGeouch was restored to midfield after making a genuine impact midweek, which leant the Easter Road side a more natural 4-4-2. Additionally, Stubbs chose to remove defensive midfield fulcrum Marvin Bartley after tiring badly at Starks Park, with the mobile Fraser Fyvie installed in his place.
With huge pressure on the Easter Road side pending a potential third season outside the Premier Division, Alan Stubbs sent his men out at full tilt. In the first five minutes, Raith became barricaded in behind Hibs’ athletic midfield, unable to establish any foothold in the game. Early possession belonged almost exclusively to Hibs, with McGeouch and Fyvie swinging first left then right in front of Davidson, Toshney, and Callachan. Although the midfield was tightly packed, the ball pinged between green jerseys in the opening phase.
In five minutes, Henderson’s deft cross was headed away by Toshney at the far post, with Stokes’ hefty frame causing turbulence in the airspace around Cuthbert’s six-yard box. Although the away end was full, the Raith support had to strain to make themselves heard in the tumult from the Easter Road faithful.
Hibs’ early dominance reaped its reward in only seven minutes. Raith, struggling with ten men behind the ball, were unable to clear a Henderson corner. Cummings dropped off and clipped a lovely ball into Stokes, whose shot was blocked. McGinn beat his man to the rebound, with his heavily-deflected shot spinning beyond Cuthbert and in. Raith’s first-leg lead had been wiped out in seven minutes.
Hibs swept forward again. Cummings ran at McKeown, Craigen eventually turning the ball out from a corner. Henderson’s superb corner offered McGregor the perfect invitation to thump his header back across goal for Hibs’ second. Raith heads fell – suddenly a goal behind on aggregate.
Raith had not yet established a base camp in midfield. Hardie cut a forlorn figure upfront again, starved of quality service, and unable to lighten the burden of Hibs possession on his defenders. The match was twenty minutes old before Raith strung several passes together – Callachan, Craigen, and Toshney only establishing their masthead on half-way with their side two down.
Lewis Toshney’s recent elevation into midfield continued apace. The former Cowdenbeath defender’s station in midfield has provided Raith with tremendous central balance, teaming with Ian Davidson in the team’s engine-room. As the first half wore on, Toshney and Davidson covered every blade of ground as Hibs’ midfielders zipped around the Easter Road surface. Sitting in front of Benedictus and Barr, Ray McKinnon’s new advanced role for Toshney is one of the main reasons behind Raith’s excellent second-half to the season.
On twenty minutes, referee McKendrick let a heavy tackle by Toshney on McGinn go unpunished, much to the howls of home support. Cummings and Henderson narrowly missed out on a neat one-two inside the Raith area; at the other end, Longridge swept a shot from distance over Logan’s bar.
With the defensive pivot of Bartley having been removed from the starting line-up, Hibs had numbers flowing forward. McGeouch and Fyvie moved neatly through midfield, Gray and Henderson on the right and Stevenson and McGinn on the other flank all looked to advance. McGinn was unlucky midway through the half with a near post shot squirting wide.
Following a quieter spell on the half-hour, Raith began slowly to edge their way into the game. Smart footwork from Craigen created Raith’s first chance – Longridge’s cross-shot blocked by McGregor after McKeown’s deep centre.
Having worked hard to secure the harbour walls following two early breaches, Raith enjoyed their best spell of match following the half-hour. A period of sustained passing and moving through midfield had the Raith support on their feet – Craigen, Longridge, and Hardie all found room to pose questions of their markers.
On thirty-five minutes, a great chance for Raith. Craigen chipped a diagonal ball over McGregor, Logan advanced to save at Hardie’s feet, and only a crowd of defenders prevented Longridge getting a clear shot at the unguarded net.
Hibs tried to re-assert control – Gray’s shot across Cuthbert fizzed across goal, and a succession of Henderson corners set alarm bells ringing in the Raith defence.
Just before the half, a lightning break from Craigen saw him hurdle a wild lunge from Hanlon and release Hardie – the bounce of the ball just evaded the Raith man, allowing Logan to gather safely. Although Hibs’ early start had given them the advantage, the half-time whistle saw Raith back in the match and asking questions.
The second half started with Hibs on the front foot. Man-of-the-match Liam Henderson and Stevenson both troubled Thomson down Raith’s right flank in the opening moments; Hanlon arrived moments behind another zipping Henderson corner, failing to provide a finish to match the quality of the service. Benedictus was booked for tripping McGeouch as the diminutive midfielder looked ready to shoot – Stokes’ free-kick flew over.
On fifty-one minutes, McKinnon increased his attacking options, introducing Panayiotou for Craigen, with the St Kitts’ man going straight up alongside Hardie. Raith’s gamble was to leave their flat back four much higher toward half-way but committing two forward to trouble the Hibs midfield into covering defensive duties rather than bombing forward.
Immediately after the substitution, Raith’s change altered the flow of play – Thomson and McKeown both finding room to cross with Raith having numbers to pick up the second ball.
The best of the chances still fell to Hibs. Henderson forced a fingertip save from Cuthbert – Panayiotou lost possession, allowing McGeouch to release Cummings; the Hibs frontman evaded Benedictus, creating space for Henderson to stretch the Raith keeper.
With an hour gone, Cummings burst past Benedictus in a wide position, with McKeown putting in a thumping challenge to knock the ball clear. A minute later, Henderson’s blast from the edge of the box clipped his own player, the deflection drifting just wide with Cuthbert rooted.
McKinnon threw more numbers upfront on sixty-five minutes, with Stewart on for Longridge. Stubbs responded immediately – McGeouch being replaced by the heavyweight Bartley. With spaces opening up in midfield, both managers were anticipating a frantic final quarter to the match.
A tense five minutes followed – Panayiotou scrapped with Bartley, Callachan clipped Fyvie, and referee McKendrick’s whistle stopped play frequently as temperatures rose. Bartley covered thirty yards to bring down Thomson after the Raith captain was cleverly released by Callachan. Barr, popping up on the right wing, freed Thomson – Toshney’s shot was blocked clear by McGregor.
With fifteen minutes to go, Joel Thomas replaced Ryan Hardie, the Rangers’ loanee having run himself into the ground. Within minutes, Raith had a four-on-three – Panayiotou criminally overhit his pass for Stewart, the ball running harmlessly out of play.
The Hibs crowd became more and more restless. With Raith committing numbers forward and the away support in full voice, Hibs showed nerves in possession and dropped deeper and deeper into their own half. Manager McKinnon’s two substitutions had dramatically changed the flow of the game – evidenced by the withdrawal of the dashing Henderson for defender Liam Fontaine with ten minutes left. In a reverse of the opening ten minutes, it was now Hibs who were camped on their eighteen-yard line, unable to clear. Raith piled cross after cross into the Hibs area. Thomas knocked an acrobatic volley just over, with the clock showing 87 minutes.
The match could have been decided with five minutes to go – Stevenson’s cross flashed through the Raith box, giving Gray the chance to head goalwards. With Cuthbert beaten, his left-hand post came to Raith’s rescue.
Four minutes of injury time were shown – Raith’s support urged the ball forward, while Hibs’ fans exhorted their team to clear the ball deep downfield. With Hibs keeping a corner deep within the corner area, Raith’s support bellowed for the ball to be thrown forward. Raith’s final chance came with Stewart and Thomas forcing a final corner – with Cuthbert forward, Callachan’s chipped cross was too close to the Hibs’ keeper, Logan gathering safely.
As the referee’s final whistle went, Raith’s players fell to their knees. With the home support’s relief tangible, an exhausted Rovers team looked to the heavens then to the floor – their season having come to a dramatic and sudden conclusion.
As time passes following the immediate aftermath of a draining ninety minutes, the sense of pride in this year’s Raith team grows. A tremendous run in the second half of the season saw Raith clear in fourth place. An exciting blend of permanent staff and loan signings sent Raith on the crest of a wave into the play-offs, with two excellent performances against Hibs only coming up short by the narrowest of margins.
Raith’s players, staff, supporters, and manager Ray McKinnon head back across the Firth of Forth with heads held high.
© Eddie Doig 2016
RaithTV spoke with a gutted Ray McKinnon after the 2-1 aggregate defeat to Hibs
Raith Rovers head into Saturday’s Play-off Quarter-final second-leg against Hibernian with a slender 1-0 lead, thanks to a late goal from on-loan front-man, Harry Panayiotou in Wednesday evening’s first-leg.
The result was Raith’s second win over Hibernian this season, the first time they’ve achieved such a feat since the 1995-96 campaign, when Rovers won three and drew one of the clubs four Premier League meetings. Even with those results, Hibs still went on to finish above Rovers in the table, finishing fifth to Raith’s sixth, thanks to a slightly superior goal-difference.
Despite the slim lead, Rovers face a tough ask to make it through against a team who have won 14 of their 18 home matches in the Championship this term.
However, Rovers may take some solace from the fact that despite that record, only half of Hibernian’s wins have been by more than a single goal.
If Raith can win through to a semi-final meeting with Falkirk, then it’ll mean that Hibs will be spending a third successive season out-with the top-flight for the first time in their history.
Wednesday night’s result means that Raith Rovers are now 12 games unbeaten, and was hopefully the club’s first step on their journey back to the top-tier for the first time since 1997.
Head-to-Head League Record at Easter Road:
Hibernian Wins: 34 | Raith Rovers Wins: 8 | Draw: 8
Hibernian Goals: 107 | Raith Rovers Goals: 48
Raith Rovers: D-W-W-D-W-W
Hibernian: Jason Cummings 26 | James Keatings 10 | Anthony Stokes 7
Raith Rovers: Mark Stewart 10 | James Craigen 9 | Ryan Hardie 6
Hibernian: 1/3 | Raith Rovers: 3/1 | Draw: 7/1