Rovers Rally From Early Setback
A late winner against Ayr United at Stark’s Park this afternoon was enough to hand Raith Rovers a hard fought win against the Championship’s bottom club. However, champions Hibs’ failure to overcome St Mirren at Easter Road means John Hughes’ charges must negotiate the play-offs as a means of retaining their second tier status.
Despite the sense of optimism generated by a crowd in excess of 3,000 – reduced admission prices, spring sunshine and intrigue had ensured the faithful turned out in far greater numbers than usual – Rovers perhaps can ultimately have few complaints about their fate, given their wretched form and run of results over the second half of a season that will hardly linger long in the memory. Despite its early promise, the campaign turned sour long before previous boss Gary Locke took his leave, and Rovers must suffer the humiliation of being promotion play-off hopefuls to relegation play-off desperados in the space of twelve months.
Following his very public post mortem following last week’s insipid capitulation against St Mirren, Hughes rang three changes to his starting eleven this afternoon, with Chris Johnston, Jordan Thompson and Bobby Barr replaced by Ian Davidson, Kyle Benedictus and Jonny Court. The sense of occasion was palpable at kick-off, unexpectedly so given the sides could hardly lay claim to anything approaching good form in recent times – indeed, between them, Rovers and the Honest Men, over the course of the second half of this season, could muster a mere six wins between them from fifty games.
On that basis, perhaps something had to give, and for the home side it was any sense of optimism as within the space of ninety seconds from kick-off it became clear that this game would be yet another emotional rollercoaster for the home fans. Beforehand, few if any would have thought that an Ayr victory by five clear goals – which was required for Ian MacColl’s men to leapfrog Rovers and consign them to automatic relegation – was on the cards, but a few hearts were surely fluttering when Rovers keeper Pavol Penska was red-carded for flattening Craig Moore as the forward chased a long pass deep inside the Rovers half.
Rudi Skacel was sacrificed for substitute goalkeeper Conor Brennan as Rovers were forced to re-shuffle the deck before a bead of sweat was shed. Suddenly a long ninety minutes loomed, and the raucous din that had greeted the players on to the pitch dissipated to a barely audible growl.
If Rovers had been un-nerved by that shocking start to the game, they didn’t show it, as they took the game to the visitors, forcing several corners during the early exchanges. Ayr tried to counter the pressure, but were reduced to mainly long-range efforts that failed to trouble Brennan. Jonny Court looked lively, the young forward making his presence felt, and he nearly got on the end of a defence-splitting pass, though Ayr keeper Greg Fleming rushed from his goal to clear the danger.
However, Court attracted the attention of referee Steven McLean after fifteen minutes, when he was booked for going to ground too easily inside the penalty box. Not that this deterred the youngster – he forced a corner which fell nicely for Benedictus, although the defender’s first-time shot drifted harmlessly wide. Another Rovers corner was then headed wide by the menacing figure of Jean Yves M’Voto, before the same player nodded a Benedictus cross over the bar.
Ayr, despite numerical superiority, hadn’t produced anything resembling attacking threat until the 25th minute, though veteran Gary Harkins caused a collective intake of breath within the south stand with a hooked shot from 25 yards which fizzed narrowly over the bar.
Rovers had dominated the first twenty minutes or so, but the visitors slowly began to take a foothold, pinning the home side back as they probed for the opener. However, Hughes’ men edged in front with ten minutes remaining of the opening period. Benedictus found the eager Court with a neat pass, and the striker showed commendable strength and composure in holding off his marker to send a low shot into the corner of the net beyond the advancing Fleming from the edge of the box.
The celebrations of the Rovers fans had barely subsided when it seemed the home side had doubled their advantage. Court chased a lost cause deep into Ayr territory before finding Declan McManus with a cut-back. McManus dinked the ball towards the inrushing Danny Handling, whose rasping shot flew high into the net. However, the linesman’s flag prevented Rovers claiming a second goal.
Despite that disappointment, Rovers went into half-time a goal up, and deservedly so. During the interval, the under 20 development side were presented to the fans, affording a glimpse of the future. But back in the present, the second half beckoned, and within two minutes of the restart a goal was being celebrated – 25 miles away! Hibs had taken the lead, signalling a possible Rovers escape from the relegation mire.
Shortly afterwards, Harkins inexplicably escaped censure for a bad tackle, though Rovers almost took advantage when Fleming spilled the resultant free-kick, and M’Voto’s alert header was cleared from the line. Fleming was injured during the incident, and had to be stretchered from the field following lengthy treatment.
The game then ebbed and flowed as it entered the final quarter. Rovers had successfully held the visitors at bay for the most part, restricting their opponents to long-range efforts. However, with twenty minutes remaining, they gave Alan Forrest too much space outside the box, and the forward steered a shot beyond Brennan’s despairing dive into the corner of the net.
Seconds later, confirmation of St Mirren’s equaliser at Easter Road served to sink the home side’s hopes, though the fans tried to galvanise Hughes’ men for one final push.
Minutes later, however, it seemed that the final blow would be administered when Ayr were awarded a penalty. A cross struck Benedictus’ arm, and despite the fact the defender could hardly have averted his arm at such close range, the referee pointed at the penalty spot. Davidson was booked for his protests, although on this occasion the Rovers midfielder was entirely justified given the rightful sense of injustice at such a bewildering decision.
However, Brennan leaped to his left to block Forrest’s low shot, and keep Rovers level. In this case, justice was seen to be done.
The final ten minutes saw chances at both ends. A diving Craig Barr header was palmed to safety by Ayr substitute keeper Jordan Hart, before Ayr responded with a Daryll Meggatt header which was blocked by Davidson, who in truth knew little about it.
As the game entered its final minute, a Rovers free-kick fell within a cluster of bodies inside the Ayr penalty area. The ball broke from there to Declan McManus, who lashed a shot high into the net from ten yards. The home fans and players celebrated the winning goal, though it was tinged with frustration given it was clear that St Mirren had plundered the point they needed in the capital to snatch that elusive eighth place.
At the final whistle, there was a sense that Rovers had shown commendable character and resilience to overcome an early setback in this match to secure the win that manager Hughes had demanded. Thus they answered much of the criticism directed at them in the last few weeks, and deserve credit for that. That said, the harsh reality is that the play-offs beckon, and this painful season has some distance to run yet.
Ayr united are the visitors to Stark’s Park this weekend, in a game which is the last of the regular season, but isn’t necessarily the last game Rovers will play this term.
A win for Rovers, coupled with a Hibernian victory over St. Mirren, would see John Hughes men end the season in eighth place, but if St. Mirren better or match Raith’s result, then Rovers will have to take part in the playoffs to attempt to remain in the division.
Finishing bottom is also not out of the equation, although it’ll take a heavy defeat, by five goals or more, for the Kirkcaldy side to finish in last place, a scenario which would see Ayr take the playoff spot.
Both teams have had poor second halves to their seasons, with a combined record of just six wins from 49 league matches, and Ayr go into this one on the back of six games without a win.
They do have a recent win against Raith however, the infamous match in February, when Raith arrived in Ayrshire without a goalkeeper and lost 1-0, with Ryan Stevenson deputising between the posts.
It was a different story when the clubs first met this season on the opening day, when goals from Ross Callachan and Ross Matthews sealed a comfortable 2-0 win, while the first meeting at Stark’s Park in November ended in a 1-1 draw, with Gary Harkins equalising late on, after Joel Coustrain had given Rovers a first-half lead.
Raith have a reasonably poor record in this fixture, with just two wins and five draws from the last ten league meetings.
Saturday’s match referee will be Steven McLean
Head-To-Head Home League Record:
Raith Rovers Wins: 32 | Ayr United Wins: 17 | Draws: 22
Raith Rovers Goals: 130 | Ayr United Goals: 81
Raith Rovers: D-L-L-W-L-L
Ayr United: L-L-L-D-D-L
Top Goal Scorers:
Raith Rovers: Ryan Hardie 7 | Declan McManus 6 | Mark Stewart 6
Ayr United: Alan Forrest 6 | Gary Harkins 5 | Paul Cairney 5
Raith Rovers: 8/13 | Ayr United: 22/5 | Draw: 3/1