Raith Extend Lead With Hard Fought Win
Managers may often talk about important games being no more than another three points but considering the League One title fight already looks to be a two-way struggle, the contests between Raith and Ayr will take on a greater resonance this term. It may be a cliche but all four look like six-pointers.
Take today’s match-up for example, a game which at one point looked to be knocking Rovers off top-spot but instead saw them lengthen their lead at the top of the table, after a come-from-behind win which featured goals from Lewis Vaughan (who else?) and Jason Thomson after Lawrence Shankland had given Ayr a deserved lead.
Barry Smith made no changes from the previous weekend’s shellacking of the Ross County under twenty side, with new acquisitions, John Herron and Dario Zanatta, having to make do with places on the bench.
Ayr, on the other hand, managed to make room for new signing, Lawrence Shankland, who partnered Michael Moffat up front.
Rovers have made a strong start to the season, with ten points from twelve, and they appeared to be springing straight out the traps in this one when a ball forward was nodded into the path of Vaughan in the opening minute, and from fully 30 plus yards, his audacious half-volley had Jordan Hart struggling to get across as the ball arced just wide.
It wasn’t actually a hint of what was to come though as Ayr settled the quicker into the match, with Decland McDaid and Moffat combining before the latter teed up Craig McGuffie, who side-footed the chance over the bar.
As worrying as the move was, of far greater concern was an injury to Kyle Benedictus who received lengthy treatment after going down in the build-up. The centre-half returned to the fray somewhat gingerly and there was little surprise when he was forced off to be replaced by John Herron, with Scott Robertson dropping back alongside Iain Davidson.
Rovers were struggling at this point, with McDaid and McGuffie giving Raith’s full-backs an uncomfortable opening quarter, while Moffat’s ability to find space between the lines was a persistent problem.
Rovers were also struggling to deal with Ayr’s rambunctious style and while it may have been causing some consternation in the Raith stands, it was helping Ian McCall’s side control the middle of the park.
Despite that, it was Raith who came closest to opening the scoring in the 22nd minute.
Vaughan stood over a set-piece wide on the right, and with Hart expecting a cross, he instead aimed for the inside of the near post, only to see his attempt cannon off the outside of the upright.
Rovers came close again as the game approached the half-way point, when Greig Spence played in Liam Buchanan, but his shot was clawed away by Hart, with no Rovers player in close enough proximity to capitalise on the loose ball.
Raith had steadied the ship since the injury to Benedictus, but Ayr had probably still held the upper-hand, a situation they made the most of in the final minute of the half, after poor defensive organisation from a set-piece.
A corner-kick was cleared to just outside the area, and while Geggan’s shot from 22-yards was well off target, the Raith defence had pushed out, leaving Shankland on his own, and onside in the six-yard area, and he forced it home after Graeme Smith had saved his initial effort.
It seemed clear that Rovers were going to have to improve their performance in the second period to get back into it, but instead, they received a helping hand from the Ayr ‘keeper five minutes after the restart.
Vaughan’s free-kick from 25-yards was on target, and reasonably close to the left-hand post but it went straight underneath Hart who should really have done better.
While the goal brought huge relief, it didn’t immediately produce a Rovers pick-me-up, as for the next five minutes or so, Ayr embarked on their best spell of the game, pinning Rovers back under sustained pressure, which produced a blizzard of shots and blocks.
McDaid and Robbie Crawford both went close twice each, with the latter’s snap-shot forcing an alert save from Smith, while McGuffie went close from outside the area, pinging an effort which went just over the bar.
Chris Higgins then came closer from an even greater distance, as Smith pushed his effort just over the top.
As good as Ayr had been though, they somehow found themselves 2-1 down after 58 minutes, after another Hart error.
Buchanan gathered the ball from a Smith kick-out on the right, and he held the ball up before squaring to right-back, Jason Thomson. His shot may have been low and on target, but it trickled, rather than thundered into the net, and suddenly Rovers had turned the game around.
It was one of Buchanan’s final contributions to the match, as he made way for another debutante in Zanatta, and as the rain began to pelt down, Rovers started to find a little zip about their play.
Bobby Barr should really have made it three after 65 minutes, outpacing the Ayr defence, before slipping the ball wide of target with just Hart to beat, but Rovers were looking less than comfortable at the back, and they had a huge let off just two minutes later.
Smith was only able to palm an effort back into the area, and with Shankland ready to poke it home, he appeared to get hauled back. Referee, Alan Muir was certainly of that opinion, pointing to the spot, only for the award to be rescinded, thanks to the sight of the lineman’s raised flag.
Chris Higgins made his way into the book with a little over ten minutes remaining after a wild tackle on Spence, and that would prove costly, when the defender was handed a second yellow after a challenge on Zanatta.
Despite the numerical advantage, it was still far from a comfortable final few minutes, as Ayr pushed for an equaliser, but Rovers held out for their most important win of the season to date.
RaithTV chatted with the Gaffer after the 2-1 win against Ayr United
RaithTV chatted with matchwinner Jason after the 2-1 win against Ayr United
It’s a top-of-the-table contest in League One this Saturday, as first placed Raith Rovers host second placed Ayr United.
Barry Smith’s side go into the game a point clear of the Honest Men, and in sparkling form, with nine goals scored and none conceded in their last two games.
While Rovers remain unbeaten in the league so far, Ayr went down to their first loss a fortnight ago, losing 2-1 to Arbroath at Somerset Park, after a run of three straight wins.
Like Rovers, Ian McCall’s men have been in prolific form in the league, scoring 13 times in four League One fixtures, with Craig Moore the club’s top-marksman, with 10 to his credit in all competitions.
That positive early season form could in part be down to the club’s decision to move to full-time football in the summer, which has allowed the club to retain the bulk of last term’s squad, while adding a sprinkle of well known faces to the roster.
Michael Moffat and Andy Geggan were both brought in from Dunfermline, while the aforementioned Moore arrived permanently from Motherwell, after two previous loan spells with the Ayrshire side.
Also acquired from Motherwell was defender, David Ferguson, while right-back Craig Reid joined after leaving Peterhead.
Lastly, long-standing Queen of the South centre-half, Chris Higgins was signed after he left the Palmerston Park side.
It goes without saying that neither of these sides had successful seasons last time around, although the four meetings between the teams were generally incident packed.
The first was the most straightforward, with Ross Callachan and Ross Matthews securing an opening day 2-0 win, while the second, a 1-1 draw at Stark’s Park in November, saw Joel Coustrain blast Raith in front, before Kyle Benedictus was ordered off.
The third meeting was the most infamous, with Ryan Stevenson deputising in goals as Raith lost out 1-0, while the fourth and final fixture also saw Rovers experiencing goalkeeper troubles, with Pavol Penksa sent off in the first minute, although Rovers went on to win 2-1, thanks to goals from Jonny Court and Declan McManus.
Ayr actually hold the slight upper hand in the most recent meetings, with four wins from ten compared to Rovers three.
Saturday’s match referee will be Alan Muir.
Head-To-Head Home League Record:
Raith Rovers Wins: 33 | Ayr United Wins: 17 | Draws: 22
Raith Rovers Goals: 132 | Ayr United Goals: 82
Raith Rovers: D-W-W-W-W-W
Ayr United: L-W-W-W-L-L
Top Goal Scorers:
Raith Rovers: Lewis Vaughan 13 | Liam Buchanan 6 | Greig Spence 4
Ayr United: Craig Moore 10 | Declan McDaid 6 | Michael Moffat 4
Raith Rovers: 17/20 | Ayr United: 31/10 | Draw: 11/4