SPENCE STRIKE WINS VALUABLE POINT
A second-half goal from Greig Spence secured a vital point for Raith in today’s top-of-the-table clash at Starks Park, against a strong Ayr United side. Although this game marked the end of a string of successive home victories for the Kirkcaldy side, today’s draw felt as momentous as recent away victories, coming against their closest challengers for the League title.
With the Division’s top two strikeforces on display, chances abounded at both ends, particularly in an open second-half. Shankland Moffat and second-half substitute Moore were constant dangers for United, whilst Buchanan Vaughan and goal-scorer Spence buzzed with intent throughout. Following a quieter first-half, an incident-packed second period saw both teams justify the distance between second and third in this year’s League One campaign.
Raith had received a blow during the week with the recall by Hearts of loanee Dario Zanatta, last week’s Man of the Match. Although much was made of Ayr’s pre-match injury list, Raith hardly had a full squad to choose from either – Zanatta’s recall arguably couldn’t have come at a worse time before the game of the season to date, and injuries to Benedictus and McHattie already challenging the depth of the squad available to manager Murray. John Herron started in midfield in place of the departed Hearts man. Otherwise, the Rovers’ side had a familiar look – Vaughan dropping deeper in central midfield, Spence and Buchanan upfront, and a defence which had conceded only four home goals all season. With plenty of goals and pace in the visiting line-up, defensive solidity would be key today.
Ayr United arrived in Kirkcaldy out of sorts. Imperious earlier in the season, two home defeats and a spate of injuries had seen Ayr knocked off the top of the table last week. Of the side who started in October’s 3-0 win against Rovers, four key players were missing – Higgins, Geggan, Docherty, and Crawford. Mike Rose, rated 50/50 was named in the starting eleven, while Craig McGuffie, also an injury doubt, made the subs’ bench. Former Stranraer captain Steven Reid anchored the midfield. Shankland started upfront, with the prolific Craig Moore a substitute.
Under clearing winter skies, and with a boisterous crowd at both ends of the ground and national media interest in Scotland’s game of the day, the scene was set for a real spectacle. With clear distance between today’s opponents and their nearest challengers, today had a feel of a match in a higher division. The bumper crowd of 3,000 gave the match an added “big-game” feel.
Early chances were few, as both sides took the opening ten minutes to fully size each other up. Buchanan scampered after a through ball on five minutes, centre-half Rose showing good pace to clear. Shankland showed his quality early on, fashioning a chance to shoot after a loose header from Ian Davidson. In terms of vibrancy and quality of possession, Ayr edged the opening stages.
Having said that, the first fifteen minutes were a trial for visiting goalkeeping Jack Ruddy. On loan from Wolves, this was his first start. On ten minutes, he charged off his line to claim a flighted Vaughan free-kick, clattering his right-back Reid in the process. Several half-hit clearances followed, as the keeper cut a nervous figure early on.
Lawrence Shankland – with sixteen goals to his name this season – proved a real handful for Raith’s defence all afternoon. His opening exchanges with Ian Davidson provided one of game’s main focal points. With both men strong under the high ball, every aerial challenge saw arms tangled and jerseys pulled. Referee Cook, to his credit, let two forceful characters play their natural game, and seldom blew his whistle where contact was made. On thirteen minutes, Shankland escaped, shooting just wide with McKay covering the ground well to close down space.
On eighteen minutes, a real opening for the visitors – Forrest and Moffat connected beautifully through midfield, and Shankland’s header into the area allowed Adams the chance to head with the goal in front of him; the Ayr man’s weak header over the bar a let-off for the Rovers.
Raith composed themselves, and upped the tempo. Thomson and Herron began to impose themselves down Raith’s right, winning their individual battles. The full-back’s driven cross nearly clipped Ruddy’s cross-bar on twenty-one minutes; Buchanan narrowly missed Vaughan’s centre; and Robertson’s charge forced a last-ditch clearance – as the first-half passed its half-way point, it was Raith in the ascendency. Buchanan’s curled drive on twenty-four minutes was inches away both from Ruddy’s fingertips and his far post.
With both sides having found their range, chances came at both ends. Moffat’s cross bounced dangerously around the Raith box before a lusty clearance from Vaughan; Shankland worked his way beyond Davidson again before Vaughan nipped in to steal possession; and Jason Thomson burst toward the Ayr box, only to be outnumbered before delivering the final ball.
On thirty-four minutes, the opening goal for the visitors. Davidson was tempted forward to win a header, leaving Shankland in space behind. Having been found by a lovely through ball, the Ayr striker lobbed a fine finish past the advancing Smith. The visiting fans celebrated wildly in the North Stand.
Moments later, a Vaughan free-kick found Davidson beyond the far-post – his fine volleyed strike was goal-bound, only to be blocked away. Moments before the break, Herron charged into the box – his driven centre falling between Spence and a retreating Ferguson, the chance lost with the Ayr man scrambling the ball clear.
In the minutes leading up to the half, the tactical battle with writ large for all to see – with Ayr committing only three in forward positons, Spence and Buchanan were frequently outnumbered in Raith’s attacking third. Raith’s defence had been caught twice with one goal conceded, but the League’s most potent strikeforce always looked a danger, with Davidson and Murray frequently making last-ditch tackles.
At half-time, manager Barry Smith shuffled his pack with immediate results – introducing the more direct Bobby Barr for John Herron. Straightaway, Barr ran at his man, producing panic in the Ayr rearguard – his first foray seeing two defenders beaten, with Spence being fouled as Barr released the striker with a tempting through-ball. From the resulting free-kick, Vaughan’s cross was nicked by Spence, the finish finding the net off Ruddy’s far post – the best possible start to the second half, the attacking change having paid dividends within minutes.
Ayr fought back with their next attack – Shankland running onto a Moffat flick, firing over under pressure from Murray.
The visitors’ next raid saw a moment of real controversy – with the ball bouncing in the Raith area, Davidson ended up prostrate, blocking a crowd of players. Referee Cook adjudged the Raith defender as not taking sufficient steps to clear himself or the ball – an indirect free-kick on the six-yard line the result. Chaos ensued – bookings followed for Murray and Reid, with Ayr’s Adams falling to the turf claiming an elbow. With the entire Raith team defending the goal-line, Adams’ blast was blocked by McKay and thumped clear – the South Stand roared, fuelled by a sense of injustice following the ugly scenes.
With the second-half more open than the first, the match began to live up to its billing, as the League’s two most potent strikeforces created several chances. Buchanan struck powerfully at Ruddy’s near-post following good work from Spence; Barr’s cross fizzed over Spence’s head; and Buchanan lashed a drive just over following another direct run from Bobby Barr. On the hour, space opened up for the Raith winger to shoot, prompting a mass scramble in the Ayr rearguard. If Raith were to snatch a second, this was the period when the visitors’ defence looked at its most vulnerable.
Moffat and Bell were both booked for similar challenges on escaping Rovers’ men. Referee Cook would admonish six Ayr players in total over the ninety minutes. Following one bad challenge, Vaughan crashed a free-kick off the visitors’ wall; following another soon after, a free-kick from a similar distance whistled just over Ruddy’s cross-bar, clipping the roof of the net.
With twenty minutes to go, Ayr raised their game. Arguably more in need of the three points than Raith given Rovers’ two games in hand, the visitors had the best of the closing stages. Moffat blasted high and wide, Thomson deflected a Shankland strike for a corner, and substitute Moore – with nineteen goals to his name – buzzed threateningly around the Rovers’ defence. Bell, the former Stranraer captain signed in the New Year, headed just wide.
For Raith, Vaughan’s drive flew just over, having latched onto to Barr’s cross – the Raith winger having switched to the left to torment Ayr’s Reid at left-back. Buchanan let in Thomson, whose cross flew temptingly through the Ayr box, begging for a finish to match the quality of the build-up play.
In a tense closing ten minutes, the best chance fell to McDaid – following an excellent second half, Ayr’s right forward drove at Euan Murray repeatedly in the closing stages. With one run inside, only McKay at full stretch blocked a powerful drive on Smith’s goal. As the referee’s watch passed the ninety-minute mark, McDaid cut inside and fizzed a shot at Smith’s top-corner, the drive catching the keeper’s glove, with the crowd on their feet. The last chance fell to Forrest, his bouncing shot well held by Smith with Shankland loitering with intent.
As the final whistle blew, a huge cheer from the South Stand – Raith’s run of home victories may have come to an end, but this was a real physical and mental test for the home side. With three away games in a row to come amid a run of five League fixtures in four weeks, today’s draw should be the perfect opportunity for the Rovers to mark their authority on their Scottish League One rivals. For the Rovers’ home support, rarely can a draw have felt more like a victory.
The manager spoke with RaithTV after the top-of-the-table clash with Ayr United
Ross spoke with RaithTV after the draw with Ayr
Raith Rovers and Ayr United face-off at Stark’s Park this Saturday, in a match which could go a long way towards deciding the destination of the League One trophy.
A 2-1 win for Raith against Forfar Athletic at the weekend, combined with a 2-1 reverse for Ayr at home to Arbroath, mean that Barry Smith’s men go into the match as the division leaders, one point ahead of The Honest Men, having played two games fewer.
While Rovers have taken 19 points from the last 21 available, Ayr go into the encounter having lost three of their last four outings, although their one win in that sequence was a big one, and away from home at that, with a 5-1 triumph against Stranraer.
However, Rovers face a tough ask to get their second win over Ian McCall’s men this term, with no-one scoring more league goals than Ayr with 58 in 21 outings, while the Somerset Park team has picked up more points away from home than anyone else in the league, with 24 points out of a possible 30.
Both teams have one win apiece from this fixture, with the first coming at Stark’s Park in September. Lawrence Shankland fired the visitors ahead in the first-half injury time, but second-half goals from Lewis Vaughan and Jason Thomson led Raith to a 2-1 win.
It was a different story in November however, when Shankland, Robbie Crawford and Craig Moore eased Ayr to a comfortable 3-0 win.
Ayr United hold the upper-hand in the most recent meetings between the clubs, with four wins from the last ten fixtures, compared to Raith’s three.
Saturday’s match referee will be Barry Cook
Head-To-Head League Record at Stark’s Park:
Raith Rovers Wins: 34 | Ayr United Wins: 17 | Draws: 22
Raith Rovers Goals: 134 | Ayr United Goals: 83
Raith Rovers: W-D-W-W-W-W
Ayr United: W-W-L-L-W-L
Top Goal Scorers:
Raith Rovers: Lewis Vaughan 19 | Greig Spence 12 | Liam Buchanan 11
Ayr United: Craig Moore 19 | Lawrence Shankland 17 | Michael Moffat 11
Raith Rovers: 21/20 | Ayr United: 12/5 | Draw: 27/10