NEW ERA STARTS WITH A WIN
Two goals from Kevin Nisbet saw Raith take all three points against a spirited Stenhousemuir side today in the Starks Park sunshine. With a busy South Stand boisterous anticipating the first home league game of a new season, a mixture of young and old saw Rovers claim a deserved victory with Buchanan, Nisbet, and young Nathan Flanagan all enjoying a positive ninety minutes.
With chances at both ends, the visitors had pushed and probed, looking more likely for periods in the second half; but with the introduction of Lewis Milne as a late substitute, Raith stretched away from their rivals, and looked a class above as the match reached full-time.
Putting his side through their pre-match warm-up to the strains of the “Green, green, grass of home”, manager Barry Smith made one change to his side following last week’s 1-1 draw away to Stranraer – Nathan Flanagan coming in, Euan Valentine dropping to the bench. Robbie Thomson and Chris Duggan remained out with injuries, new loan signing Kieran Wright starting in goal, summer signings Gillespie and Nisbet both started, and Nat Wedderburn looked to bolster a midfield which had looked porous on occasions during an inconsistent BetFred Cup campaign.
The 2018/19 season sees Stenhousemuir keen to establish themselves in League One. Promoted last season at the first time of asking, the Warriors had finished last term as one of the in-form teams in the country – victorious in the play-offs with two-legged wins over Queen’s Park and Peterhead, despite finishing the season a full twenty-two points behind their play-off Final adversaries. Warriors’ fans will be delighted if their opening-day victory against relegated Brechin City sets the tone for another successful season. In a starting eleven featuring six of eight summer signings, there were three changes to last week’s line-up – former East Kilbride man Kyle Gibbons (suspended after his red card) joined Halleran and Vaughan making way for McMenamin, former Alloa midfield Alan Cook, and a trialist. Former Dunfermline midfielder Connor Duthie would line up directly against former team-mate Wedderburn in the game’s engine-room.
Pre-game, all talk understandably focussed on the new Starks Park pitch. While football fans by their nature will look for excuses for most on-field events, in truth time must be given before conclusions are reached. The home side will need to learn its dynamics as a surface. Without doubt though, the return of Rovers training sessions to Starks Park – for the first time in decades – can only have a benefit, with the players and staff feeling an increased sense of ownership and authority over their surroundings. From the first whistle, the early tempo seemed high, with Buchanan and Nisbet furthest forward for Raith, and the experienced McMenamim and McGuigan asking questions of the Raith back four. Murray’s smart inside header almost freed Buchanan, Garcia Tena hoofing clear.
For the Warriors, Donaldson looked sharp on the left flank from the off. Looking to support his two strikers pulling wide, he set up Dickson for the away side’s first shot on goal after five minutes – Wright comfortably holding on. On ten minutes – after Benedictus had walloped a free-kick directly into the visitors’ wall from thirty yards – another chance for the Warriors: Garcia Tena winning a header against Wedderburn at the far-post, Duthie shooting into a forest of legs in front of keeper Wright.
With Gillespie having struggled to place a pass in the opening stages, it was his midfield team-mate Wedderburn who was caught in possession on fourteen minutes, as the Raith central two failed to settle – McGuigan and Cook worked the ball to the trialist, who fired high over from distance. Raith countered – Buchanan released Flanagan down the left side, the youngster’s cross seized by Smith at the second attempt. Gillespie’s free-kick – awarded after the uncompromising Garcia Tena upended Nisbet – failed to clear the defensive wall.
With twenty-three minutes on the clock, a lovely move from Raith opened up their visitors and generated a deserved opener. Murray’s cross-field pass allowed Nisbet room to stretch his legs. Showing real quality at high speed, the youngster exchanged passes with Flanagan and fired at goal. His shot was blocked but the youngster was clattered in the aftermath – referee Roncone pointed to the spot without hesitation. Nisbet blasted the penalty high to Smith’s left-hand, for the first competitive goal on the new Starks Park pitch.
The Warriors looked to respond. A push on McGuigan allowed Cook to flight a free-kick to the far post – Morgan Neill’s powerful header was well held by Wright. A second penalty shout for Raith followed moments later – Buchanan played in Gillespie, who appeared bundled to the ground by Cook. The referee deemed the challenge an honest shoulder-to-shoulder clash. Duthie’s shot flew into the South Stand as the match passed the half-hour. Buchanan headed at Smith from a Wedderburn cross.
With ten minutes until half-time, Raith looked to be gaining an edge. Murray and Watson at full-back were seeing more of the ball, Nisbet looked bright and lively, and Gillespie and Wedderburn looked to have found their passing range. Cracks began to appear in the visitors’ defence – Buchanan nearly escaped twice beyond Neill, and Murray surged beyond Reid at full-back. It was against the run of play that Cook’s fine cross glanced the face of Wrights’s cross-bar on thirty-seven minutes – Duthie’s drive flashed over. With Buchanan looking spritely, Rovers had a goal advantage and the balance of the play as the sides departed at the half.
Raith were first to show in the second period – Murray’s sharp cross well held by Smith under pressure. Gillespie’s cross-field pass seem to hold up well on the new surface – the pace of the bounce measured well by the Raith midfielder. Cook looked to be the Warriors’ most likely – his driven centre was well-claimed by Wright. McMenamin nearly connected with Donaldson’s cross shortly after.
While Raith looked the stronger in possession in the opening stages of the second half, there was limited success in playing through midfield. Gillespie and Wedderburn battled, but were unable to link the play from back to front – too often, the Rovers back four would play long, looking to Buchanan and Nisbet to set a platform. On fifty-five minutes, Buchanan’s sharp shot stung the palms of Warriors’ keeper Smith. Euan Murray won a 50/50 tackle, releasing Flanagan on the left – his centre again found Buchanan, the striker’s second crisp strike in as many minutes was again well saved.
With their first sortie on the hour mark, the visitors managed to swing the momentum of the second period. Duthie’s lofted cross evaded Wright – Cook could only find the side-netting. Benedictus’ header from a Flanagan corner looped just over, but it was now the visitors exerting control. Cook and Duthie’s running free-kick injected some pace into the Warriors’ attack – the latter’s cross fell just beyond McGuigan. Donaldon’s turn and shot from Dickson’s corner required a great block from Watson to deflect to safety.
A moment of hesitation in the Raith defence allowed Cook to pick his pass – a flighted cross to the far-post from McGuigan, who nodded against Wright’s far post with the goal gaping. With Stenhousemuir suddenly with the wind at their backs, Rovers broke with purpose – Flanagan and Buchanan both scuffed shots inside the six-yard box. Raith keeper Wright thumped a clearance into McGuigan’s midriff. An unsettled air descended on the South Stand. Cook’s blast was well blocked by McKay at full stretch.
Lewis Milne was introduced for Buchanan on seventy-five minutes, and made an immediate impact – he fed Flanagan who’s sharp cross found McKay, the defender’s effort was blocked away. From Flanagan’s corner, Nisbet was quickest, heading over Smith at the far-post, doubling Raith’s advantage. Having struggled for the previous quarter of an hour, manager Smith’s substitution had turned the match decisively in his side’s favour. Milne’s sharp one-touch passing and efficient use of space was an effective audition for a starting place next week. On eight-five minutes, a lovely one-two with Nisbet saw Milne’s clipped drive beat Smith, but nick the top of the cross-bar. With his last involvement, a Flanagan cross evaded everyone, bouncing just past Smith’s post.
The 1,400+ crowd filed out of Starks Park satisfied with the home League campaign off to a successful start. The novelty of the plastic pitch was not the post-match talking point – instead, a vibrant front-line, a combination of youth and experience, and an astute substitution had won the three points against energetic opponents. Following a long pre-season and some long away journeys, in a Kirkcaldy sense at least, this was football coming home.
Barry talked to RaithTV after the 2-0 win over The Warriors
Striker Kevin Nisbet talked to RaithTV after his 2 goals v Stenhousemuir
Football finally returns to Stark’s Park this weekend, and for the first time, Raith will be playing on their new artificial turf, with Stenhousemuir the first visitors this season.
The Warriors got off to the perfect start last weekend, with a Dougie Hill own-goal enough to take all three points against Brechin City.
Brown Ferguson’s side gained promotion from League Two last term after finishing fourth in the table, before eliminating Queen’s Park and Peterhead from the playoffs, to take their place in this season’s third tier.
As you would perhaps expect, the club brought in a number of new faces over the summe, in what looks to be a fiercely competitive division.
Goalkeeper, Graeme Smith was brought in from Brechin City, while central defenders, Jesus Garcia Tena and Morgyn Neil were brought in from Edinburgh City and Stranraer respectively.
In midfield, Alan Cook returns to the club for his second permanent spell, after joining the club on loan from Alloa last season, while former Livingston midfielder, Kieran Gibbons was snapped up after leaving East Kilbride.
Up front, Bobby Ray Vaughan was signed from Maltese side, Gudja United, and he may partner Mark McGuigan, one of the most prolific goal scorer’s in the lower leagues, with the forward bagging 23 goals last season.
It’s been over 15 years since these two sides met in a league match, with Stenhousemuir the 1-0 winners at Stark’s Park in a Second Division fixture back in March 2003.
The Ochilview team were the victors the last time the two sides met too, with a 2-0 Challenge Cup victory in 2015, with Andy Cook and a stunning strike from Stephen Stirling the difference on the night.
History suggests there will be a winner on Saturday, with just two draws in the last 26 meetings between the clubs. Rovers have won six and lost four of the last 10 meetings.
Saturday’s match referee will be Mike Roncone.
Head-To-Head Home League Record:
Raith Rovers Wins: 21 | Stenhousemuir Wins: 6 | Draws: 5
Raith Rovers Goals: 82 | Stenhousemuir Goals: 32
Raith Rovers: L-D-L-L-D
Top Goal Scorers:
Raith Rovers: Liam Buchanan 1 | Grant Gillespie 1 | Kevin Nisbet 1
Stenhousemuir: Sean Dickson 1 | Connor Duthie 1 | Morgyn Neil 1 | Seb Ross 1
Raith Rovers: 4/6 | Stenhousemuir: 19/5 | Draw: 31/10