ROVERS BATTLE FOR CRUCIAL VICTORY
Ross Matthew’s fourth-minute goal was the difference as Raith withstood an aerial bombardment from a physical and direct Airdrie side to claim victory at the Penny Cars Stadium. With Falkirk being held to a draw away at Stranraer, Raith opened up a three-point lead at the top of the League One table with a statement win in this year’s promotion campaign.
Having played the better football, Raith were forced on to the back foot in the second half as Airdrie committed more and more men forward, playing long high balls deep into the Raith defensive area. Rovers’ centre halves Davidson and Benedictus punched the air at full-time, reflecting the joy of the sizeable and noisy contingent of travelling fans – after a physical and testing ninety minutes, this felt like an important win in the context of the promotion campaign.
John McGlynn’s side visited Airdrie sporting new signing Steven MacLean in their first eleven – the experienced striker joined in midweek from Hearts and took his place at the pinnacle of the Rovers attack. Best known for his six-year spell at St Johnstone in which he notched forty-seven goals, MacLean started in a side also including Baird and Bowie in forward positions – Raith’s management team clearly intending to press their opponents from the off. Youngster Dylan Tait – a scorer last week against Montrose – retained his starting berth.
Airdrie’s supporters had only seen two victories since their defeat at Starks Park in December, each against low-ranking opponents. Single-goal victories against Forfar and Peterhead accompanied heavy defeats in the League to Clyde and in the Cup to Hearts at Tynecastle. Having led League One before the turn of the year, manager Ian Murray was looking to arrest a poor run of form. Fourteen-goal Callum Gallagher dropped to the bench, with midfielder Kurtis Roberts and full-back Kyle MacDonald recalled. Young loan signing Innes Murray was named as substitute, having arrived from Hibs on Friday.
The sides’ two encounters in the season thus far couldn’t have been more different – a dour encounter in September saw Grant Anderson’s goal secure all three points for Raith, while December’s meeting in Kirkcaldy saw three red cards, penalty shouts at both ends, and Airdrie’s manager sent to the stand. On a grey and overcast afternoon in North Lanarkshire, the assembled crowd would have been looking for fare as rich as the festive December meeting, and not the thin gruel offered earlier in the season.
Following their rousing performance at the Tony Macaroni Stadium in the Scottish Cup, Raith’s travelling support again looked to outnumber their hosts – a roar greeted Rovers’ first corner in the opening seconds; Hendry firing over. Raith drew first blood after only three minutes – MacLean drew Fordyce out of the area, fed MacDonald, and Matthews flashed across the near post to volley home. Raith’s contingent roared again, as Matthews peeled away to take the congratulations of his colleagues.
Airdrie have struggled to find the target in recent months, with only seven goals scored December and January. Stung by the early concession, Callum Smith battled through midfield, creating a half-chance for Andy Ryan. With passing tight and sharp in the central third, it would be the home side’s finishing that would require improvement – Rovers had already demonstrated their clinical nature to put their noses in front.
Much as Steven Anderson’s introduction had reinvigorated Raith’s defence in the autumn, Steven MacLean brought a calmness and authority to Rovers’ attacking threat. His close touch and control left Fordyce on his knees in the fifth minute; a chance carved for Bowie moments later saw MacLean’s young colleague fire wide. The early portents are positive for Raith’s latest signing.
It was twenty minutes before the home fans had reason to raise their voices – Robbie Thomson diving across his goal as a rising Carrick drive flew just wide. Raith responded – Matthews and Baird both asking questions of home keeper Gallacher. More intricate passing saw Baird released in behind the home defensive line, only Gallacher rushing out of his goal saw the danger cleared. Rovers’ second should have come from Tait on twenty-six minutes – moments after MacDonald’s corner for Airdrie had run right through the Raith box, Tait was clear at the other end in a three-on-two situation – the youngster’s shot aimed the wrong side of Gallacher’s post.
With half an hour gone, Raith looked in control. For all Airdrie’s movement in midfield, Rovers had dictated the flow of play, and created the better chances. Keeping the pitch wide when in possession and narrow when not, John McGlynn’s men looked more dangerous in possession and vibrant going forwards. Although Carrick and Ryan were visible upfront for the hosts, Benedictus and Davidson had not looked under undue pressure to this point. The otherwise spartan press-box was bathed in afternoon sunshine, assisting your correspondent’s optimistic outlook.
With half-time approaching, the home side created pressure with a spell of more direct play – Millar, Fordyce, and Crighton played long into the Raith box; Rovers’ central defenders were drawn into a number of aerial challenges. A series of corners brought a crowd into Thomson’s six-yard box. Crighton’s header was deflected over, and the leggy McKay’s shot was blocked by Benedictus. Andy Ryan’s run and shot created momentary panic in the Raith rearguard – the effort whizzing through Thomson’s six-yard area with no takers.
Airdrie’s double-substitution at the half sought to re-establish the hosts foothold in the game. Paul McKay made way for advanced midfielder Ally Roy; Nat Wedderburn taking the place of Kurtis Roberts – from the outset, the hosts kept the temperature high as the sun set on this corner of North Lanarkshire. Carrick tussled with Davidson, Ryan jumped with Thomson, and Benedictus earned yellow for clattering his former colleague Nat Wedderburn. Full-back MacDonald’s powerful drive flew just wide of Thomson’s far post. The home side continued to improve following the interval.
In midfield, Hendry Matthews and Tait struggled to retain control such as they had enjoyed throughout the opening stages, although a scrappy spell leading to the hour mark took the wind from the hosts’ sails. Referee Dickinson’s whistle was heard regularly and often as the match became more a physical joust that a cerebral challenge.
Raith sought to stretch the match once more, with the introduction of livewire Armstrong for Kieron Bowie – within a minute, the winger had beaten Fordyce and driven a cross in front of Gallacher, and set up Miller for a blast from distance. Airdrie responded with the introduction of Callum Gallagher, immediately engaging combat with Benedictus and Davidson. The match was well poised – Raith, a goal in front, seeking width and pace; Airdrie much more direct, loading the attacking third and feeding off the second ball. Hendry stepped away beautifully from Roy one minute, and was jostled off the ball by a host of white jerseys the next – as if to emphasise the contrasting styles.
Three yellow cards and a host of Airdrie corners followed in quick succession – Robbie Thomson’s goal under an aerial bombardment. With Airdrie’s midfield largely being bypassed, the balance of play fell back toward the Raith goal. The intelligent Callum Gallagher kept the momentum with the home side – the robust Wedderburn the bulwark from which Airdrie’s forward assaults originated. Raith’s width and pace in attack were becoming less of a factor, with Airdrie’s direct play the dominant feature.
With a rare moment of space, Steven MacLean nearly fired in a Raith second – turning Fordyce, and sending a curling drive just wide. At the other end, Callum Gallagher was inches wide following McCann’s deep cross – the substitute holding his head as he lay on the turf. For Raith, substitute Spencer’s rising drive was well held by keeper Gallacher.
With Airdrie leaving four up in spells of Raith possession, Rovers had to dig deep in their own defensive third. Kieran MacDonald and Armstrong looked to drive down the flanks, as Rovers played wide, away from the massed ranks of Airdrie’s artillery. Showing an admirable experience under real physical pressure, Raith’s midfield held control of possession well, took their time at the set-piece, and disrupted the flow of high balls toward their own centre-halves.
With three minutes of added time ticking down, again Airdrie hoisted the ball long toward Benedictus and Davidson – Rovers’ defensive stalwarts holding firm despite the weight of Airdrie’s numbers around them. With several corners deep in injury time defended well, referee Dickinson’s full-time whistle was greeted was a roar of delight by Raith’s players and supporters alike. While Airdrie’s troops slumped, hands on hips and heads bowed, the Kirkcaldy side cheered the moment knowing a major psychological and physical test had been passed.
With Raith’s next three League fixtures against sides in the bottom half of the table, Rovers’ supporters will be hoping John McGlynn’s men can underline their position as promotion favourites in the coming weeks.
The match highlights video will appear here the day after the match
© Eddie Doig 2020
Interviews will appear shortly
After a victory over Montrose last weekend by the odd goal in seven, Raith Rovers face another difficult task this weekend, when they travel to Lanarkshire to face Airdrieonians.
The Diamonds sit third in League One, just four points behind leaders Raith Rovers, who kept their noses in front of Falkirk last weekend with that victory over Stewart Petrie’s side.
Ian Murray moved to bolster his squad in the January transfer window, signing left-back, Leon McCann on a permanent deal after impressing on a loan spell from Hamilton, while Andy Ryan was brought back to the club from Dunfermline.
Ryan was already a fan favourite at The Penny Cars Stadium, after a spell at the club in the 2016/17 season, which saw the striker bag 29 goals, and his acquisition helps bolster a forward line which already includes Dale Carrick, Callum Gallagher and Callum Smith.
Rovers have taken all six points from the two encounters this season. The first, back in September, saw Rovers win 1-0, thanks to a second half Grant Anderson goal, while the second meeting at Stark’s Park finished with the same scoreline, with Ross Matthews the only scorer on the day.
Rovers have an extraordinary record in this fixture, winning 12 and drawing four of the last 16 meetings, with their last defeat coming in a League Cup fixture back in 2011.
Saturday’s match referee will be David Dickinson
Head-To-Head Away Record Versus Airdrie:
Airdrie Wins: 3 | Raith Rovers Wins: 6 | Draws: 6
Airdrie Goals: 19 | Raith Rovers Goals: 18
Raith Rovers: L-W-W-D-L-W
Airdrie: Callum Gallagher 14 | Dale Carrick 12
Raith Rovers: Kieron Bowie 10 | Jamie Gullan 7 | Lewis Allan 6
Airdrie: 6/4 | Raith Rovers: 6/4 | Draw: 5/2