RAITH AND TEN-MAN THISTLE SHARE POINTS
Raith and visitors Partick played out a non-score draw in an entertaining but ultimately frustrating 90 minutes this evening. Neither side could break a deadlock, stuck fast despite a Thistle red-card and several clear chances at both ends.
On an evening that began in conditions perfect for football, on reflection a draw perhaps suited both sides: Raith, needing points against higher-placed opposition to secure mid-table status; and Thistle, with a Cup Final to come and having been forced to defend with ten men following defender Muirhead’s sending off, now extending their lead at the top of the table to five points.
Not surprisingly following Raith’s fine win over title chasers Morton at the weekend, manager Grant Murray did little to tweak his starting eleven. Only Dougie Hill missed out, ruled with out a hamstring strain. Ellis moved to left-back, with Mensing joining Murray in the centre of defence. For Thistle, new interim manager Alan Archibald named an unchanged side following a weekend win at Cowdenbeath. Captain Paul Paton remained out with a knee injury, and joint top scorer Steven Craig remained on the bench, having failed to shake off a groin injury.
The main Raith team news pre-match was the signing on a short-term deal of former Dunfermline man Joe Cardle. The perma-tanned winger (the same description offered by this reporter on Cardle’s last visit to Starks Park – consistency is everything) made the short trip from East End Park having been released from his contract following Dunfermline’s fall into administration last week. Raith fans warmly applauded the new signing both during the warm-up and when he entered play during the second half. There is no doubt Cardle offers pace and intelligence wide on the left – the transfer shows the signs of being an astute piece of business this late in the season.
Raith started the more brightly of the two teams. Top-scorer Brian Graham’s sharp shot in the first minute called Thistle ‘keeper Fox into a smart save. Mensing’s free header from a following corner flew just over. With the sides having shared five goals in a pulsating match at Firhill in their last meeting, the high tempo and sharp passing suggested this evening’s encounter would also provide goals.
Thistle’s attacking play this season has come from several areas. A tight midfield unit has been held together well by Craigen, Balatoni, and club captain Paton; Erskine and Lawless have contributed goals; and Doolan has lead the line successfully in recent weeks in top-scorer Craig’s absence. In the early stages of this encounter, it was Erskine’s driving wide play supported by left full-back Aaron Sinclair which looked Partick’s most profitable route to goal. Could it have been that Thistle manager Archibald had noted Jason Thomson’s increased attacking threat from right-back in recent Raith games, and opted to pin the Raith full-back in defensive mode by advancing down that flank? Erskine’s fierce shot was deflected away after ten minutes, following an impressive step-over creating room for the drive.
Moments later, indecision in the Thistle rear-guard allowed Spence a clear-run in Fox’s goal. With the on-rushing Thistle keeper in full view, Spence couldn’t divert the ball beyond Fox, and the chance was gone.
With a quarter of an hour gone, Raith developed a good spell of pressure – Hamill advanced from left midfield, his shot deflected wide from 25 yards; Thomson floated several crosses deep into Thistle’s box; and Spence fired wide from distance.
Against the run of play in the early stages, Thistle almost broke the deadlock with their best chance of the half. A long ball evaded Ellis, McGurn rushed to the edge of his area colliding with Lawless, and Doolan’s twisting shot bounced just past.
Grant Anderson was the focal point for Raith’s attacking over the half-hour. Released forward from midfield, with his first opening the midfielder opted to try to beat his man rather than shoot when the ball sat up kindly for him on the edge of the Thistle area – on a cold night, putting his laces through it may have been the better option. Within moments, he crashed a shot from a similar position high into the visiting fans. With Raith’s next attack, Anderson tried a deft chip which was gratefully collected by Fox scrambling across his goal.
Raith enjoyed their best spell of play leading up to half-time. A Spence pile-driver flew inches wide with Fox rooted, and Graham just failed to connect after Grant Anderson had beaten his man to cross – Graham’s reaction suggested he felt he should have given Raith the lead.
At the other end, Erskine always looked dangerous. While often over-running passes or taking the wrong option when breaking, Thistle committed numbers forward when the opportunity arose and swept forward in the waves typical of their free-scoring approach in some recent games. Erskine tested McGurn twice but without beating the Raith keeper.
The second half opened in much the same way as the first – Raith enjoying more possession, but with Thistle breaking quickly when given the chance.
The momentum shifted in the home side’s favour in eight minutes following the interval. Having been left exposed by a short pass, Thistle centre-back Muirhead fouled Grant Anderson heavily, earning a booking. Minutes later, the same player arrived late to clatter Stuart Anderson, leaving the referee Calum Murray with no option but to issue a second yellow, reducing Thistle to ten men.
Within minutes, both Doolan and Lawless had been sacrificed. With Sunday’s Ramsdens Cup Final approaching, manager Archibald re-organised his side into a 4-4-1, and in removing two of his forward runners, was arguably setting his stall out to protect the draw. With his team’s closest opponents Morton having left Starks Park with nothing on Saturday, it was now for Raith to win the game if they could break Thistle down.
Grant Murray’s response was to remove hard-working Joe Hamill and introduce Joe Cardle for his first competitive appearance in a Raith jersey. Murray also took himself off, Ellis coming inside to partner Mensing and centre-half with sub Eddie Malone returning from suspension to take his place at left-back.
With the numerical advantage, Raith proved unable to string together the necessary quality of possession to create clear-cut chances. Graham pivoted inside the area and fired just beyond Fox’s left-hand post, but his shot was the exception to the rule in the latter stages of the second half. Graham, Spence, and Grant Anderson each failed to connect with passes, or attacked with runs into areas beyond the vision of their midfield. As frustrations grew within Raith’s front five, the passes became longer, the balls more searching, and the service from deep becoming more predictable for the banks of yellow Thistle defenders fortified on their 18-yard line.
For Thistle, substitute Craig provided energy up front, which if anything allowed Thistle to create more clear-cut opportunities in the closing stages despite being a man down. Bannigan fired just wide with minutes left, his partnership with Craigen and Welsh providing the platform from which the visitors could not be dislodged.
With time running out, Thomson and Malone threw several high crosses into the Thistle area. Unfortunately for new-signing Cardle, Raith’s crosses came from deep and only limited opportunity was given to getting to the by-line and crossing back into the heart of the Thistle defence. Spence broke wide and earned a hack from Thistle substitute McMillan, prompting another Thistle yellow card; Stuart Anderson shot over from distance; and man-of-the-match Mensing was committed forward in the late stages, all to no avail.
Having been offered four points from six against the two league leaders, manager Murray and most Raith fans would no doubt have been pleased; however with greater inventiveness and more variety against Thistle’s ten men, Raith’s profit this evening could have been three points rather than just one.
Photos: Tony Fimister Report: Andrew Fairlie
Photographs copyright Tony Fimister and Ian Martin