Nadé nets as Raith and Hibs draw
Raith were rewarded with a well-deserved point following a disciplined and hard-working display against a youthful and vibrant Hibernian at Easter Road. Christian Nadé’s 68th-minute equaliser secured the draw for the visitors, who could have snatched a victory late on after Ryan Conroy was crowded out with a clear sight of goal.
After heavy defeats against league favourites Hearts and Rangers earlier in the season, today’s controlled performance following two recent clean sheets will serve to underline Raith’s status as top-half contenders in this season’s Championship race. While Hibs were by no means as fluid and created fewer chances than in their recent win at Ibrox, that should take nothing away from a Raith display which contained dogged defending and a combination of movement and muscle in the final third.
Easter Road brings happy memories for Raith fans. Last season’s cup victories against Hibs and Rangers are still fresh in the Kirkcaldy side’s collective conscience. Raith staff and fans alike also have the luxury of the sepia-tinged legend of Bayern Munich’s visit to this ground during the mid-1990’s.
Grant Murray named an unchanged side from last week’s no-score draw against Falkirk – with Christian Nadé upfront on his own, the midfield foundations built around Liam Fox and Kevin Moon, and Ellis and Watson continuing at centre-back, notwithstanding Ross Perry’s return to training this week following his leg injury sustained against Cowdenbeath. Although manager Murray’s focus may have been on securing a third consecutive clean sheet, Hibs’ “goals against” record must have caught his eye. His game-plan would have included licence for Conroy and McKay to attack each flank, with Martin Scott tasked with getting closest to Nadé from his midfield position.
Based on recent form, the Hibernian engine was running more smoothly than at any time during this year’s league campaign. Following victories in Dingwall and at Ibrox, Hibs returned to Easter Road full of confidence. Despite early-season wobbles which had put perhaps premature pressure on their new manager, the traditionally compressed nature of the Championship table had allowed Hibs to jump several places following recent improved results. Stubbs only made one change – impressive full-back David Gray, a scorer at Ibrox earlier in the week, failed a late fitness test with Callum Booth taking his place. Although former Falkirk frontman Farid El Alagui remained out through injury, Hibs’ front line possessed plenty of pace and power, with Dominique Malonga partnering 19-year old Jason Cummings.
The match started at a brisk pace. Three Raith corners in the first five minutes saw Hibs keeper Oxley under pressure from Scott, and Watson climbing highest to head one cross just over. Hibs were also enterprising early on – the electrifying Cummings escaping Ellis to shoot, his effort blocked away.
Hibs came within a whisker of taking an early lead. With three minutes on the clock, Malonga crossed for Cummings to fire goalwards, his effort striking Laidlaw. Cummings’ improvised rebound was clawed away spectacularly by the Raith keeper. Allan’s follow-up shot was deflected wide by McKeown. The Easter Road support roared their team on, sensing an early advantage.
The early exchanges showed both sides using Easter Road’s wide-open spaces to maximum effect. Conroy and McKay were getting chalk on their boots down the left and right respectively, while for the home side Lewis Stevenson bombed forward from his right-back position regularly, directly pressuring Raith’s left-back McKeown.
Jason Cummings’ two goals at Ibrox on Monday brought numerous managers and agents to Easter Road. His mobility and quickness over the first five yards brought a sense of anticipation each time he had space in front of him. On 15 minutes, another burst left Malonga in space, Watson nipping the ball away at the last moment. Booth, Allan, and Stevenson all looked to profit from the youngster’s verve driving at the heart of the Raith defence; on numerous occasions in the first half-hour, Ellis and Watson hacked clear from the feet of onrushing Hibs forwards.
With the game twenty minutes old, Raith had established their midfield presence, but it was Hibs who attacked with more purpose. Malonga created space for Allan to shot goalwards, a Booth cross was blocked by Laidlaw, and a Stevenson cross narrowly missed the onrushing Cummings.
With a five-man midfield, Raith were able to hold the ball for long spells. Fox and Moon distributed the ball from left to right efficiently, with Nadé dropping into midfield areas to offer a shorter option. Rarely though did the visitors get in behind the Hibs defence – Conroy escaped beyond Stevenson but his cross found Nadé outnumbered, and McKay was crowded out while coming inside to try to find support. A dipping McKeown free-kick from 30 yards – striking the valve of the ball to create the movement in the air – gave Oxley cause for concern.
As the match moved toward half-time, Hibs moved up another gear. Malonga’s overhead kick just failed to connect, Allan was unable to finish from Cummings’ sharp cross, and a Craig volley troubled Laidlaw’s radar before drifting just wide. Centre-back Hanlon should have kept his header on target while unmarked following a Hibs corner.
Despite Hibs’ momentum leading toward half-time, Raith almost took an unexpected lead from a McKay thunderbolt from 20 yards. A headed clearance found the on-loan Rangers youngster, who steadied himself and cannoned a drive against Oxley’s cross-bar from outside the box.
Stung into a response, and having created by far the better chances in the opening half, Hibs took a deserved lead a minute before the break. The flying Stevenson ran at McKeown and crossed, midfielder Scott Robertson had a swing from six yards which looked to be skewed wide, however Booth managed to turn the ball back across goal for Robertson to stick out a toe to force the ball home.
The half-time interval came – McKay’s drive apart – with Hibs very much in the ascendancy. Manager Alan Stubbs, and the Hibs faithful, may have felt that the decisive blow had been struck, and that the three points were there for the taking. Moments into the second half, a stretching Cummings was inches away from connecting with a Booth cross, with both Watson and Ellis in full retreat.
Raith created the first of their second half chances shortly thereafter – Scott’s dinked header found Conroy six yards from goal. The ball wouldn’t quite sit down for the Raith winger, his clipped finish not having the strength to trouble Oxley.
Kevin Moon earned the match’s first yellow card for a trip on a marauding Allan. Part of Murray’s half-time team-talk must have focussed on Raith not being bullied around the midfield by their opponents. Referee Beaton was constantly dealing with physical contests in the central third – Moon, Fox, and Martin Scott each tussling and jousting with their opposite numbers. Despite being a goal down, Raith’s second half application was much improved and suggested a clear belief that there was an opportunity to take something from the game.
The battle-hardened Christian Nadé took the fight to the robust centre-half pairing of Jordan Forster and Liam Fontaine. With arms grappling and elbows flailing, the Frenchman gave a powerful display of graft and determination, married with no little skill in holding the ball at close quarters under stern physical examination.
Nadé got his reward in the sixty-eighth minute – working his way inside, he fed Conroy with a delicate back-heel. As Scott squared the ball into a central location, Nadé finished low beyond Oxley’s despairing left-hand, and set off on a chest-thumping, torso-bearing celebration in front of the Hibs fans. Unimpressed, referee Beaton offered a yellow card.
The equaliser galvanised Raith, and unsettled the home side. The home crowd also became disgruntled – every interception from Watson or Ellis was met with a groan of frustration from the Famous Five Stand, every mis-placed pass or well-timed tackle in the Raith defensive third prompted howls of frustration. As with last season’s cup victory on the same ground, the longer the match went on, the more the fragility of the Hibs psyche became apparent, strengthening the resolve in the Raith ranks.
With twenty minutes to go, Murray replaced the tiring McKay with Mark Stewart. Almost immediately, the winger ran at Fontaine, drifting a cross toward Conroy, who’s downward header was fielded by Oxley.
Moments later, the chance of a Raith victory came and went. Nadé again bullied his way inside, feinted this way and that, then rolled the ball into Conroy’s path twelve yards out. With the away support on their feet, Conroy hesitated and took a touch, before being crowded out by a frantic Hibernian rear-guard. A first-time shot would have tested Oxley; a goal would have tested the character of Alan Stubbs and his young side.
In the last five minutes, Raith – perhaps sensing that a point was worth securing rather than risking – dropped deeper, inviting Hibs forward. Substitute McGeouch stepped away from Fox to fire goalward, and the ever-willing Cummings twisted and turned with Watson and Ellis in close attendance. Hibs’ final chance came from a McGeouch corner, Heffernan glancing his near-post flick across Laidlaw’s goal.
Although Hibs pressed late on, causing some nervous moments around Laidlaw’s goal, Raith’s back four looked far more comfortable in the second forty-five. Lauded by their manager in the post-match press conference, Watson and Ellis showed spirit and tenacity against a youthful and energetic front pairing of Malonga and Cummings.
From a season notable so far for disappointing performances against Rangers and Hearts, today’s was a much-improved display from Grant Murray’s men, justifying Raith’s top-half status in this most challenging of Championship seasons.
Copyright Eddie Doig 2014