Hat-Trick Hardie Is The Hero
After a match which was equal parts exciting, dramatic and nerve-shreddingly tense, Raith Rovers moved four points clear in the hunt for a play-off spot, after prevailing in a seven-goal thriller against St. Mirren.
Manager, Ray McKinnon made a number of changes from the side which went down to Rangers at Ibrox in midweek, in what looked an extremely attack-minded line-up.
Ryan Hardie made his first start alongside Mark Stewart up-front, while Harry Panayiotou moved to the left-hand-side. Ross Callachan came back into the midfield at the expense of Ryan McCord, while Aidan Connolly also returned, slotting in on the right. Kyle Benedictus was back after his recent suspension, and he was partnered at centre-half with Iain Davidson, with Lewis Toshney handed a defensive-midfield role
St. Mirren have become a far more obdurate side under Alex Rae’s stewardship, conceding just two goals in their previous five league fixtures, but they were a goal down almost from the get-go, as Rovers started the game at a fraught pace.
Ross Callachan picked up possession in the middle of the park, and he slipped an excellent pass through to Ryan Hardie, who galloped clear of a static St. Mirren defence. Despite the yawning chasm between himself and the Buddies goal, the youngster kept his composure to slot the ball past Jamie Langfield and into the bottom-right corner of the net.
Just as it was against Morton a week ago, it was an excellent start to the match for the home side, and Hardie certainly looked to be in the mood, winning the ball in the air a few minutes later and finding himself one-on-one with Langfield once again, but referee, John Beaton had signalled for a foul on the defender.
While Raith fans may have felt slightly aggrieved at that decision, the away fans were equally as disgruntled in the 13th minute, when Laurence Shankland rolled the ball home after Kevin Cuthbert had come and failed to grasp onto the ball. Thankfully from a Raith perspective however, the referee had spotted an infringement on the keeper.
While St. Mirren were looking dangerous, it was Rovers who looked the more capable on the ball, and a cross from Toshney from the left-hand-side was just too high for Hardie, who failed to get a decent connection on his header.
The loan-star was even closer a few moments later, picking up a Connolly shot which had ricocheted into his path, he cut inside before bringing out a fine one-handed stop from Langfield.
Ross Callachan was finding willing runners with his passes from midfield, and his splayed pass to the left found Hardie in bags of room, but after doing well to hit the line and send in a square pass to Stewart, Andy Webster prevented a second goal by hacking the ball clear.
The second goal wasn’t long in coming though, with Hardie the architect this time, in the 22nd minute.
The youngster showed great perseverance to win the ball and retain it in the middle of the park, and his pass was well weighted to Stewart, who scurried through on goal and clipped it past Langfield into the opposite corner from the first.
St. Mirren were then forced into a substitution, with Steve Agnew replacing the injured Rocco Quinn, and whether it was the change, or just an upping of the tempo from the away team, Raith suddenly started to lose their grip on proceedings.
Andy Webster almost halved the arrears ten minutes before the interval, swivelling and sending a shot that grazed the outside of the post after a corner-kick, then Benedictus did well to block a Calum Gallagher attempt from close-range.
Cuthbert was then called into action to thwart a shot from the recently introduced Agnew, but St. Mirren got the goal their endeavour warranted in the 40th minute, when Keith Watson nodded the ball home following a corner-kick, and it was almost 2-2, when Cuthbert prevented Shankland from scoring by unorthodoxly saving the ball with his face.
In a match which Raith appeared to be in control of, they were arguably relieved to hear the half-time whistle.
Cuthbert was called into action right at the start of the second-period, when he was forced into clawing away a downward Gallagher header, but any thoughts of a Buddies fight-back appeared to be shelved in the space of two minutes.
Firstly, Hardie was afforded slightly too much space in the penalty area, and he made the most of it, clattering an unstoppable shot past a startled looking Langfield to make it 3-1, and it was four soon after.
Hardie was again the scorer, and like his effort against Morton last weekend, he appeared to be the calmest man in the stadium, as he sashayed through the penalty area, avoiding umpteen tackles and challenges in the process, before driving the ball into the net.
If both sets of fans thought that was that however, they were very much mistaken.
There seemed little danger when David Clarkson collected the ball on the half-way line and made his way to the left, but after languidly travelling around 45-yards and sidestepping two tackles in the process, he lashed a shot past an unsighted Cuthbert from the edge of the area, and suddenly the outcome was far less assured.
The Paisley side certainly hadn’t given up hope, and it should have been 4-3 with 20 minutes remaining, when a fantastic whipped in cross from the left-hand-side, somehow failed to find anyone to turn it home from a couple of yards out.
The deficit was reduced to one just five minutes later though.
Raith failed to clear their lines effectively, and after finding himself in possession inside the area and from a tight angle, Clarkson buried his chance into the far corner. Suddenly, it looked like Rovers could lose a three-goal-lead for the second time this season.
However, whilst the Buddies piled bodies forward and buffeted the backline with long balls into the area, Rovers held on for a vital victory, thanks in no-small-measure, to an extraordinary performance from Hardie.
Raith now move on to an equally important match this Tuesday evening at Stark’s Park, with a home match against Queen of the South.
The match highlights video will appear here shortly
Photographs © Tony Fimister 2016
Interviews will appear soon
Raith Rovers will be aiming to keep their noses in front in the play-off hunt this weekend, with a victory over Alex Rae’s seventh placed St. Mirren side at Stark’s Park.
The play-off situation tightened up in midweek, due to a combination of Raith slipping to defeat at Ibrox, and Queen of the South’s excellent victory over Hibernian. Those results left Raith just a point clear of the Doonhamers, but while they’ll be hoping to extend that gap on Saturday, they won’t find it easy against a side who they’ve already enjoyed two tight tussles with this term.
The first was back in September, when a late goal from Grant Anderson handed Rovers a 2-1 win, after a James Craigen strike had opened the scoring, before Lawrence Shankland restored parity.
It was the Buddies turn to grab a late, game-changing goal in the return fixture at Stark’s Park in December. Mark Stewart opened the scoring in the first-half, but an exquisite free-kick from Stevie Mallan in injury-time, saw the Paisley outfit leave with a point.
Since then, Alex Rae has replaced the departed Ian Murray as manager, and he’s enjoyed a good return since stepping into the hot-seat, with five wins in just ten outings. While that record has only seen them rise one place in the Championship table, it has enabled them to look up rather than down, and a win on Saturday for St. Mirren, would leave them just four points behind Raith, and still in with a crack of a top-four spot.
The most recent head-to-head record is reasonably even, with Rovers sitting on three wins from the last ten meetings, while St. Mirren sit on four. However, due to the two sides being in different divisions for the best part of ten years, St. Mirren’s last win at Stark’s Park was a 3-0 victory back in 2004.
Saturday’s match referee will be.John Beaton.
Head-To-Head League Record at Stark’s Park:
Raith Rovers Wins: 28 | St Mirren Wins: 18 | Draws: 11
Raith Rovers Goals: 114 | St. Mirren Goals: 76
Raith Rovers: D-L-D-W-W-L
St. Mirren: W-W-L-W-L-D
Raith Rovers: Mark Stewart 8 | James Craigen 5 | Kyle Benedictus 3 | Grant Anderson 3
St. Mirren: Stevey Mallan 9 | Lawrence Shankland 5
Raith Rovers: 11/8 | St. Mirren: 21/10 | Draw: 9/4