Rovers Relegated After Penalty Woe
Raith Rovers wretched season reached a new nadir this afternoon, as the club was relegated from the second tier after a penalty shoot defeat to Brechin City, following a 3-3 draw.
Trailing 2-1 in the final minute of normal time, Rovers had looked to be out of it, but an injury-time equaliser from Declan McManus, and a goal in the first period of extra-time from Ryan Hardie, appeared to be enough to see Rovers into the final.
However, a direct free-kick from Liam Watt meant the tie went to penalties, where Raith fluffed their lines, with three poor spot-kicks saved by Brechin ‘keeper, Graeme Smith.
John Hughes made just one change from Wednesday evening’s 1-1 draw, with Rudi Skacel dropping to the bench, with his place being taken by Ryan Hardie.
With Jonny Court and Declan McManus also on the park, it was an extremely attack-minded line-up, although McManus started proceedings in a wide right position.
The first-leg of this tie had been something of a poor spectacle, and the first half of this one was in a disappointingly similar vein, with consecutive passes a rarity, as both teams toiled to put together any kind of cohesiveness.
Rovers had dominated the closing stages of the previous game with the introduction of width from the bench in the shape of Chris Johnston, but their lack of wide players in this one, allied with a pedestrian, plodding pace, was making life simpler for Darren Dods’ side.
Neither side looked threatening, although Brechin did cause consternation with a couple of corner kicks, the first of which had to be steered behind by Craig Barr, while the other was cleared by Jean Yves M’Voto, after Conor Brennan misjudged the flight of the cross.
Rovers had yet to trouble Smith at the other end, although the ‘keeper had to look alert to rush out to push the ball away from the onrushing Hardie, while the follow up wasn’t capitalised on by Danny Handling.
It was a tentative sign that Rovers were just starting to find their feet in the game, and the final 15 minutes or so of the half looked more encouraging, as Court hooked a cross over both his shoulder and the crossbar, while Handling shot two yards wide after receiving the ball at the edge of the area from Ross Matthews.
With Rovers making hard work of things, the concern was that just like Wednesday, Brechin would make the most of any opportunities they had, and they just did that in the 51st minute.
There didn’t seem much danger, as Jean Yves M’Voto had possession at the corner flag, but his passback to Brennan went straight to Ross Caldwell, who confidently swept the ball home to put Brechin in the box-seat.
Any thoughts that this would create some semblance of a reaction from the home side would prove fruitless, as the away side kept Hughes’s men at arms-length, until the manager made a triple swap on the hour mark, with Court, Matthews and Kyle Benedictus making way for Scott Robertson, Bobby Barr and Jordan Thompson.
With a natural wide player on the park, the change in Raith was almost immediate, and they equalised in the 65th minute.
McManus was brought down on the right touchline, and from his set-piece delivery, M’Voto made amends for his earlier blunder, by powering a header past Smith from close range.
The sense of relief was palpable, although Raith still had to be wary, as Finn Graham demonstrated when he scampered though wide on the left, before pulling his shot just wide of Brennan’s left-hand post.
Brechin attacks were the exception rather than the rule at that stage though, and McManus was unfortunate that his cross-shot didn’t hit the back of the net, after a fine tip over by Smith, while M’Voto almost got on the end of a Jason Thomson flick on from a Davidson cross.
However, the central defender’s afternoon was to take another downturn, when he again gifted Brechin another goal in the 84th minute.
There seemed little danger from Willie Dyer’s thumping punt up the park, but with M’Voto getting caught under the ball, Alan Trouten was free to run in on goal and dispatch the ball past Brennan, for what appeared to be the match-winning goal.
However, there was to be late drama, with a tie saving goal in the final seconds, albeit it was only a temporary reprieve.
Thomson and Barr combined effectively down the right, and although the cross into the box appeared to be initially wasted, the ball eventually fell to McManus, who coolly picked his spot and fired high into the net from ten yards.
That feeling of euphoria was soon repeated, as Raith went into the lead for the first time in the tie in the 103rd minute.
Ryan Hardie somehow found himself through one-on-one after he beat the Brechin offside trap, and after rounding Smith, he rolled the ball into the empty net from an acute angle.
It felt like that was that, and with Brechin ruffling few feathers, the game appeared to be petering out, but considering how many direct free-kicks Rovers have conceded this season, there was some mild angst when Liam Watt was stood over the ball thirty yards from goal with four minutes left.
That anxiety was entirely justified, as he lashed a superb set-piece passed Brennan, to take the game to penalties.
Rovers appeared to have the edge in the shoot-out initially, after Watt and Paul McLean missed in quick succession, but three poor efforts from Hardie, Barr and Robertson saw Raith defeated, and ultimately relegated.
It was a calamitous end, to a disastrous campaign.
There’s all to play for this Saturday, when Brechin City travel to Stark’s Park, for the Championship semi-final second-leg.
The two teams are tied all square, after a bruising first leg which ended one apiece.
Ross Caldwell had given the home side the lead from the penalty spot in the closing moments of the first period, but an outstanding free-kick from Declan McManus ensured Raith have a decent platform to build on this weekend.
The other semi-final did produce an advantage, but only a slender one, as Andy Ryan’s 27th goal of the campaign handed Airdrie a 1-0 lead going into the second-leg of their match up with Alloa.
You have to go back to February 2003 for Brechin’s last win at Stark’s Park, a 2-1 victory in a season where the clubs finished first and second in the Division Two table.
Rovers lost just four times in their first 29 league games that campaign, but they ended up winning the title by just four points from the Glebe Park side, after a loss of form in the closing stages, presented an opportunity for Brechin which they couldn’t quite capitalise on.
With away goals not counting double in the playoffs, a draw will see the tie heading into extra-time, with the possibility of penalties if the sides still can’t be separated.
Rovers have a good record from the most recent fixtures between the lair, with Wednesday evening’s draw meaning they’ve won four and drawn four of their last ten league meetings.
Saturday’s match referee will be Alan Muir.
Head-To-Head Home Record:
Raith Rovers Wins: 24 | Brechin City Wins: 5 | Draws: 10
Raith Rovers Goals: 95 | Brechin City Goals: 44
Raith Rovers: L-W-L-L-W-D
Brechin City: L-L-D-W-D-D
Top Goal Scorers:
Raith Rovers: Declan McManus 8 | Ryan Hardie 7 | Mark Stewart 6
Brechin City: Andy Jackson 16 | Ally Love 10 | Alan Trouten 7
Raith Rovers: 8/15 | Brechin City: 5/1 | Draw: 16/5