RAITH WIN TENSE PLAY-OFF FIRST LEG
Raith Rovers take a priceless one-goal advantage to Forfar for the second leg of this Scottish Championship play-off semi-final, following a pulsating and at times tempestuous first-leg at Starks Park. Goals from Kevin Nisbet and substitute Jamie Gullan gave Raith the edge against Jim Weir’s spirited and adventurous visitors.
Nisbet’s thirty-third goal of an incredible season in front of goal was cancelled out almost immediately with a characteristically thumped finish from former Starks Park favour John Baird – Rovers’ second from Gullan prompted a frantic finish but McGlynn’s men held on, keeping their noses in front for the second leg on Saturday.
Having made five changes for the trip to Montrose at the weekend, and resting several key players in the process, it was no surprise that both Kevin Nisbet and Liam Buchanan were restored to the starting line-up here. Of more interest was Rovers’ defensive line-up – three centre-halves and three central midfielders formed the core of a side that appeared planned around their visitors rather than setting out to dominate. Davidson, Murray, and Benedictus all started in a three-man central unit, and Matthews Wedderburn and Barjonas forming a midfield buttress – would the plan be to stop service to Baird and Hilson, who’d shared 34 goals prior to this evening? With Gullan and Gillespie on the bench, what Raith gained in stability, they would sacrifice in width.
For Forfar, manager Jim Weir recalled Brad Spencer and Lewis Moore, with Jamie Bain and Murray MacKintosh (a scorer at New Bayview last week) relegated to the bench. With Cedwyn Scott the only long-term absentee through injury, Weir’s side has a familiar feel at this stage of the season – defensively, Eckersley Meechan Whyte and Travis have built a fortress which few have breached all season; the cultured Dylan Easton would again look to orchestrate from midfield; Dale Hilson and John Baird would need no introduction to Raith’s defensive triumvirate.
On paper at least, the scene was set for a tense climax to a demanding League season: two sides evenly matched, with goals through-out, going toe-to-toe in front of a raucous crowd. The weather failed to play its part though – a balmy, clammy, end-of-season finale this was not; the weather remained resolutely damp, dreich, and overcast. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the South Stand bellowed from the off – raising the temperatures inside this venerable old stadium.
The early stages were brisk: Nisbet barrelled into Whyte, Barjonas robbed Irvine, Wedderburn grappled with Baird. Raith’s three-man central defence looked stern, Hilson and Baird pressed up against them. Rovers’ lack of width was disclosed early, Moore escaping behind Crane to win the visitors’ first corner. The Raith left-back’s licence to get forward – turning a back five to a four – would have to be exercised with caution.
On six minutes, the first chance – livewire Hilson powered a header straight at Lyness after Irvine caught Matthews napping. The chance was a golden one; the header should have been better. In repost, Crane drove deep into Forfar territory, McCallum holding the rising drive well in the wet conditions. Irvine snapped at Nisbet, a warning not to drop too deep into midfield. Davidson – all arms and legs – fouled Baird under a high ball; Hilson stung Lyness’ palms from the set-piece.
Twenty minutes in, the match had settled – both sides looked sharp and flowed well through midfield, individual battles had been joined and weak links probed – Eckersley’s break for treatment gave both managers the chance to assess the effectiveness of their plans. For a spell thereafter, Rovers looked hemmed in, with Nisbet and Buchanan cutting isolated figures beyond half-way. With a missed touch here and a loose pass there, the frustrations lay with the home side.
On twenty-seven minutes, an opportunity out of nothing. McKay’s low cross was scuffed by Whyte, and Callum Crane took charge, curling a fine shot against the outside of McCallum’s right-hand post. The South Stand erupted as McCallum flew across his goal, the width of an upright denying Raith a lead which, at that stage, would have been against the run of play.
Manager McGlynn’s formation allowed Raith the extra man in defensive areas, but at the cost of numbers in the final third – Crane again burst clear with thirty-five minutes on the watch, but with Nisbet and Buchanan outnumbered ahead of him, the Raith man could only turn and run into spaces on the flank. Despite the numerical superiority in their defensive third, Rovers’ possession was often hurried – the athleticism and vigour of Baird and Hilson standard operating procedure for the Loons’ front pair.
On forty minutes, a priceless opener for Raith – with Forfar having numbers in the box, top scorer Kevin Nisbet leapt highest in the crowd to head past McCallum. Raith had drawn first blood through their most prolific weapon; could the lead survive till half-time? Forfar’s response was emphatic – dropping into midfield, John Baird and Dale Hilson worked several passes, creating space. With a dip of his shoulder, Baird fired a spectacular drive high into Lyness’ right-hand corner to bring the scores level – a fine riposte, every bit as thrilling as Nisbet’s opener.
Like two middleweights, respectful and potent, each side had circled each other in the opening half. To the delight of the baying crowd, each had landed a hefty blow before the half – both retreating to their corners at the referee’s whistle, gum-shields out, refuelling before the bell heralded a resumption of combat.
Raith shuffled their pack – Liam Buchanan replaced with Jamie Gullan – with immediate effect. Crane linked with Nisbet; Gullan’s driving run had sirens sounding in the Forfar rearguard before the danger was cleared. McKay flicked a header at McCallum. Moore’s drive thumped into Crane at point-blank range, to the howls of the away support. Ten minutes into the half, the match was bubbling nicely, just off the boil.
For Forfar’s part, there were spaces to be exploited. Moore hugged the right touchline, drawing Crane wide; Baird dropped into midfield, pulling Davidson or Murray with him; Hilson was a constant menace, sweeping left and right. Irvine in the Loons’ midfield tugged the Raith defence this way and that with a range of passing.
On the hour, two free-kicks in central areas came in quick succession for Raith. With the first, Nisbet blasted just wide; with the second – in a moment of expectant hush, with the South Stand on its feet – euphoria. The set-piece hit the wall, and substitute Jamie Gullan reacted first, flashing a volley past McCallum off the post. Raith were in front again.
Sensibly and admirably, Rovers drew the sting from the Forfar response. Matthews, McKay, and Barjonas worked hard in possession, covering the ground; Nisbet and Gullan chased left and right – having conceded so soon after their opener, McGlynn ensured his men did not repeat their mistake. Gillespie, on for Barjonas, added further ballast to the weight in midfield.
Forfar redoubled their efforts. Bain and Coupe were introduced for Moore and Easton, although both would have a part to play in the second leg no doubt. With quarter of an hour to go, and legs tiring on both sides, wide areas of the Starks Park surface were opening up. A third for Raith would put clear distance between the sides; a second for Forfar would put the momentum right back with the visitors. Gullan turned on a six-pence, dumbfounding Whyte, the defender’s hack earning yellow. Baird, Gillespie, and Hilson were all booked in an untidy spell – referee Colin Steven’s whistle piercing the night air regularly and often.
Tempers flared again on eighty-five minutes – Nisbet’s pass sold Davidson short, forcing the big defender to ground his man. With the travelling support on their feet, Irvine burst forward, with substitute Bain narrowly heading over. Lyness performed heroics seconds later, clawing away from Bain as the striker charged in on goal – how crucial that save may prove to be.
With rain cascading down and the match moving into injury time, Forfar continued to press. Gullan walloped a drive straight at McCallum on the turn, Irvine fed Bain only for Benedictus to slide in to the rescue. As the final whistle sounded, both sets of players stood with hands on knees, weary after going the distance, Raith in front only by the narrowest of margins. This match still has plenty of drama to come.
The match highlights video will appear here the day after the match
Interviews will appear shortly
Raith Rovers welcome Forfar Athletic to Stark’s Park on Tuesday evening, in what will be Rovers biggest game of the season to date.
The teams face off in the first leg of semi-finals of the Championship play-off, in what looks to be an evenly balanced match up, with the second leg taking place on Saturday.
The Loons head into the match as slight favourites to progress, and rightly so, with a second placed finish to their name and two wins from the four previous meetings this term.
Jim Weir’s men have enjoyed a fantastic campaign, with the front two of John Baird and Dale Hilson in particular enjoying a fine season with 34 goals between them, while in behind, Thomas Reilly and Dylan Easton help make up one of the most talented midfields in part-time football.
Defensively they’re no slouches either, with just two sides in League One conceding fewer goals than the Loons, thanks in part to goalkeeper, Marc McCallum, who has continued to impress since being brought in from Plymouth in 2017.
The first meeting between these two this season was back in September, and was the only time there were more than a single goal between them.
Raith won 4-0 on the day, with goals coming from Kevin Nisbet, Chris Duggan and a brace from Lewis Vaughan.
Rovers lost out by the odd goal in five the next time the two met in October, despite being 2-1 up at one stage thanks to Ross Matthews and Nisbet.
It was all square the last time the two sides met at Stark’s Park in February, with a Jamie Barjonas wonder goal being cancelled out by Baird, and Dale Hilson caused the damage at Station Park in March, scoring both Athletic’s goals in a 2-1 win for the home side, with Rovers solitary reply coming from Nisbet.
The most recent head-to-head record could barely be tighter, with four wins and two draws apiece from the last ten meetings.
Tuesday evening’s match referee will be Colin Steven
Head-To-Head League Record At Stark’s Park:
Raith Rovers Wins: 26 | Forfar Athletic Wins: 10 | Draws: 5
Raith Rovers Goals: 94 | Forfar Athletic Goals: 55
Raith Rovers: W-D-L-D-W-D
Forfar Athletic: W-L-D-W-W-W
Top Goal Scorers:
Raith Rovers: Kevin Nisbet 32 | Liam Buchanan 13 | Lewis Vaughan 9
Forfar Athletic: John Baird 20 | Dale Hilson 14
Raith Rovers: 20/21 | Forfar Athletic: 11/4 | Draw: 13/5