Cold January Saturday afternoons might not exactly stir excitement levels as a general rule, but those who elected to attend Stark’s Park this afternoon were treated to a match in which Raith Rovers and visitors Montrose produced ninety minutes of genuine entertainment and no shortage of quality. Rovers ultimately secured the three points courtesy of a hard fought 4-3 win which ensures they remain top of League One, with Falkirk snapping at their heels a point behind in second place.
The home side, three goals ahead at half-time and seemingly cruising to victory, fought off a brave second half fightback by opponents who have been on a good run of form of late, which has taken them to the cusp of the play-off places.
Indeed, victory this afternoon would have left Stewart Petrie’s side only four points adrift of Rovers, as the top half of the league continues to tighten, with a clutch of clubs keen on pushing towards a place in the Championship next season.
John McGlynn made one change from the starting line-up at Livingston last week, with Kieron Bowie taking the place of David McKay in what amounted to a more attacking formation, with two strikers indicating attacking intent.
However, it was Montrose who enjoyed most of the possession during the opening exchanges, pinning the home side back and looking to benefit from the direct running and crossing ability of Shaun Struthers on the left wing.
Rovers, however, looked dangerous when they moved upfield, with Ross Matthews and Dylan Tait looking particularly lively.
With eight minutes played, Matthews was rewarded for his positive start to the match when he opened the scoring with Rovers’ first attempt at goal. A pass fell invitingly to the young midfielder inside the Montrose penalty area, and he showed excellent composure to lift the ball over the approaching goalkeeper Aaron Lennox into the far corner of the net. 1-0
Stung by the opener, Montrose immediately pressed forward, and almost grabbed an equaliser within a minute of the restart. Terry Masson’s textbook header from a cross looked a goal all the way, but Ross Munro threw himself low to his left to keep the ball out near his left hand post. Two minutes later, Masson had another chance, although this time his shot from the edge of the box failed to trouble Munro, the ball sailing high into the south stand.
Moments later, Craig Johnston tried his luck from a similar position, but the outcome was the same, much to the relief of the home support, who were clearly worried that, given the opportunities being created by Montrose, it was only a matter of time before parity was restored.
Munro was certainly being kept busy, and for all efforts by Graham Webster and Cammy Ballantyne didn’t require any intervention from the young stopper, he did have to stretch to palm a rasping drive by Paul Watson from fully 25 yards over his crossbar. However, for all the chances being created by the visitors as the opening 45 minutes progressed, it was Rovers who extended their lead with 24 minutes played.
Following a neat passage of play, Tait gathered the ball and surged forward, before slipping the ball to Bowie. The young striker side-stepped his marker, and curled a low left-foot shot into the far corner of the net from twenty yards. It was a stunning strike, and the provision of a two-goal cushion seemed to give the home side confidence, as they began to assert themselves and dominate play for the first time in the match. 2-0
Tait continued to drive forward at every opportunity, and he tested Lennox with a thumping shot which the former Rovers keeper did well to hold under his crossbar. John Baird then tried his luck from a similar position, but his shot was hurried and sailed well over the bar.
Rovers fans keen to hear the sound of the half-time whistle as a means of maintaining Rovers’ two-goal cushion at the interval would have been relieved and delighted in equal measure as the home side actually increased their advantage. Typically determined work by Matthews found the midfielder deep inside the penalty area, and his astute pass across the face of goal was slammed into the net from close range by Bowie. 3-0
Sean Dillon was then fortunate to escape a yellow card for grappling Bowie to the ground as the forward looked to set up another Rovers attack.
As the sides left the pitch for half-time, there could be little doubt that on the balance of play the three-goal lead flattered Rovers, though it would be acknowledged that they had been clinical as far as taking their chances was concerned. As it happens, those anticipating a relaxing second half for the home side would be sorely disappointed.
Rovers, however, did emerge for the second half looking sprightly, and Matthews and Tony Dingwall both had efforts at goal, before Ballantyne earned the first booking of the game for a poor tackle on Dingwall.
Despite this, it was the visitors who grabbed a lifeline by reducing the deficit to two goals ten minutes into the second period. A floated cross deep into the heart of the Rovers box evaded the back-peddling Iain Davidson, and Johnston nodded the ball into the net beyond Munro. 3-1
Montrose’s tails were up now, and their gathering of fans within the SML Stand roared their side forward in a bid to get back into the match. Sure enough, two minutes later the deficit was reduced to one goal when a free-kick by Ballantyne was headed into the net by Mohamed Niang. 3-2
Rovers were clearly rattled by the loss of two goals in as many minutes, and Regan Hendry was booked by referee Gavin Ross for protesting at the award of a soft-looking free-kick. Montrose’s Webster followed him into the book shortly afterwards for clattering into Tait from behind.
An intriguing match ebbed and flowed its way into its final third, with Montrose pressing and Rovers looking to hit their opponents on the counter-attack.
With 65 minutes played, John Baird took advantage of hesitation in midfield, and he ran into acres of space, before drawing the keeper. Lennox blocked the shot, but the rebound fell into the path of Tait, whose shot was mis-cued but deceived Lennox as the keeper tried to get back towards his goal. The ball spun agonisingly across goal, and slipped into the net off the inside of the post, affording Rovers the breathing space of a two-goal cushion once again. 4-2
Dingwall was then replaced by Brad Spencer, before Baird went close with a shot from close range which flashed over the bar with Lennox beaten. Then, with fifteen minutes remaining, Montrose scored their third goal. Once again, it came from a deep cross which the Rovers defence failed to clear, and substitute Aiden Quinn punished the home side by finding space within a crowded penalty area before lashing a low shot into the net from six yards. 4-3
Grant Anderson was then introduced for the tiring Bowie as Rovers looked to see out the game. Man of the match Iain Davidson then made way for David MacKay, though the match remained uncomfortably open and stretched from the home side’s perspective over the last few minutes. Andrew Steeves for the visitors, and Tait found their names in the referee’s book in quick succession for blatant fouls, though Tait almost made immediate amends for his indiscretion when he lobbed the keeper when played through before watching in agony as the ball dropped narrowly past the unguarded goal.
Into injury time, it was Rovers who went closest to scoring again, with chances for Tait and Brad Spencer being spurned. The final whistle was greeted by relief and happiness by the Rovers fans, who knew that a third league win of the season against Montrose had been yet another stiff test in this absorbing season.
Rovers now face three matches on the road, starting next week at Airdrie. Every match in this promotion campaign feels like a cup final at the moment, and the trip to Lanarkshire will be no different.
Rovers, however, will go into the game with confidence high.
The match highlights video will appear here the day after the match
Photo’s © Tony Fimister
Interviews will appear shortly
Big games are coming thick and fast for Raith Rovers right now, and this Saturday is no different, as they entertain Montrose.
Stewart Petrie’s side sit fifth in the table, but a win over table-topping Raith would take them just four points behind Raith, with a game in hand, in a League One title race that continues to be too close to call.
After a difficult start to the campaign, with just one point from their opening seven fixtures, Montrose have been in superb form since, with 10 wins and a draw from their last 13 league games, with their only defeats coming against Raith Rovers and Falkirk.
Rovers have taken six points out of six against The Mo’ this term, although the two games could barely have been more different.
The first meeting was back in August, and despite leaving it late, Rovers ran out 3-0 winners, thanks to goals in the last 10 minutes from Kieron Bowie, Jamie Gullan and Boris Melingui.
It was more of a smash and garb win back in November though, when Brad Spencer’s goal made the difference, in a match where Montrose held the upper hand for the majority of the match.
Rovers have an excellent record in the most recent head-to-heads, with seven wins and two draws from the last 10 encounters.
Saturday’s match referee will be Gavin Ross.
Head-To-Head Home League Record Versus Montrose:
Raith Rovers Wins: 17 | Montrose Wins: 3 | Draws: 7
Raith Rovers Goals: 65 | Montrose Goals: 24
Raith Rovers: D-L-W-W-D-L
Raith Rovers: Kieron Bowie 8 | Jamie Gullan 7 | Lewis Allan 6
Montrose: Blair Lyons 7 | Graham Webster 7
Raith Rovers: 17/20 | Montrose: 11/4 | Draw: 13/5