Looking to follow up their opening Betfred Cup win with another away to Hearts, Raith made two changes to their starting line-up. Mendy and Spencer came in for Armstrong and Ross, with Rovers playing three at the back. Before they had a chance to settle into the game, though, Hearts were in front. Matthews was penalised for a foul 25 yards out after less than a minute, and when Kingsley’s driven free kick glanced off Benedictus’s arm referee Napier showed no hesitation in awarding the spot kick and booking the Rovers skipper.
Craig Wighton stepped up and fired the ball into the corner of the net, with MacDonald diving the other way. For those of us fortunate enough to be in the stadium Hearts were pulling out all the stops – loud Euro pop blasting out before kick-off, piped-in crowd noise for the full 90 minutes, and goal celebration music! Hearts 1 – 0 Rovers
Any wind that might have been in Raith’s sails had been taken away. Regan Tumilty’s efforts to advance down the right and Kieran MacDonald’s mirror moves down the left led to few chances for Duku and Tait up front, although they did give their defence some respite. Hearts were hitting back with pace, although the Raith back three were standing firm. Tumilty had our first clear goal attempt, finding himself unmarked on the end of MacDonald’s deep cross. He did well to hit the target, but Ross Stewart made a solid block.
Just before the half-hour mark was a moment of real controversy. Davidson and White tangled, with White seemingly incensed by the challenge and an alleged stamp by the Rovers man. The two players squared up, but Napier seemed relatively unconcerned and awarded just a free kick. Frear’s shot was blasted straight at the wall from 30 yards and the danger passed.
With five minutes to go until the half-time whistle the game looked to be over. With captain Benedictus chasing a long ball back towards his own box he lost his footing, falling into the path of a Hearts forward who would otherwise have had a clear path to goal. Despite this being clearly outside the box, the referee somehow saw fit to award a second penalty, but declined to punish the Raith defender – a free kick and a second yellow would have been understandable, but a penalty kick and no card defied logic. Once again, Wighton stepped up and smashed the ball past MacDonald to put Hearts two goals up at the break. Hearts 2 – 0 Rovers
Early in the second half, stand-in gaffer Paul Smith rolled the dice, bringing Ross on for Mendy who had put in a solid and composed performance, and switching to a 4-4-2 formation. This had an instant effect, with Tait playing in Duku who continued his excellent start at the club by smashing a superb shot high into the Hearts net on 53 minutes. Rovers were now on the front foot and searching for an equaliser, with much more energy and guile in their attacking play. Hearts 2 – 1 Rovers
After 60 minutes Hearts boss Neilson made two defensive changes, withdrawing Henderson and McGill, and introducing Lee and Popescu. Five minutes later, Rovers scorer Duku went down clutching his thigh, and while every watching Raith fan would be disappointed to see him leave the field, his replacement was a special one – Lewis Vaughan was to return to action after more than a year. Dan Armstrong also replaced Brad Spencer, as Raith looked to test the re-arranged Hearts back line.
This sparked the visitors’ best spell of the game, with the midfield rotating and pulling the strings, but to no avail. On 75 minutes an Armstrong ball into the box looked to be handled by Popescu but it was missed by both the referee and his perfectly positioned assistant.
With ten minutes to go Raith won a free kick on the left wing close to the corner flag. Lewis Vaughan stepped up to take it, and rather than cross into the box tried to catch Stewart out at his near post, but he was up to the task. Almost a fairy-tale return for our number 10 – no other player on the park would have tried this, or come close to pulling it off!
With four minutes remaining Hearts broke up field. With Benedictus mindful that a mistimed challenge would see him serve an early season suspension, Wighton stepped inside and smashed the ball past MacDonald for his hat trick. Hearts 3 – 1 Rovers
Wighton almost made it four, flicking a header over the bar in injury time from Olly Lee’s cross, but it was not to be.
The final kick of the match was a Hendry free kick – after Vaughan was fouled on the halfway line his attempted lob landed on the roof of the net. It would have been no more than a consolation, but a spectacular one, nonetheless.
© Eddie Doig 2020
Raith Rovers got their season off to a winning start in the Fife derby on Saturday, and they’ll be hoping they can pull off an even more impressive result this Tuesday, when they travel to Tynecastle for their second fixture in the Betfred Cup.
Raith go into the match buoyed by that 2-1 win over East Fife. Trailing to a Liam Newton effort after quarter of an hour, the hosts responded in the final minute of the first half with a Regan Hendry penalty after Manny Duku was fouled in the area, and it was Duku himself who made all three points safe for Raith, with a fine strike three minutes from time.
Hearts too go into the match on the back of a win, after they overcame a Cowdenbeath side by a goal to nil on Saturday, thanks to a goal from Craig Halkett in the 78th minute.
It was their second consecutive 1-0 win, after pulling off a home victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle in their first match, and it leaves Robbie Neilson’s men top of the Group A table, with East Fife second ahead of Rovers on goals scored. Only the group winners are guaranteed to advance to the next stage, with only the best runners up also progressing.
The two sides last meeting was at the same stage of the competition two years ago, where Rovers came close to pulling off a surprise win. New signing, Kevin Nisbet edged Raith in front early in the second half, but despite appearing to weather the storm, Michael Smith equalised for Hearts with 12 minutes left.
That result sent the match to penalties, but it was Hearts who acquired the bonus points, with Kyle Benedictus and Ross Matthews the unfortunate men to miss from the spot.
You have to go back quite a way to find Raith’s last win over Hearts, December 1993 to be exact, when a fine strike from Davie Sinclair was enough for Rovers to pull off a surprise league win at Tynecastle.
Rovers have a poor record against the Jam Tarts in general, with just a draw to show from their last 10 meetings.
Tuesday night’s match referee will be Craig Napier
Head-To-Head Cup Record Versus Hearts:
Hearts Wins: 20 | Raith Rovers Wins: 4 | Draws: 3
Hearts Goals: 56 | Raith Rovers Goals: 26
Hearts: 2/5 | Raith Rovers: 11/2 | Draw: 15/4