Raith Rovers pulled off one of their most impressive and improbable wins since defeating Aberdeen at Pittodrie in the Scottish Cup 11 years ago, after an exceptional 3-2 win over Hearts at Tynecastle this afternoon.
With a large number of the squad forced into self-isolation recently, and last week’s game against Inverness called off due to a lack of numbers, an away match against the Championship league leaders looked like an uphill struggle, but a flawless first 50 minutes saw Raith build up an incredible three goal cushion, and while Hearts closed that gap to a slender one goal lead, Rovers remained resolute to pull off their first win at the venue in 28 years.
Early goals in both halves from Gozie Ugwu and Manny Duku and a third from Reghan Tumilty had Rovers looking like they were going to win comfortably, but a brace from Liam Boyce, and the addition of nine minutes of injury time meant most of those of a Raith persuasion had very little finger nails left by the final whistle.
Manager John McGlynn made five changes from the side which went down 2-0 to Queen of the South last time out.
Jamie MacDonald replaced Robbie Thomson in goals, while Fernandy Mendy, Manny Duku, Ethan Ross and Dylan Tait all dropped to the bench.
Kieran MacDonald’s return allowed Frankie Musonda to return to the central defensive berth alongside Kyle Benedictus, while Brad Spencer sat in front of the back four.
Further forward, Kai Kennedy made his debut after finalising a loan move from Rangers, while Gozie Ugwu made his first start, after coming on as a sub in that defeat to the Doonhamers.
The home side were the overwhelming favourites going into this one, but the visitors went into a surprise lead with the first meaningful forward foray of the game in the fifth minute.
Spencer found himself in space on the right, and his testing cross was almost steered into his own net by Craig Halkett.
Hearts made an even poorer job of clearing their lines from the corner though, and when the ball fell to Ugwu with his back to goal, he looked to have few options other than to lay it off, however, he audaciously decided to back-heel the ball towards goal, and with Craig Gordon taken completely unawares, the ball nestled into the far corner of the net. Quite the way to announce your arrival in a Raith jersey.
As much as the goal came out the blue, it reflected how well Rovers had started, and another fine counter attacking move in the 10th minute again ended with a teasing cross into the area, this time from Tumilty, which the Hearts defence again struggled to clear.
It was a confident looking start to the game from Raith, who were playing some fine football even in tight areas.
The Rovers defence were starting to come under pressure after 15 minutes though, but almost exclusively from Hearts corners, as Robbie Neilson’s men won a flurry of them which failed to trouble the visitors too much.
However, Rovers spurned a huge chance to double their advantage in the 24th minute, when referee John Beaton awarded them a penalty after Daniel Armstrong was impeded by Stephen Kingsley in the penalty area as he wriggled away from him.
Regan Hendry’s penalty looked to be well placed, but a fully stretched Craig Gordon managed to get a touch to the ball and divert it onto the post, to keep the difference at one.
Often in situations like that, teams are left to rue their luck by conceding moments after a big chance goes awry, and it appeared that would be the case here, when Boyce got the run on the Rovers defence and cut inside to pull the trigger, but although his shot was on target, a fine sliding challenge from Benedictus prevented MacDonald having to act.
The penalty miss appeared to shake the home side from their stupor a little, or perhaps it was more down to Neilson’s angry promptings from the sidelines, and although the Raith custodian hadn’t been called into action in the game’s opening third, the Hearts side were starting to test Rovers back four with some through balls that McGlynn’s men were just about keeping at arm’s length.
Yet it was Rovers who had the next attempt at goal, when Kennedy passed inside to Tumilty who had come infield, but his ambitious attempt from 25 yards was just too high to test Gordon.
Hearts did have their first effort on goal in the 38th minute though, when Michael Smith set recent signing Gary Mackay-Steven free on the right, and while his shot from an angle was on target, it was tame and straight at MacDonald.
Hearts were forced into a change as the half drew to a close, with Christophe Berra hobbling off after receiving lengthy treatment, with his place being taken by Mihail Popescu.
It was the final incident in a half where Raith had been excellent, defending robustly and counter attacking with pace and purpose, and but for an excellent stop from Gordon, could well have had a bigger lead at the break.
There was a change at the interval, with Duku replacing Ugwu, and if Ugwu’s introduction to the game was impactful, Duku’s was even more so.
Kennedy was immediately into action in the second half, driving into the Hearts penalty area, only to be stopped by Smith, with referee Beaton again deciding there’d been a foul.
He’d only been on the park a few seconds, but Duku calmly rolled the ball home to double Raith’s lead for his tenth goal of the season.
A two goal advantage at Tynecastle seemed improbable, so the third goal which arrived a few moments later gave the game a remarkable sheen.
Hearts attack was stopped on the half way line and suddenly they were caught out at the back. Kennedy was again the architect, turning Halkett one way and another, before sending in a low cross which was forced home by Tumilty to send the Raith players into raptures.
Rovers didn’t have such a big lead for long though, and the Jam Tarts reduced the arrears in the 58th minute, when an excellent cross from the left from Ginnelly was glanced home by Boyce to make the score 1-3 and make it game on with a little over half an hour remaining.
If ever a 3-1 lead could feel uncomfortable then this was the situation, but it looked like things were going to get harder for Hearts, when Popescu went down injured with Hearts having used all their subs.
The home side faced the prospect of being forced to play with 10 men, but after lengthy treatment he was able to continue, albeit he was continuing somewhat gingerly.
Hearts did miss a gilt-edged chance in the 68th minute though, when more good play from Boyce allowed him to tee up Jamie Walker, but his shot from the edge of the area lacked conviction and was straight at MacDonald.
Understandably, Rovers were starting to sit deeper, but Hearts were looking dangerous, and dictating possession for the first time in the match.
Raith had their goalkeeper to thank for keeping their two goal lead intact in the 79th minute, when he denied Kingsley with an excellent stop, down low to his left and right at his post from the left-back’s almost perfect 22-yard free-kick.
Incredibly, he pretty much equalled that stop with another just two minutes later. This time it was Smith he denied, with the defender drifting inside from the right and pinging a shot towards the opposite top corner which Raith’s keeper somehow managed to claw away.
It was backs to the wall stuff now, and Hearts came close again in the 88th minute, when a cross from the left was headed against the crossbar by Naismith, after he was found by Ginnelly.
However, things became even tighter for Raith, when Hearts scored at last from one of their umpteen corners, when Boyce appeared to get the last touch from close range in the third minute of injury time.
Considering how long had been played, it seemed almost certain that it would be nothing more than a consolation, however, the game ran on for a further six minutes, enough time for MacDonald to pull off another great save, this time from Naismith, as Rovers fans everywhere presumably started to hide behind the couch as the game dragged on and on.
However, as the game eventually drew to a close, the players were able to celebrate one of Rovers best results in some time, with the three points taking them back into the playoff spots, and just three points behind second placed Dunfermline with two games in hand.
© Eddie Doig 2021
RaithTV talked to John McGlynn after the win against Hearts at Tynecastle:
RaithTV spoke to Jamie MacDonald after the win against Hearts:
Raith Rovers will play on a Saturday for the first time since Boxing Day this weekend, when they travel to face Heart of Midlothian at Tynecastle.
Rovers were forced into a temporary hiatus last weekend, after a number of the squad were forced into isolation due to coronavirus, and they face a tough task against the league leaders, who have won nine of their 11 league games to date.
It’s the first of a double header against the Jam Tarts, with the two also facing each other a few days later at Stark’s Park, with the original fixture postponed due to Hearts involvement in the Scottish Cup final.
Robbie Neilson’s men are currently seven points clear of second placed Dundee in the table, with Rovers slipping out of the playoff spots to fifth, although they do have two games in hand over the teams around them.
These two may not have faced each other in the league, but they have played each other already this term, with a League Cup meeting at Tynecastle back in October.
Despite playing well on the night, Raith were undone by two first half penalties from Craig Wighton and while Manny Duku reduced the deficit, Wighton completed his hat-trick in the closing moments to seal a 3-1 win for the home side.
You have to go back 28 years for Rovers last win at this venue, with a Davie Sinclair goal enough for a 1-0 win in the Premier Division in December 1993.
Rovers recent record in this fixture is not a good one, with just one draw from their last 10 meetings.
Saturday’s match referee will be John Beaton.
Head-To-Head Away League Record:
Hearts Wins: 33 | Raith Rovers Wins: 5 | Draws: 8
Hearts Goals: 97 | Raith Rovers Goals: 38
Raith Rovers: W-L-D-D-W-L
Hearts: Liam Boyce 7 | Craig Wighton 7
Raith Rovers: Manny Duku 9 | Daniel Armstrong 4