HEARTS DOMINANT AS RAITH FALTER
Hearts re-established themselves as runaway favourites for this season’s Championship with a resounding 4-0 victory at Starks Park, as Raith were pressed and harried out of their stride in the first half, and struggled to impose themselves in the second following the dismissal of midfielder Regan Hendry. First-half strikes from Liam Boyce and Euan Henderson, and two from impressive second-half substitute Armand Gnanduillet emphasised the clear difference in quality between the teams, as the disruption of recent weeks caught up with John McGlynn’s men.
With Hearts energetic and combative from the first whistle, Raith were unable to gain a foothold in the game until the match was over as a contest late in the second half. For Rovers, a period of recharging batteries and regaining match fitness is in order before the visit of Dundee on Saturday; for Hearts, a nine-point lead in the Championship table now surely means the League title is the Tynecastle side’s to lose. The only two bright spots on an otherwise miserable night for Raith were the returns to action of injury absentees Iain Davidson and Lewis Vaughan, the latter’s sixty minutes of huge value in the youngster’s return from his succession of serious injuries.
With the dust barely having settled following the thrill of the weekend win at Tynecastle, Lewis Vaughan’s starting role was a welcome surprise in the Raith team selection – with Gozie Ugwu and Ross Matthews dropping out through injury, Vaughan started in support of Manny Duku upfront, the Dutch striker also returning to the starting line-up having scored as substitute in Saturday’s win. Keeper Jamie MacDonald continued in goal following his excellent showing at Tynecastle, with a back four of Kieran MacDonald, Benedictus, Musonda, and Tumilty in front.
Robbie Neilson brought his side to Starks Park no doubt looking for a quick start, stung by their weekend defeat. With Christophe Berra dropping out through injury, Mihai Popescu began at centre-half. Josh Ginnelly was rewarded for his fine second-half showing at Tynecastle with a starting berth, at the expense of Elliot Frear; Steven Naismith dropped to the bench with Jamie Walker starting upfront. Intriguingly for Hearts fans, Ivory Coast under-21 international Armand Gnanduillet began on the bench, after joining the Gorgie Road side only the day before. While Ginnelly’s match would be cut short by injury, Gnanduillet’s Hearts career started with his fine brace here.
As anticipated, Hearts began strongly, the ball moving quickly left and right across the visiting midfield with Mackay-Steven, Ginnelly, and Irvine all seeing plenty of touches in the opening minutes. Andy Halliday and Jamie Walker each pressed deep, looking to prevent Raith building from the back – from a Rovers’ perspective, Manny Duku looked isolated from the opening minutes. Although it took eleven minutes for the visitors to generate their first chance – Popescu dinking a lovely ball toward Jamie Walker, whose shot required a firm block from Jamie MacDonald – it was no surprise given the volume of possession Robbie Neilson had enjoyed to that point.. A vicious angled drive from Ginnelly followed moments later.
The visitors suffered a blow with quarter of an hour gone, with Ginnelly falling awkwardly, requiring Euan Henderson as a straight replacement on the right wing. Within seconds of the restart, Musonda’s under-hit pass-back saw Jamie Walker nip round Jamie MacDonald, but the striker’s finish could only find the side netting.
Raith’s desire to play out from the back was being severely tested by their visitors’ aggressive high press – with Walker, Mackay-Steven, and Boyce flying around the Raith final third in pursuit of their opponents, Rovers were being hurried out of possession, leading to some rushed passing and deflected clearances. While Rovers managed to clear their lines on each occasion, Hearts successfully disrupted the flow into Raith’s midfield, denying Vaughan Kennedy or Duku a reliable source of supply. Walker dispossessed Vaughan in the Raith third on twenty-five minutes, Halliday blasting over from twenty yards.
It was nearly half-an-hour before Kai Kennedy had his first chance to run at his opponent – his thirty-yard charge drawing a corner from Smith’s challenge – however, it was Hearts who broke well, Henderson speeding through midfield and feeding Kingsley, who blasted wide from fifteen yards. Gary Mackay-Steven was the next to show, his cross from an advanced position beyond Liam Boyce.
Hearts’ opener, when it came, was very much on the balance of play – Liam Boyce dropped into midfield, drove forward in possession, exchanged a neat one-two with Michael Smith before firing powerfully through MacDonald from ten yards – while the finish was emphatic, the ease with which Boyce weaved his way through a crowded Raith defence would have disappointed the Raith management team.
Robbie Neilson sensed Raith were there for the taking, waving his troops forward. Within a minute of their opener, Boyce’s flick saw Andy Halliday clean through on goal – Jamie MacDonald spread himself and saved well, deflecting the drive over the bar. From the resultant corner, Hearts scored a deserved second – Walker’s cross was flicked on at the near-post by Boyce, and Euan Henderson was alone in the six-yard box to bundle home.
An awful five minutes for the home side continued, as Raith’s evening went from bad to worse – suddenly two goals down, Regan Henry clashed with Andy Halliday in midfield. As play moved away, Hendry was adjudged to have connected with the prostrate Hearts striker – referee Euan Anderson went straight to his top pocket, dismissing Hendry for violent conduct. With the final action of the half, another sharp attack saw Liam Boyce with another drive at goal – again Jamie MacDonald making a good save.
As the half-time whistle sounded, it was the visitors in complete command: Halliday, Boyce, Irvine, and Walker had each pressed hard in their hosts’ defensive third, and Rovers’ defence – often the origin of much of Raith’s attacking play – had been decoupled from their colleagues; as a result, neither Duku Kennedy Vaughan nor Armstrong had been able to impact the match from a Raith perspective. Manager McGlynn didn’t have his troubles to seek at the interval.
The second-half began much as the first had finished – with Raith’s midfield depleted in numbers, Hearts looked to dominate possession. Jamie Walker had the first chance, driving at goal from twenty yards, MacDonald at full stretch to tip round the post. While Boyce was offside on fifty minutes when finishing powerfully from Kingsley’s cross, MacDonald’s one-handed save was another fine example of the Raith keeper’s quality. Duku clashed with Popescu under a high ball, earning yellow for a robust challenge – a sign of the frustration growing in Rovers’ ranks.
Liam Boyce was withdrawn for Gnanduillet on the hour, as Hearts continued to generate further chances – Kingsley and Mackay-Steven driving high and wide respectively when well placed. The sub was involved straight away, heading at MacDonald from a Mackay-Steven cross. With sixty-six minutes gone, another scramble in the Raith box saw Gnanduillet and Benedictus jostle with the ball bobbling on the goal-line – referee Euan Anderson blew for a free-kick before the Hearts substitute could open his account.
With the tempo of the second half not matching the heights of the first, Raith’s defensive line was bolstered with the welcome return to first-team action for Iain Davidson, last seen in a Raith jersey in November’s 5-0 victory over Morton. With Manny Duku withdrawn, Kai Kennedy was pressed furthest forward, and for the following spell, Raith generated more possession than had been enjoyed at any previous stage – Davidson and Benedictus both sought to pass forward, Ethan Ross and Dylan Tait buzzed around the midfield with some intent, and full-backs MacDonald and Tumilty pressed down their respective flanks.
Although there was only a two-goal difference, in truth the match had been over as a contest well before Gnanduillet scored twice in the closing stages. For his first, the Ivorian fired home confidently from Naismith’s centre following an errant pass in the Raith rearguard. With the pace of the game dropping, and Hearts retaining possession well in all areas, Gnanduillet looked a threat with both his height and movement in front of Raith’s centre-halves – he rounded off a fine evening for Robbie Neilson’s men with a commanding header from an outswinging corner, rising above Benedictus and finding the far post.
Referee Euan Anderson put Raith out of their misery moments later with the final whistle, leaving an exhausted Rovers’ side to gather themselves for important League encounters with Dunfermline and Dundee – for Hearts, the satisfaction of erasing the indignity of Saturday’s defeat with this resounding four-goal victory.
Photographs © Tony Fimister
RaithTV talked to John McGlynn after the defeat to league leaders Hearts at Stark’s Park: