RAITH AND AYR DO ALL BUT SCORE
Raith Rovers and Ayr United shared another goal-less draw this evening at Starks Park, but the score told only part of the story as both sides played some excellent football with chances created at both ends. While Rovers forced Ayr keeper Viljami Sinisalo into several tremendous saves, they had keeper Jamie MacDonald to thank for a fine block from Tom Walsh’s close-range strike deep into injury time which could have seen the Honest Men take all three points.
The energy levels from both sides were impressive, as each play flowed from end to end in a match where there were no below-par performances on either side. Raith’s full-backs were a constant attacking threat and both Manny Duku and substitute Gozie Ugwu had clear chances to break the deadlock, while for Ayr the wily striker Michael Moffat was a constant concern before being withdrawn on the hour, while Luke McCowan and Tom Walsh had fine performances overall. With several games to go before the season’s finale, each of these sides have plenty to play for.
Both sides looked lively in the opening stages. Raith, unchanged from the side who started the recent League win over Alloa, passed the ball smartly across the slick Starks Park surface. MacDonald and Tumilty each drove forward well, with Dan Armstrong and Kai Kennedy buzzing around Ayr’s back four. Armstrong’s dipping drive was collected by Sinisalo on six minutes; Duku blasted over from a difficult angle moments later.
For the visitors, there was only one change following the fine away win at Cappielow at the weekend – young striker Mark Mackenzie dropped to the bench with the experienced Michael Moffat recalled – the striker’s lovely ball over the top saw Luke McCowan fire across MacDonald and away with Ayr’s first sight of goal.
Ross Matthews showed the full range of his passing in the early stages. Buoyed by signing an extension to his contract last month which should keep the influential midfielder at Raith until season 2023-4, Matthews was prominent in the first half – exchanging a sharp one-two with Spencer who fired into the side netting with ten minutes gone, and releasing Kieran MacDonald moments later – the full-back’s cross saw Duku’s headed palmed wide by Sinisalo at full stretch.
While Raith had forced two corners in quick succession with some early pressure, there was an early reminder of the visitors’ attacking threat on the counter-attack – with centre-half Baird heading clear, McCowan raced over half-way before releasing Moffat at full speed, the striker’s shot blocked away by Benedictus. With Rovers’ next forays, Duku howled in frustration as his powerful header flew just wide, while Hendry’s flick from another MacDonald cross drifted away from Sinisalo’s goal. At the other end, Moffat’s cross was thumped clear by Benedictus with Murdoch well placed.
Overall, the first forty-five minutes flew past – passes zipped about the Starks Park pitch, runners charged down each flank, and numerous chances came and went. Tom Walsh and Luke McCowan had the Raith defence on high alert with their direct running, while Kieran MacDonald was a constant source of quality ball from Rovers’ left wing. With Raith’s best chance of the half, Matthews and Duku exchanged a quicksilver one-two before the former fired just beyond Sinisalo’s right-hand post.
Raith’s flow through midfield was the most impressive element of a first half of real quality – Hendry and Matthews each used the ball intelligently, using options to both left and right. For Ayr, Reading’s control and cross aimed at Moffat on forty minutes was out of the top drawer – expertly found by Murdoch on the touchline, the full-back’s first-time control took him away from Tumilty and his pin-point cross required Benedictus to be at his best to keep Michael Moffat off the score-sheet.
Kai Kennedy had seen plenty of the ball in the opening half, and was key in the first opportunity of the second – escaping from Houston’s pocket, Kennedy’s driven cross saw Duku’s near-post header flash wide. For the visitors, Walsh’s cross was cleared away after McCowan escaped two challenges driving through midfield.
Ayr again looked to their left as their main source of attacking endeavour – former Scotland under-21 international Patrick Reading showed real energy and appetite, although the full-back’s endeavour left spaces behind him – on fifty-six minutes, Regan Tumilty ghosted inside and fired well at Sinisalo, the Ayr keeper gathering at the second attempt. Kai Kennedy’s swerving drive dipped just beyond Sinisalo’s far post moments later, as Raith sought an opening goal.
Gozie Ugwu made an immediate impact after his introduction for Manny Duku on sixty-five minutes – the Raith substitute drafted away from his man, and had space to direct a powerful header at Sinisalo’s near-post – the Finnish keeper needed to be at his best to clear the danger. Jack Baird was at full stretch seconds later under a Kieran MacDonald cross with Ugwu threatening behind him.
Despite Raith creating the better chances and generating real pressure, Ayr were still a threat – Cammy Smith hesitated after great work by McCowan when a first-time shot may have reaped the perfect reward. Joe Chalmers, on for the tiring Moffat, moved the ball around midfield efficiently and effectively partnering well with Ipswich Town loanee Connor Ndaba, as Ayr looked to engineer a smash & grab raid. Following a loose pass in midfield, McCowan raced clear – only Benedictus retreating at full stretch averted the danger.
With the game entering its closing stages, the two sides continued to trade blows – substitute Jamie Gullan gave renewed vigour to the Raith front-line, while Mark Mackenzie also made the most of his cameo appearance, causing problems for the Raith rearguard. Gozie Ugwu failed to connect as a Hendry cross bounced around the visitors’ area. With the final chances at each end, Tait narrowly missed out on Ugwu’s excellent knock-down, while Jamie MacDonald saved wonderfully from Walsh’s drive after a Kieran MacDonald slip.
With referee Scott Lambie blowing for full-time seconds later, this highly entertaining match finished goal-less – the second no-score draw between these sides this season. Raith would look back on a hatful of good scoring opportunities, while Ayr had chances to steal the points, not least with Walsh’s chance right at the death – with this season’s Championship table looking more and more compressed, both teams still have plenty to play for in the closing stages of the League campaign.
Photographs © Tony Fimister
John McGlynn spoke to RaithTV after tonight’s draw: