Raith Finish Third After Heavy Defeat
If Rovers are to get promoted to the Premiership at the end of this season, they’ll have to achieve something no side has done before, and win the playoffs from the quarter final stage, after an anti-climactic defeat at Stark’s Park to Hearts.
Trailing 1-0 at the interval, Rovers had their work cut out, but three further Hearts goals and a harsh looking red card to Iain Davidson made it a thoroughly dispiriting Friday evening for the home side.
Raith manager John McGlynn made three change from last weekend’s 2-1 defeat to Dundee.
Kai Kennedy and Gozie Ugwu both dropped to the bench, while Dylan Tait missed out after his late dismissal at Dens Park. In their place came Adam King, Lewis Vaughan and Fernandy Mendy, which meant a switch to a 3-5-2 formation.
The last time Hearts were the visitors to Starks Park in January, they blew the home side away with an excellent performance right out the blocks, but the start was a little more even this time around.
Both teams looked up for it, and Rovers had the first attempt at goal in the fifth minute, when Jamie Gullan picked up possession 40 yards from goal, and after venturing forward and weighing up his options, he eventually elected to let fly, but his rising attempt flew over Craig Gordon and the crossbar.
It was a bright start from Raith, but the decent opening period was undone in the 11th minute, when Hearts took the lead.
Rovers offside trap wasn’t well executed, and Gary Mackay-Steven found himself in space on the right and cut inside. Despite having an option in the middle, he fizzed an excellent drive past Jamie MacDonald and into the far corner to put the champions one up.
With Dundee taking the lead, it was the worst possible start to the two games from a Rovers point of view, and since the goal they’d been on the back foot, with Hearts dictating the tempo and pinning Raith back.
Even when Rovers were getting on the ball, Hearts quick press was forcing them into errors.
Robbie Neilson’s side had a chance to make it two after 21 minutes, when a cross from deep found Liam Boyce who had pulled away from his marker, but his downward header was straight at MacDonald.
Rovers then had two scares in the 25th minute. The first was when Mendy brought down Mackay-Steven 25-yards from goal, but with the Hearts players clamouring for a red card, referee David Munro decided a yellow card would suffice.
Then from the free-kick, Andy Haliday’s fine curling effort seemed to be bending in, only for it to rebound off the post.
Another error saw Hearts presented with an identical chance five minutes later, when a clearance across goal was intercepted and saw Kyle Benedictus give away a foul just outside the area.
Halliday was again the taker, and this time his effort was blocked by Benedictus, with the Hearts players making a loud appeal for a penalty, which the official seemed to think long and hard about, before deciding to wave play on.
Rovers needed a way back into the game, and they had a gilt-edged chance in the 39th minute.
A corner kick had initially looked like it was dwindling to nothing, but a cross into the six-yard-box found Brad Spencer slap bang in front of goal, but he side footed his chance over the bar from close range.
Rovers were looking a little more confident all of a sudden, and they had Gordon diving full length a minute later, when the ball fell to Vaughan inside the area, but his driven effort drifted just wide.
It gave some encouragement that the visitors were there to be got at in the second half, after an opening half hour where they were perhaps a little fortunate only to be a goal behind.
Rovers changed things at the interval, with Daniel Armstrong replacing Mendy, as Rovers went back to a back four.
They also started the second 45 on the front foot, and after Vaughan was brought down to the left of the penalty area in the 50th minute, they had a decent opportunity to create something, but Vaughan’s direct effort was planted well over the bar.
Like the first half though, Raith failed to build on a decent opening, and they were further behind in the 56th minute.
Euan Henderson did well to evade a couple of challenges to send himself in on goal, and he dispatched a cool finish beyond MacDonald to double Hearts lead.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the game was essentially over as a contest two minutes later, when Hearts were awarded a penalty, and Rovers were reduced to 10 men in the process.
Again, Henderson did the damage, running through on goal, and then stumbling inside the area after a challenge from Davidson.
There didn’t appear to be too much contact, if any, but David Munro decided Davidson had committed the foul, and the central defender was ordered off.
Craig Halkett’s penalty was wasted though, striking the bar and bouncing over, to keep the score at two, but only temporarily.
It was now very much a case of damage limitation, with Vaughan and Jamie Gullan making way for Gozie Ugwu, and Nathan Cooney.
Hearts were keen for more though, and after Liam Boyce had almost put Hearts three up in the 69th minute, with a shot which cannoned off the underside of the crossbar and somehow stayed out, Steven Naismith turned home from close range, after a calamitous mix up at the back.
It was four with 20 minutes left, when McKay-Steven grabbed his second from close range, after being set up by Boyce.
With the game now done, and Dundee comfortable beating Queen of the South, Rovers understandably looked keen to not over exert themselves with a game in midweek, and with Hearts easing off, they were able to see out the match without further concession.
After the blow of missing out on the runners up spot after losing two successive league games for the first time this season, Rovers will need to bounce back quickly, with the first leg of the quarter-final against Dunfermline taking place at East End Park on Tuesday, and the return at Stark’s Park a week on Saturday.
Photographs © Tony Fimister
John McGlynn spoke to RaithTV after the defeat to Heart of Midlothian
The league campaign draws to a close this Friday evening, and in a season of big games, Friday’s is arguably the most important to date.
Rovers need to better or match Dundee’s result against Queen of the South to finish second in the table, and with it, avoid the need to face off against Dunfermline in a Premiership playoff quarter-final.
It can’t be overstated just how important finishing second could be, with no team ever gaining promotion to the Premiership via the playoffs if they’ve finished lower than second in the table.
If Rovers are to finish in that runner up spot under their own steam, then they could barely have been handed a tougher opponent to come up against, with Robbie Neilson’s title winners the visitors to Stark’s Park.
While the champions may only have pride to play for, that was also the case last weekend, when they were impressive winners against Inverness Caledonian Thistle by three goals to nil.
However, the points have been shared in the two encounters so far, with one win apiece from the two meetings.
Raith put in one of their best performances of the season in Gorgie back in November, when goals from Gozie Ugwu, Manny Duku and Reghan Tumilty fired them into a sensational three goal lead, but two goals from Liam Boyce, and a disconcertingly large amount of injury time, meant the last few moments were uncomfortable viewing before the referee brought the game to a close.
It was a different story a few days later at Stark’s Park however, when an impressive Hearts team ran out 4-0 winners.
That win was Rovers first over Hearts since 1993, and their record in this fixture in general is poor, with just the one win and one draw from the last 10 meetings.
Friday night’s match referee will be David Munro.
Head-To-Head Home League Record Versus Hearts:
Raith Rovers Wins: 14 | Hearts Wins: 23 | Draws: 11
Raith Rovers Goals: 41 | Hearts Goals: 99
Raith Rovers: W-L-D-W-W-L
Raith Rovers: Manny Duku 10 | Daniel Armstrong 6
Hearts: Liam Boyce 16 | Jamie Walker 8
Raith Rovers: 14/5 | Hearts: 17/20 | Draw: 13/5