UGWU BLOCKBUSTER SEALS DERBY WIN
A wonderful late goal from Gozie Ugwu sealed a momentous Premier League quarter-final play-off second leg, as Raith triumphed over neighbours Dunfermline Athletic. A close-range second-half finish from Lewis Vaughan after fabulous wing-play from full-back Kieran MacDonald had given Raith the edge on the hour, and despite pressure from the visitors, Rovers held out, capping the victory with Ugwu’s fine late finish.
Both sides created numerous good chances through-out an entertaining ninety minutes, with Kevin O’Hara and Dom Thomas each having a real impact for the visitors; however it was Raith’s increasing confidence in a decisive second-half which created the platform for their victory following a goal-less first half. Full-back Kieran MacDonald was the stand-out performer, solid in defence, and galloping forward with real intent, causing havoc in the Dunfermline rearguard with every marauding run over half-way. While Dunfermline’s season is over, Raith progress to the semi-final, with Dundee next to visit Starks Park for the home leg this Wednesday.
Each manager faced a selection dilemma heading into today’s game – both Raith and Dunfermline had had their moments in the first leg, with a combination of good goal-keeping, excellent defending, and poor finishing responsible for the score-less finish. For John McGlynn, there was a freshening up on the wing, with Dan Armstrong recalled in favour of Kai Kennedy, the Rangers loanee missing out altogether, along with top scorer Manny Duku. Armstrong, with six goals to his name this season, would look to attack from wide areas, using the slick Starks Park surface to attack the visitors from all angles. The reliable Frankie Musonda, ruled out for the season following a muscle-strain at Palmerston in April, would be missed in the Rovers defensive line.
For Stevie Crawford, there would have been disappointment at the failure to score in the home leg, but confidence that a free-scoring front-line could break the deadlock at the home of their rivals. Surprisingly, Declan McManus – scorer of ten goals this term – was dropped to the bench, with Craig Wighton starting alongside the prolific Kevin O’Hara upfront; the physical presence of Lewis Mayo bolstered the Pars’ midfield. Defenders Paul Watson and Euan Murray would be fortified with Steven Whittaker just in front – the former Ibrox stalwart provided a masterclass as a holding midfielder in the first leg – as the Pars looked to close down Raith’s effective short-passing game.
With the swirling rain having abated briefly before kick-off, the scene was set for a pulsating and gripping ninety minutes – the prospect of extra-time and penalties hung heavily amidst the thick grey clouds over Starks Park. Recent fixtures between the two would suggest Raith having a slight edge – Rovers’ 5-1 victory in the final League meeting between the pair proving one of Raith’s finest performances in years, with defence midfield and attack clicking together perfectly; the Pars equally could point to a 4-1 win at East End Park earlier in the season, when Rovers’ midfield looked lightweight against more muscular and direct opponents.
Rovers looked to establish themselves from the opening minutes – Armstrong snapped into Henderson, Tumilty escaped up his wing looking to engage left-back Edwards, Vaughan twisted and turned deep in Pars territory. Referee Aitken gave Raith three free-kicks in the opening five minutes as Dunfermline grappled and grasped at their opponents.
For the visitors, Wighton and O’Hara looked bright early-on as a front two, hassling Benedictus in possession, and holding up the play well; Ewan Henderson and Dominic Thomas looked to feed off passes and build play toward Jamie MacDonald’s goal. These sides – familiar and respectful – knew each others strengths and weaknesses. Could one side spring a surprise and get the crucial first goal?
Dunfermline’s O’Hara was first to try – picking up a loose ball in midfield, the striker’s drive at MacDonald was gathered at the second attempt. Kieran MacDonald, striding inside after Spencer’s wonderful cross-field pass, saw his shot deflected for a corner. Vaughan was booked tripping Mayo after Hendry had had his pocket picked in midfield – Thomas’ pile-driver was safely punched clear by MacDonald. With quarter of an hour gone, the Pars were warming up nicely – again Vaughan lost possession in midfield, and suddenly O’Hara was clear; Thomas turned away from Hendry, and only Tumilty’s thumping clearance saved an opener.
Raith responded – Vaughan’s clever touch allowed Hendry to cross dangerously through Fon Williams’ six-yard area; MacDonald’s scorching run drew a last-ditch tackle from Comrie; MacDonald again was narrowly flagged off-side, galloping beyond Comrie. Armstrong briefly swapped to the left, causing more havoc down Dunfermline’s right flank. With twenty-five minutes gone, each side was fully engaged; the match simmering just off the boil, only a goal required to bring it fully to life.
With half-an-hour gone, nearly the opener, with Raith having Jamie MacDonald to thank for a fine save. Davidson and O’Hara tussled, but all of a sudden Wighton was away, turning outside Benedictus and firing at goal – MacDonald’s high outstretched arm saved the day for Raith. Manager Stevie Crawford held his head on the touchline; Raith defenders applauded another solid intervention from their experienced goal-keeper.
Again, Raith came back at their visitors. Armstrong and Tumilty exchanged a quicksilver one-two deep in Dunfermline’s box, earning a corner with Watson at action stations; Benedictus’ blast was blocked by former team-mate Euan Murray; MacDonald and Hendry’s lovely exchange of passes saw another cross whizz through Fon Williams’ airspace.
The chances kept on coming. O’Hara and Henderson linked well, the former’s driven cross shinned narrowly over his own bar by a relieved Benedictus. MacDonald burst away, his defender grasping at thin air – the Raith full-back’s cross stinging the palms of Fon Williams in the Dunfermline goal.
As referee Aitken blew for the half, each side could take positives from a hugely entertaining and competitive first-half – Raith’s width had been their strong suit again, with Kieran MacDonald making real inroads against Comrie down the left; for the Pars, O’Hara and Wighton’s speed of running had caused real problems, with Davidson and Benedictus almost caught on several occasions. The match remained on a knife-edge.
Despite the swirling rain returning for the second half, the pace of the match continued unabated – O’Hara sprinted beyond Davidson, causing alarm in the Raith defence; Vaughan’s wicked inswinger drew cries of handball as Whittaker stooped to clear; Dom Thomas’ rising drive flew just over MacDonald’s bar. These two evenly-matched sides repeatedly traded blows – one minute a delicate Hendry pass would threaten the Dunfermline rearguard, the next O’Hara or Wighton would be running free toward a retreating Raith back-line. Which way the match would turn was anybody’s guess at this stage.
The hour mark passed with each side still asking questions – Thomas’ delightful nutmeg in the far corner was harshly called back for a foul; Gullan’s escape suddenly saw space open for Vaughan to shoot, with Watson and Murray combining to crowd out the Raith man with Fon Williams on high alert.
Just after the hour, the opener from Raith – a lovely exchange between MacDonald and Hendry saw the Raith full-back whip in an unplayable cross. With Tumilty driving toward goal, Vaughan prodded home from close range with Fon Williams flailing. The Raith players erupted in joy – a burst of fine attacking play at close quarters bringing the opening goal. Would it prove a knock-out blow? With twenty-five minutes to go, suddenly the visitors had a mountain to climb.
Manager Crawford acted quickly – Declan McManus was readied for action, entering the fray for Lewis Mayo; Scott Banks also coming on for Craig Wighton. The urgency was clear in the visitors’ play – Fon Williams’ hurrying his clearances, frantic shouts at every set-piece. For Raith, the priority was possession and passing – Spencer and Matthews shuttled the ball left and right, Hendry prompted from deep, Benedictus looked to MacDonald and Tumilty on the flanks to drive forward. A neat flick from Banks gave McManus a glimpse of goal from twenty yards – the Pars’ top scorer pulled his effort wide, yet to find his range. Matthews earned yellow, hauling down Thomas at full speed.
Players were tiring on both sides, but still the tempo remained high. Jamie Gullan pulled the trigger from fully thirty yards – with Fon Williams at full stretch the striker’s shot flew inches wide; Vaughan’s dipping drive was deflected just wide seconds later; Dom Thomas ran at MacDonald, the Pars man unlucky not to get his shot away.
Dunfermline kept up the pressure – O’Hara’s cross evaded two defenders, Lewis Vaughan thumping clear with McManus in close attendance; Dom Thomas bewitched three defenders as he looked to cross into a packed area; with Fernandy Mendy brought on or the injured Iain Davidson, the young defender’s first action was to clear with O’Hara at his back.
With three minutes remaining, a goal worthy of winning any match – after a spell of sustained pressure, Spencer thumped clear and suddenly substitute Gozie Ugwu had space behind the Pars’ defence. Without taking a touch, Ugwu walloped home an absolute blockbuster, a fine first-time finish high into the far corner, the ball bursting the net with Fon Williams helpless. The Raith striker exploded with joy – the goal a fitting testament to Raith’s attacking prowess and application across these two tightly-contested fixtures.
Raith were able to see out the final minutes – Benedictus and Mendy resolute under pressure; Tumilty and MacDonald defending their flanks; referee Beaton’s final whistle seeing joy amongst the Raith players, and despondency amongst their rivals. While Dunfermline had contributed hugely to the two legs of this compelling tie, Raith’s composure under pressure at East End Park and two fine goals in the return had seen the Kirkcaldy side progress to the semi-final. Raith’s season, which began with the aim of League survival, has reached the Premier League play-off semi-final, with Dundee lying in wait.
Photographs © Tony Fimister
RaithTV talked to John McGlynn after the play-off quarter final against Dunfermline Athletic:
RaithTV talked to goalscorer Gozie Ugwu after the play-off quarter final against Dunfermline Athletic:
Raith Rovers and Dunfermline couldn’t be separated in the first leg of the Premiership Playoff quarter-final on Tuesday evening, with Saturday’s return leg now a winner takes all affair.
The first 90 minutes were goalless at East End Park, in a game of few clear cut chances. Dunfermline enjoyed the better of proceedings in the opening half, but while the second was a more back-and-forth affair, neither side could get that all important advantage going into this one.
Whoever comes out on top at the weekend will go onto face Dundee in the semi-final of the playoffs next week, a stage that Raith have yet to reach since the end of season format was introduced.
The closest they came was back in 2016, when a 1-0 win over Hibernian in the quarter-final first leg was overturned by the Hibees at Easter Road, who eventually ran out 2-1 aggregate winners.
Considering there’d been 15 goals in the three previous Fife derby encounters this season, the 0-0 draw was perhaps a little unexpected, indeed, this is a fixture which generally produces goals, with the midweek blank scorecard only the second between the sides in the last 32 meetings.
Rovers will be hoping home comforts mean they can produce a performance similar to the one they produced the last time the Pars were the visitors, when a goal from Regan Hendry and braces from Jamie Gullan and Lewis Vaughan eased Rovers to a 5-1 win, a result which was their biggest win over their rivals since a 6-0 win on New Years Day 1983.
However, Dunfermline have the slight better record in the most recent meetings between the two, with four wins and three draws from the last 10 fixtures.
Saturday’s match referee will be Greg Aitken.
Head-To-Head Home League Record:
Raith Rovers Wins: 16 | Dunfermline Wins: 19 | Draws: 16
Raith Rovers Goals: 80 | Dunfermline Goals: 73
Raith Rovers: D-W-W-L-L-D
Raith Rovers: Manny Duku 10 | Daniel Armstrong 6
Dunfermline: Kevin O’Hara 11 | Declan McManus 10
Raith Rovers: 7/5 | Dunfermline: 2/1 | Draw: 9/4