POSITIVE START AS RAITH WIN
Season 2021/22 began in some style for Raith Rovers, as a new blend of youth and experience saw John McGlynn’s side run out clear winners over an energetic Stranraer. Second-half goals from Aiden Connolly, Lewis Vaughan, and Brad Spencer saw Raith ease past Stranraer before the icing on the cake was applied by young Academy graduate Kieran Mitchell scoring his first senior goal, with a fine shot on the turn for Raith’s fourth.
Although there were several new names on the teamsheet (including the name “Trialist” four separate times), Raith fans would have been pleased at the performance levels and cohesion of John McGlynn’s side in this first competitive outing of the new campaign, as Stranraer were dismissed in confident and clinical fashion.
Under light clouds and with a gentle breeze, Raith’s 2021/2022 season got underway with referee Scott Lambie’s whistle right on 2pm, and the early pace was brisk. Unlike many pre-season friendlies of previous years, both halves of play were vibrant through-out, with each side pushing and probing their opponents. Managers John McGlynn and Stevie Hamill would have seen this a worthwhile exercise no matter the result.
Raith began in flexible 4-4-2 formation, with several new signings making their debuts. Two trialists also began the match – Trialist C played the full ninety minutes at left-back; Trialist A played more than an hour in central midfield alongside Dylan Tait.
With Starks Park hosting a crowd of up to 600 for this opening fixture, many eyes would have been on the twin strike-force of Lewis Vaughan and the irrepressible James Keatings. Rovers’ new signing has an impeccable record – having scored no less than 13 goals against the Starks Park side. This was the Kirkcaldy crowd’s first chance to gauge how the veteran striker would perform in the blue of the Lang Toun’s finest. The early portents were good – Keatings and Vaughan had a number of lovely exchanges in the first half, one dropping deep the other looking over the top. Keatings had the ball in the net after only five minutes, although his run and shot from Tait’s fine pass was narrowly flagged off-side.
In the early stages of the season, attention will also be focussed on one of Scottish football’s more eye-catching signings of the summer – experienced defender Christophe Berra moving on from Heart of Midlothian and joining Raith on a two-year deal. Steadfast and resolute, Berra and club captain Kyle Benedictus will look to develop an understanding akin to second nature as Raith look to build on strong defensive foundations for this season’s promotion campaign. The pair’s relationship got off to a rocky start – Stranraer centre-half Craig Ross finding space in a crowded penalty area to nod the visitors into an early lead – but asides the early concession, Rovers’ new central-defensive partnership was largely untroubled over the ninety minutes.
Whilst Reghan Tumilty’s attacking prowess from right-back provided Raith fans with moments of genuine quality through-out last year, high on John McGlynn’s agenda must be replacing the pace and verve of Kieran MacDonald on the opposite flank. Beginning with a back-four was perhaps indicative of a conservative start to the season – Trialist C held his own against Stranraer’s energetic Joseph Moore, but McGlynn may well have been looking for an overlapping option.
Having enjoyed a fine campaign last season, Dylan Tait patrolled the centre of midfield with notable authority this afternoon. Playing alongside Trialist A in the first half, Tait’s range of passing was one of the features of Raith’s play, with Trialist C also playing his part. While Stranraer’s midfield harried and pestered the Rovers men, it was Raith who generated the better quality of possession. McGlynn will no doubt look to Tait to perform a key role this season following Regan Hendry’s departure – Raith’s former Young Player of the Year got his season off to a fine start, earning the Man of the Match award through Raith’s matchday app.
Chances came regularly during an open first-half. Having gone a goal down early, Raith began to enjoy the better of the balance of play. Vaughan wriggled free to fire at Fleming’s goal in twelve minutes; returning wide midfielder Dario Zanatta combined well with Aiden Connolly, almost creating an equaliser; on twenty-six minutes, Keatings, Tait, and Trialist A all combined for Vaughan to shoot straight at Fleming.
Raith’s new strike-force generated another chance on the half-hour – Vaughan cleverly taking a pass to feet, playing the perfect lay-off to his more experienced colleague, although Keating’s shot flew narrowly over. Both physically very similar, the key to Raith’s new strike partnership will be the understanding and movement of the pair under pressure – again, the early indications are that the pair will generate a good number of chances this campaign, and only get better as time progresses.
For the visitors – smartly turned out in all white with turquoise socks – there was much to be positive about. Wide on the right, Joe Moore had an excellent first hour before being substituted, testing the mettle of Trialist C with intelligent running both inside and out. Josh Walker was also a stand-out performer, testing Jamie MacDonald with a number of shots from distance, and buzzing around Raith’s centre-halves. Jamie Hamill’s team – bolstered by the experience of former Rover Scott Robertson in defence – will no doubt be one of the sides to watch in this season’s League Two.
With Stranraer a goal to the good, Raith’s second half began with one adjustment – Zanatta and Connolly swapping wings – and within ten minutes, Raith had punctured the visiting defence twice to get their noses in front. If the Rovers back-room staff had invested in a new variety of tea-bag for the half-time cuppas, the new brew had certainly proved its worth. Raith pressed and pressured the Stranraer rearguard, and put their opponents to the sword with some clinical finishing – notably increasing the tempo from the first forty-five minutes.
Zanatta and Reghan Tumilty had already combined on a couple of occasions before, with fifty minutes on the clock, a swap upfront carved a huge space in the Stranraer rearguard – Zanatta’s run inside and one-two with Keatings saw Vaughan released on the right-flank; the Raith man’s fine cross saw Aiden Connolly notch his first of the season, arriving late at the far post with right-back Sean Burns trailing in his wake.
Raith were at it again moments later, Vaughan turning a sharp volley goal-wards from five yards, with visiting keeper Greig Fleming doing well to clear at close range. Within a minute, Trialist A battled to win possession, finding Reghan Tumilty at full speed – the full-back’s inch-perfect cross saw Lewis Vaughan a step ahead of his markers to put Raith in front.
While Stranraer had created an opportunity for Josh Walker – the striker’s shot palmed clear by Jamie MacDonald although the linesman’s flag would have ruled out a scoring finish – the visitors were unable to develop any possession or momentum. Christophe Berra’s footballing intelligence was on full display – with Stranraer pinned back and the visitors playing long looking to break the Raith press, Berra’s positioning was impeccable on several occasions, snuffing out possible counter-attacks and recycling possession to keep Raith on the front foot. With 41 caps for Scotland and more than 600 senior games under his belt, the addition of Berra to the Raith back-line will be invaluable as the season progresses.
With the substitutes coming thick and fast, Brad Spencer scored with his first touch – a brave back-post header from a deep free-kick, although the marking in the visiting defence was poor. Along with the former Forfar man, Raith had introduced Aaron Arnott, Quinn Coulson, and Kieran Mitchell, along with Trialist B slotting into central midfield.
The tempo of the match dropped off understandably in the closing minutes, as the rigours of the first full ninety minutes of the season began to take their toll. Trialist B – his shock of black hair flying as he shuttled up and down the right flank – was unlucky to see his drive at Fleming’s left-hand saved well by the Stranraer keeper. The same Trialist looked to get his name on the score-sheet again with the next chance, again drawing Fleming into another fine save.
With the referee checking his watch, the match enjoyed a fine finish with youngster Kieran Mitchell scoring his first senior goal – taking the ball under pressure in the Stranraer box, Mitchell turned his man, created an inch of space, and fired well beyond Fleming’s outstretched dive for Raith’s fourth.
Photo © Tony Fimister
John McGlynn spoke to RaithTV after the pre-season friendly at Stark’s Park
James Keating had his first chat with RaithTV after this afternoon’s pre-season friendly against Stranraer