DEBUT POPLATNIK GOAL SEALS DRAW
Raith Rovers’ pre-season came to a close at a sodden Starks Park on Saturday, with a two-all draw against an enterprising and energetic Queens Park side. A first-half deflection from Aidan Connolly had seen Raith go in a goal up at the break, only for goals from Longridge and Baynham just after half-time to put the visitors ahead – a late equaliser from new signing Matej Poplatnik saw an engaging and evenly-matched friendly end level.
In a match of many talking points, Raith’s defensive pairing of Benedictus and Berra continued to develop their understanding for the season ahead, Lewis Vaughan and James Keatings looked polished as a strike pair, while Queens Park’s running and vibrancy across the park gave Rovers a stern test as the Stark’s Park side begin their competitive calendar with next week’s League Cup visit to Cowdenbeath.
With Liam Dick still a distance from full match fitness following an injury niggle, Raith’s line-up had a familiar feel to it, despite this being only the third pre-season game. With Benedictus and Berra in the centre of a back four, Reghan Tumilty began at right-back, and with young Trialist A at left-back. Tumilty was first to show, driving down the right flank in familiar fashion, his cross well gathered by Willie Muir.
Upfront for Raith, again Lewis Vaughan partnered James Keatings, as Raith fielded a front-two. Vaughan’s first action of note was a thumping free-kick high to Muir’s near-post with quarter of an hour gone – the visiting keeper was required to pull off a fine early save; another Vaughan effort was blocked by Muir moments later.
Queens Park, led by a former Starks Park management team of Grant Murray and Laurie Ellis, lined up in the bright orange and blue colours of long-time fizzy-drink sponsors, and began proceedings with the confidence of League winners. Having led League Two since the opening weeks of last season, the Spiders are set fair for a positive season in League One this term. Liam Brown caused early trouble in the Raith defensive third, his rising drive from twenty yards flying over MacDonald’s cross-bar in the seventh minute.
Although at this stage of the season teams are looking to instil new systems and incorporate new players, it is often the experienced players who stand out. On fifteen minutes, Louis Longridge – another former Stark’s Park favourite – broke down the inside left; his excellent cross saw striker Baynham fire his header just over the bar. Michael Doyle, the former Falkirk stalwart captaining his side here, was a roving presence on the right-hand side, pulling Raith’s midfielders across to cover. Queens’ best chance of the opening stages came with Brown and Moore working space well, freeing Doyle to cross – Brown was muscled out in the act of shooting, the scores remaining level.
Raith began to dominate as the match approached the half-hour – Lyon’s clearing header from a Vaughan corner was volleyed narrowly wide by Tait; another Vaughan corner was headed clear with Muir flailing, and in twenty-eight minutes, Aidan Connolly was in the right place at the right time in a crowded box to put Raith a goal to the good – Christophe Berra’s close-range hit was blocked, and as Spencer returned the clearance with interest, Connolly deflected past Muir.
As the summer rain lashed down upon Stark’s Park, Raith were inches away from a second minutes later, as a lovely flowing move through midfield found James Keatings running at a retreating back-line – his finish flew narrowly over Muir’s cross-bar.
With seven days before Raith’s first competitive fixture – a trip to Central Park to meet neighbours Cowdenbeath in League Cup action next Saturday – several of the new partnerships within the Rovers team look to be developing keen understandings. Lewis Vaughan and James Keatings seem already to be combining well – one dropping short while the other goes down a channel, quick one-twos creating space, and neat interchanges leading to shots on goal. Another Tumilty cross flew through the six-yard box on forty-one minutes as a result of one such passage of play. The early portents look good, and can only improve as Vaughan and Keatings spend more game time together.
The players restarted the second-half with the rain still pouring down – the welcome return of supporters to the North and South Stands somewhat muted by the poor conditions – and it was the visitors who began the better. Will Baynham had already troubled Berra into a rushed clearance before Lewis Moore’s lovely cross found Longridge with a step on his marker, the experienced striker planting his header beyond MacDonald into the far corner to bring the Spiders level.
Five minutes later, another header put Queens in front – with Doyle escaping down the right flank following good midfield play from Lyon, Will Baynham found space between Benedictus and Tumilty to nod back across goal, Jamie MacDonald rooted to the spot as the header found the inside of the post and nestled in the Raith net. With Raith having made a change at half-time – introducing Trialist B for Brad Spencer – and Grant Gillespie now patrolling the central third for the visitors, suddenly Raith were second-best with the momentum against them.
The match just passed the hour mark before Raith generated their first chance of the second period – Trialist B striding through midfield and playing in Vaughan behind Kilday, with only a late defensive tackle preventing a shot on goal from the Raith striker.
With Raith a goal down, Rovers fans got their first sight of new signing Matej Poplatnik, introduced for James Keatings on sixty-eight minutes. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with opposing centre-half Morrison, Poplatnik’s first action was to stroke a beautifully-flighted cross-field pass finding Tumilty in space.
Indeed, Raith’s supporters only had five minutes to wait before the Slovenian striker broke with Starks Park duck – Vaughan nut-megged his man wide on the right, working his way inside and feeding Connolly, whose first-time cross found Poplatnik in space at the far post – in truth, the substitute could hardly miss, but he made no mistake in any event, drawing Raith level at two a-piece.
Although looking raw and perhaps short of match sharpness, Trialist B made an impression lining up in central midfield. Broad-shouldered and with a pass off both feet, his threaded through-ball nearly played in Connolly on seventy-five minutes, with Morrison scrambling to avert the danger. At the other end, a good break from Moore saw the young Trialist struggling to cover runs from deep midfield, with two Queens’ players getting in each other’s way as the chance was wasted.
With ten minutes to go, each side was pressing the other – Tait’s change of feet in the far corner resulted in a Connolly header drifting narrowly over. For Queens, Baynham was a continued source of concern in the Raith rear-guard. Christophe Berra – taking part in his nineteenth pre-season – had a solid work-out here with Queens’ front-line both vibrant and physical in their approach. Longridge’s turn and shot buzzed inches over MacDonald’s bar with five minutes remaining.
Late Raith substitutes Kieran Mitchell, Quinn Coulson, and Aaron Arnott also had a run-out – Coulson particularly catching the eye with several driving runs into forward areas, and linking well with his midfield.
The match retained its energetic pace in the closing minutes. Trialist B was unlucky as his powerful near-post header was deflected clear – referee Williams enjoying a pre-season of his own, erroneously awarding Queens a goal-kick. With the final chance, Longridge cut inside Benedictus and brought out an excellent save from MacDonald, rushing from his line to narrow the angle.
Photographs © Tony Fimister
John Mcglynn spoke to RaithTV after the pre-season friendly at Stark’s Park