ZANATTA THE HERO AS RAITH WIN
Raith kick-started their League campaign with a hard-fought but deserved victory over perennial rivals Ayr United at Somerset Park, as two goals in the first twenty-five minutes from Ethon Varian and Dario Zanatta gave Raith the three points. The two-goal advantage allowed Raith to control the play during a bruising second-half, which saw referee Chris Graham hand out numerous bookings and three red cards.
The home fans gave a warm welcome to midfielder Zanatta returning to Somerset Park for the first time in his second spell with the Rovers, but it was the Raith man who had the last laugh with a fine performance and a splendid second goal, putting clear distance between the sides after a strong opening from the visitors, and giving Raith a lead to protect when Ayr rallied in the second half.
With both sides having only a single point to their name at the beginning of play, this evening’s fixture gave ample opportunity to fire momentum into their respective League campaigns. John McGlynn reverted to the Aberdeen-beating starting eleven as opposed to the side who overcame Forfar last weekend – which meant Matej Poplatnik returning to the subs’ bench, with Ethan Varian supported by a five-man midfield. Aiden Connolly returned wide on the right after being rested, and would look to support Varian from wide areas, alongside the impressive Dario Zanatta. Dylan Tait continued his run in midfield, now as a loanee following his recent transfer to Hibernian.
With the Honest Men languishing at the foot of the Championship alongside Raith with one point (albeit having played a game more than their rivals) there was a degree of pressure on manager David Hopkin to kick-start his side’s season. August had been hard, with defeats at Inverness and at Kilmarnock, and a tough loss on penalties at Tannadice in the League Cup. The Covid-19 outbreak meant Hopkin understandably had concerns over several players’ fitness, with ten recent days’ of training missed – James Maxwell started at right-back in place of Sean McGinty, Andy Murdoch was ruled out, and Nick McAllister began in midfield with Michael Hewitt dropping out altogether with a hamstring injury. Young Steven Bradley, signed from Hibs on loan this week, was also named amongst the substitutes.
The match began in bright sunshine, not common for a midweek game, given the early kick-off. Not surprisingly given each side has been short of games recently, both started quickly. Tait’s wonderful cross-field pass eventually saw a high cross from the left resulting in chaos at McAdams’ far post with Connolly unlucky not to score in the first minute. For Ayr, McKenzie burst past Dick only for Benedictus to clear the danger.
The match continued to generate chances at both ends, and each side found their feet quickly in the summery conditions. A Fjortoft header flew at MacDonald after nine minutes; at the other end, a flighted Liam Dick cross gave Zanatta a chance on goal.
Reghan Tumilty was making good ground down Raith’s right-flank, regularly finding space in the early stages and pinning Ayr back deep in their defensive third. On thirteen minutes, a characteristic Tumilty burst saw Raith take the lead – Ethon Varian leaping highest at the far post to beat McAdams. While Ayr’s marking was slack, the goal would be worthy reward for a mature performance from the Irish striker.
Raith continued to press – further chances followed for Connolly and Varian, with Zanatta on the left and Tumilty on the right continuing to make headway against their opposite numbers. For Ayr, Houston and Reading were struggling to defend their flanks, and captain Muirhead looked second-best in midfield with Dylan Tait, Ross Matthews, and Blaise Riley-Snow all winning their tackles.
Rovers put their noses further in front just before the half hour – a deep free-kick was headed clear by the Ayr defence, but Dario Zanatta only had one thing on his mind, steadying himself, stepping inside, and firing beyond keeper McAdams with a driven finish. With the home support howling in frustration, the Raith winger deserved his moment, celebrating another crucial goal following his match-winning strike against Aberdeen in the League Cup.
The home side had offered little upfront since the opening goal, but began to assert themselves into the contest in the run-up to half-time. Tomi Adeloye had a number of runs at Berra and Benedictus at the heart of the Raith defence, but was often crowded out; Mark McKenzie had a vibrant spell following Rovers’ second, but again struggled to link with his colleagues. On the half-hour, Nick McAllister came close to pulling one back with a strong downward header – former Kilmarnock keeper Jamie McDonald saved well down to his left.
With half-time approaching, Ayr’s tempo rose again, but with few clear-cut chances to show for it. McKenzie’s run through on goal ended up with the ball in the back of the net, but referee Graham had rightly halted play for a push on Berra. At the other end, Varian’s lay-off found Tait amid a ruck of home defenders – unsurprisingly, the young midfielder was crowded out.
Aiden Connolly had been withdrawn through injury before the break, and it was his replacement – the rangy Kai Fotheringham – who was first to shine in the second half, with several long runs down the right-flank, and one quicksilver exchange of passes with Varian moving play down to the other end.
With an hour gone, Hopkin shuffled his pack to try to bring some extra energy to his side – the impressive Jonathan Afolabi and young Steven Bradley were introduced, and the impact was immediate – Afolabi slicing down the inside right channel, with Berra showing some pace to clear. Minutes later, Bradley’s free-kick from a promising position was pulled wide. The double substitution had added some real urgency into the Ayr side – Raith’s defence were on notice.
While Ayr piled on the pressure, Raith were also a danger on the break. Varian and Fotheringham streaked through the middle from one lusty Zanatta clearance – Muirhead was booked for tripping Varian behind the play, while Fotheringham’s cross zipped across the face of goals with no takers. Fotheringham was next to threaten, drawing a fine save from McAdams after Varian’s shot was blocked.
Ayr’s task was made much more difficult as Afolabi leapt into an untidy challenge on Liam Dick in the far corner. Referee Chris Graham – who had let several tackles go in previous skirmishes – went straight to his top pocket, dismissing the Ayr striker amid noisy scenes in front of the home support.
Rovers didn’t have the numerical advantage for long – Blaise Riley-Snow jumped into a tackle in midfield, drawing howls of protest from the home support. Having already been booked, the tackle was ill-advised – referee Graham gave the Raith man his marching orders. Within a minute, the referee’s red card had its third outing in ten minutes – Ayr captain Muirhead losing his composure, leaping into another tackle in midfield, catching his man late and over the ball – having been booked, the skipper left the referee with little option, and was well on his way before referee Graham had brandished the red card.
With five minutes remaining, James Keatings was brought on, allowing Dario Zanatta a round of applause on his departure – with his second goal very much the highlight of the evening, the cheers of the hardy band of travelling supporters was fully deserved.
With the extra man, Raith were able to see the game out in relative comfort. Reghan Tumilty’s twenty-yard drive fizzed just past McAdams’ post, and both Varian and Keatings showed real maturity in holding possession. With a lovely curling effort deep into injury time, Dylan Tait nearly put the icing on the cake of what had been an excellent performance overall – McAdams at full stretch to deny Raith a deserved third.