Raith Derail Morton’s Title Challenge
Grant Murray’s claim that Raith Rovers could have a huge bearing on the first division title race proved to be accurate today, as Raith turned the form table on its head with a 2-1 victory over Morton at Stark’s Park.
Raith were forced into two changes from the disappointing midweek defeat at Dumbarton due to injury and suspension. Out went Eddie Malone and Josh Watt, and in came Stuart Anderson and Joe Hamill.
Despite both teams needing a win for different reasons the match started in a fairly low-key fashion, with neither side managing to get their foot on the ball and create even a half chance. What was of interest however was how Raith lined up.
With most fans believing that Dougie Hill would start the match at left back, what soon became apparent was that he was actually part of a 3 man defence, alongside Simon Mensing and Grant Murray. This left Jason Thomson and Joe Hamill as wing backs, with Allan Walker and the two Anderson’s in the middle of the park.
If anything it was Raith who started slightly the brighter, with Jason Thomson showing an eagerness to get forward down the right hand side. Other than a few dangerous looking crosses into the box however, visiting goalkeeper Derek Gaston wasn’t at all troubled in the early stages.
Morton’s midfield, with Hardie, Tidser and Bachirou, has drawn plaudits all season, and if it was a ploy from Raith to keep the ball from the central areas and use the wings then it certainly appeared to be working. None of Morton’s normally energetic trio were getting time on the ball, and it was Raith who eked out the first opportunity after 12 minutes.
Spence strongly won the ball from between two Morton players and managed to prod it into the path of Brian Graham. The striker couldn’t quite get away from Bachirou though, and the former Paris St Germain youth did well to clear the ball away for a corner.
Morton’s respite was fleeting though, and from Allan Walker’s corner Brian Graham bundled the ball home from close range. The striker may not have known too much about it but his powerful effort deservedly put the home side in front.
Raith have been notorious for letting leads slip away this season but they continued to press the visitors. Five minutes later a Spence cross from the right was flicked on by Graham and only a full length punch clear from Gaston prevented Walker from making it two.
Raith were then forced into an early change with Dougie Hill appearing to injury his ankle after 20 minutes. He was replaced by Laurie Ellis.
A minute later, referee Crawford Allan took his first name of the afternoon, booking Allan Walker for dissent after the captain felt he should have had a free kick, after he appeared to have been brought down by Martin Hardie.
The opening half hour had seen a marked improvement from Rovers recent performances with a noticeable difference in terms of work rate and tempo. Every ball was being contested and every Morton player was being harried as Raith pressed their opponents and attacked with pace. The movement of Spence, Graham and Grant Anderson was causing huge concerns for the Morton defence, with the trio popping up all over the offensive third.
You started to sense a shift in momentum however, and Morton managed their first attempt at goal after 33 minutes. A cross from Tidser found Peter MacDonald but his effort was headed over. Thomson also blocked well just inside the box after a shot from the same man, then two minutes later David McGurn was called into action for the first time, standing firm after MacDonald had turned in the box and got his shot off.
Despite this, it was Raith who went further in front on 38 minutes. Thomson gathered possession on the right hand side and aimed for the bye line. With only Graham to aim at he seemed to be caught in two minds about where to cross it, but his driven ball found the onrushing Michael Tidser, who toe poked the ball past his own goalkeeper to double Rovers lead.
The half ended with Rovers looking the more likely to score again. First Grant Murray headed a good chance over the bar from an Allan Walker corner, before a great move involving Stuart Anderson and Brian Graham allowed Greig Spence a good sight at goal but his side foot finish lacked conviction.
The half time whistle brought the Raith fans to their feet as they acknowledged the first half effort and performance from the players.
Morton have been known for their second half comebacks this season and they were out of the tunnel a couple of minutes before the home players for the start of the second half, as they looked to keep alive their hopes of a title push.
They attempted to put Raith on the back foot right away and a free kick, a minute after the restart was met in the box by McLauchlan but he headed the ball over.
Tidser and especially Bachirou were beginning to become more involved but despite having the lions share of possession, they were struggling to find any way past the central three or the wing backs, who were having to work far harder defensively than they did in the first period.
The resolute defending restricted Morton to half chances until the 60th minute when a Bachirou cross from the right was headed downwards by Peter MacDonald. The ball was finding its way inside McGurn’s left hand post but diving full length, the keeper scooped it out.
Allan Moore then made a double substitution, replacing David O’Brien and the ineffectual Colin McMenemin with Archie Campbell and Kyle Wilkie. The two combined almost immediately, although not in the way that their manager would have wanted them to, both tackling each other in a bizarre 50/50 challenge that saw Rovers win a throw in.
A minute later Moore made his final sub with just under 25 minutes remaining, bringing on Peter Weatherson for Mark McLauchlan.
Raith were spending very little time in possession, but they were making the most of what they had, with Graham, Spence and the bruised and battered Grant Anderson providing good outlets for Stuart Anderson and Joe Hamill who rarely wasted a pass all day.
A worry however was the space that substitute Campbell was finding in-between the midfield and defence. It was the other substitute however that brought Morton back into the game on 72 minutes. As the ball came into a crowded penalty box, it was played back to Wilkie, who side footed the ball past McGurn for a lovely finish.
The Raith fans immediately thought back to Dumbarton in midweek when another 2 goal lead was relinquished, but in fact they almost restored the 2 goal cushion right away, Spence side footing a first time effort over the bar from Walker.
As you would expect, the longer the game went on, the more nervous the fans, and players seemed to become. The defence retreated deeper and deeper into their own area, with the game almost becoming a training ground exercise of defence versus attack. For all that, there was never any panic, and bar a Taggart drive that flew over and a shot that Thomson deflected towards his own goal that McGurn stopped well, there were very few heart in mouth moments.
There were 2 late substitutions for Raith, Ross Callachan replaced the clearly struggling Grant Anderson, while Lewis Vaughan came on in the dying seconds for Greig Spence.
As the home crowd implored referee Crawford Allan to blow the whistle for full-time, they were eventually answered after the 4th minute of injury time, much to the relief of the players and the fans.
You could see how much it meant to the players as they celebrated in front of the fans at full-time. It was a result that may have been unexpected before the start of the match, but by full-time was richly deserved. The 2 goal cushion at half time was a just reward for their performance while the second half was a gritty, backs to the wall showing against a good side.
Manager Grant Murray will have been pleased with the effort, but he would have been delighted with the performance, and the manager himself deserved credit for the way his team set out. Brian Graham may have been the sponsors man of the match, but a sign of how good the team performed was that each fan seemed to have a different opinion on who they believed was the best player.
Thomson, Murray, Mensing, Ellis and Hamill all remained steadfast, while in front of them Walker seemed close to his best form. Up front the attacking trio of Anderson, Spence and Graham really caused Morton difficulties, in what was Raith’s best performance for some time.
After Wednesday night, most fans looked at Raith’s next two fixtures against Morton and Partick with a sense of trepidation. They left Stark’s Park on Saturday feeling that Tuesday night couldn’t come quick enough. What a difference a few days can make.
Match video filmed and edited by Steven Ward & Lyle Kilbane
Photographs copyright Tony Fimister and Ian Martin
Manager Grant Murray spoke to Niall after the match