NEW SEASON STARTS WITH DEFEAT
Raith opened the 2013/14 season with defeat at home to Sheffield United this evening, losing out by the odd goal in three. An early goal from Greig Spence was cancelled out by two impressive first-half strikes from a United side playing their third game in a week – goals from McDonald and Murphy secured the South Yorkshire side a second win in three games.
The first game of the pre-season is not a basis for conclusions or rushed judgments and, although supporters can have no complaints over the defeat against superior opposition, there were numerous talking points and selection conundrums for coaching staff and fans to mull over as the pre-season continues later this week.
Grant Murray’s first pre-season as Raith manager has seen a fair number of arrivals and departures. Top scorer Brian Graham has left for the Premier League and no fewer than five new signings have bolstered a newly youthful looking first-team squad. While Mensing, Walker, Malone and others have gone, a new squad with new faces gives others chances to forge partnerships and create understandings. In his programme notes, the Raith manager suggested further signings may well be in place before the first competitive match next month.
Sheffield United – visitors to Stark’s Park for the fourth time in their long history this evening – were concluding a brief three-match Scottish tour. Trips to Cappielow and Central Park had provided a win and a draw, although this was hardly a grand tour of Scotland’s finest footballing stadia. Former Scotland stalwart Davie Weir is building to his first season as manager and had used the two previous games to try nearly 25 players in a first-team jersey.
Although pre-season friendlies are not the time to worry too much about the opposition, this was arguably a good time to be meeting United. Weir is the team’s third manager in the last twelve months, with popular manager Danny Wilson having been sacked mid-way through last season, to be replaced by coach Chris Morgan. Defeat in the play-offs to Yeovil Town ended a tumultuous season. Finding themselves in English football’s third tier for the first spell in 23 years, United are a long way from their glory days at the turn of the last century, which brought a League triumph (1898) and two FA Cups (1899 and 1902), although the signs were present this evening of what may be a positive season ahead.
The early moments were brisk with Raith players particularly keen to get the season off to a bright start. Murphy’s snap-shot was pushed clear by Laidlaw in the home goal, while Cardle jinked to release Grant Anderson whose cross skimmed on-rushing heads.
With last year’s strike partnership having ended with Graham’s departure to Tannadice, Raith need to find a new combination up-front. As one of the lowest scoring teams in last year’s first division, one of Grant Murray’s priorities for this pre-season will be to find a strike partner for Greig Spence. Having grown and matured last year, scoring and supporting in the Raith attack in equal measure, Spence arguably has earned the right to start the season as a diminutive figurehead. To re-pay his manager’s faith, Spence opened the scoring this evening, bundling home after fifteen minutes from an Elliot centre, after a lofted Cardle pass had allowed the Raith debutant to slip the United defence.
Raith started with four new faces in the starting XI – Booth at left-back, capped at Scotland U-19 and U-21 levels, Calum Elliot upfront, having joined after a promotion-winning season at Alloa, and Liam Fox and Kevin Moon in the middle of the park. Fox, particularly, is key to Raith’s success this season – after 28 starts forLivingston last season, the 29 year-old midfielder is a prime candidate for the captaincy role this year. Ideally placed in the centre of Raith’ midfield, Fox issued instructions to others like a player familiar with an influential central berth.
Having said that, the latter part of the first half largely belonged to the visitors. Several lengthy phases of play involved ten or more passes amongst the United players, clad in a less-than-summery black and orange change strip. From the athletic Williams at left-back to the muscular and mobile pairing of Porter and McDonald upfront, United looked the more composed as the first-half moved toward the break.
Raith had been ahead for fifteen minutes when Porter’s incisive pass from the United midfield allowed McFadzean to escape between Hill and Ellis. Although the rangy striker looked to have over-run his chance, he showed good awareness to lift his head and find team-mate McDonald, who finished crisply beyond Laidlaw to equalise.
Five minutes later, the visitors were ahead. Profiting from space between Raith’s defence and midfield, McDonald created room for Murphy who fired powerfully across Laidlaw from 20 yards – the strike the one genuine moment of quality in the opening period.
The second half opened with a spell of Raith pressure – Elliot curling a disappointing free-kick high over Howard’s cross-bar after some neat movement from the formerLivingstonstriker had drawn a challenge. United’s goal-keeper was called into action again moments later, leaving his goal to head away United defender Maguire’s unwelcome lobbed back-pass.
Pre-season friendlies can often be a mixed bag. Although managers invite players to stake a claim for starting places for the coming season and squad members are keen to impress new team-mates, the intensity of a league or cup encounter is hard to replicate. Passages of play become broken and rhythms are frequently disrupted. The volume of substitutions exacerbates the irregular nature of the game’s flow. The second half of this evening’s game fell into this trap – any sense of ascendency or poise from either side was lost through the changing personnel and the lack of understanding between new colleagues.
United, having made ten substitutions at half-time in their previous two games, resisted the temptation to follow suit this evening, and played in a more cohesive manner because of it. Whether manager Weir had found a first XI after two previous experiments, or whether Sheffield recognised Raith as worthy opponents, the same visiting eleven exerted the same control at the start of the second half as they had at the end of the first, taking the lion’s share of possession with Raith’s midfield showing evidence of heavy pre-season legs.
Raith’s central two snapped and growled but suffered from the lack of possession. Fox and Moon will benefit from more time together against Hibs, Hearts and Inverness CT in future games and they should develop into a robust fulcrum upon whichMurray can organise his team. On the flanks, Jason Thomson was consistent and hard-working – qualities rewarded by both his peers and the supporters last season, while Booth showed good promise with Grant Anderson and Joe Cardle ahead in wide areas.
Cardle’s quick feet caused United’s defence problems whenever Raith could locate the former Dunfermline winger. Cardle is probably quick-footed while shopping, although whether he and his trolley reach the same check-out at the same time must be a concern. As in his more influential games last season, Cardle was prominent but often lost possession before linking with team-mates.
With the visitors making nine second-half changes, Murray also shuffled his pack, notably giving both Gordon Smith – a 22 year old former Hearts striker – and a leggy trialist a run upfront. Smith looked a willing runner and strong in possession.
Ross Callachan nearly blasted Raith level on 79 minutes. With little backlift, the young midfielder’s shot was headed off the line, with the trialist’s acrobatic effort from the rebound gathered at full-stretch by United keeper Howard.
The final moments saw further run-outs for Lewis Vaughan and Ross Matthews, although neither side could create a final chance to add to their tally. With the referee’s final whistle sounding right on 90 minutes, the opening game of the season was be a defeat forMurray’s men.
Ten days after the Confederations’ Cup final and ten weeks after Raith’s final game of last season at Livingston, the new season is off and running with the Raith side very much a “work in progress”. Whatever the result though, whether or not it is the glimpse of the Stark’s Park pitch from a speeding train window, the walk behind the West Stand recalling the old walk underneath the floodlight into the old terracing or the first sight of the towering industrial outline of the Val McDermid Stand from the pre-match walk through the Beveridge Park, it is good to be back.
Photos: Tony Fimister Report: Andrew Fairlie
Photographs copyright Tony Fimister
Davie Hancock spoke to Grant after our first pre-season match
Sheffield United boss David Weir spoke to Davie after the game