Raith Rovers 2, Ayr United 1
Raith Rovers stretched their unbeaten sequence a little further on Saturday when they came from behind at Stark’s Park to win a tough, occasionally turbulent encounter with Ayr United.
The result pushed the Kirkcaldy side four points clear at the top of League I and it was a reward they felt they deserved after a more accomplished performance in the second half.
They created the more threatening chances for the most part and defended the Ayr raids robustly, although the visitors – table toppers themselves until Rovers recently nicked their crown – carried an undeniable threat going forward.
By their own admission, Raith gave a sub-standard performance in the first half, which was quite a nervous affair, with neither side really establishing control.
Ayr, who were missing several important players, including injured top scorer Craig Moore, pulled the rug from under Raith with a goal by new signing Laurence Shankland seconds from half time.
However, an exquisite free kick from Lewis Vaughan just four minutes after the turnaround underlined Raith’s character and they moved ahead with another goal by Jason Thomson a little later. United battled impressively but their cause was not helped by having Chris Higgins sent off near the end for a second caution.
Raith manager Barry Smith said: “I think the boys know that, in the first half, Ayr were the better team. But, in the second half, we came out and we did what we are good at. We started to get the ball down and pass, as we have done previously, and that’s credit to the players, because it shows a tremendous amount of desire and commitment and team spirit to get that result.”
Lewis Vaughan scored for the 10th game in succession, inching closer to the Rovers’ match record of 13, and his free kick was probably the highlight of the Raith revival.
“They knew in the dressing room they can play better and, in the second half, they certainly did that,” said Smith. “We played some good stuff and created good chances.
“Lewis is capable of that – he almost got one in the fisrt half .” said Smith of the 49th-minute wonder strike. “He is doing excellently at the moment and we want him to keep getting better.
“But getting that goal so early in the second half settled us down again and got us playing. When it comes down to it, Ayr gave us a very tough game.”
The defending, with a succession of blockages and bodies behind the ball, peppered by saves from ‘keeper Graeme Smith, was another example of commitment and team spirit, according to Smith.
“They have thrown their bodies in front of stuff to stop shots at goal – credit to the players for doing that,” he said.
There was only half a minute on the clock when a long-range Vaughan shot sailed narrowly wide, following a lengthy clearance from Smith.
United had a forest of players fon the goal line to block an attempt at the target from a 10th minute Raith corner, while Ayr themselves made a couple of forays into the Raith box, but the Rovers rearguard mopped up.
In the 14th minute, Raith skipperKyle Benedictus was injured while attempting a tackle and had to be replaced shortly afterwards by John Herron. The new captain received applause from home supporters as he left the park on crutches and was later taken to hospital for treatment.
Referee Alan Muir took exception to challenges midway through the half by Ayr duo David Ferguson and Laurence Shankland, on Bobby Barr and Iain Davidson respectively, and booked both visiting players within a couple of minutes of each other.
In between, Vaughan’s effort, following a free kick move by Rovers, glided on to ‘keeper Jordan Hart’s left-hand post. Vaughan himself was yellow-careed later for preventing Hart from properly clearing the ball.
Raith were trying to mould some moves together in midfield, while Ayr were relying on getting the ball to Shankland up front and on Craig McGuffie for some creativity on the left wing.
Liam Buchanan forced Hart into an important diving save to his right, after a fine run from Greig Spence had set up the opportunity. Herron found himself with a great chance just seconds later but control of the ball deserted him.
However, as the half-time whistle approached. Ian McCall’s men grabbed the initative when a corner came to McGuffie, whose low shot reached Shankland close in. Smith blocked his first effort but he blasted the second attempt into the roof of the net.
The 360 Ayr fans inside Stark’s Park may have hoped a 45th-minute counter might be a solid enough platform on which to build a winning display – but Rovers came back in style in 49 minutes. Vaughan looked fleetingly as if he might float an angled 25-yard free kick into the box for his teammates, but instead fired it beautifully past the fooled Hart.
Soon afterwards, at the opposite end, Smith palmed over a useful-looking Higgins shot from just outside the box, reminding everyone of the menace Ayr still represented.
But Raith went 2-1 up in the 58th minute when Herron broke away on the right and transferred to Thomson, whose shot squirmed past Hart and nestled low in the bottom corner.
Bobby Barr went on another of his familiar speedy runs through with a chance for the third in 64 minutes, but just squeezed his low shot inches wide.
Ayr found their attacks thwarted by a myriad of blue shirts as Raith bodies got behind almost everything the visitors threw at them.
In the 78th minute, United’s Higgins was booked for a challenge on Spence, but Herron and Barr chose to remonstrate, ending with a yellow card for Herron and a warning for Barr.
Four minutes from time, another heavy challenge by Higgins, this time on Zanatta, resulted in a second yellow card and an early departure for the Ayr player.
United kept trying but the loss of one of their number seemed to sap their strength somewhat, and Rovers held on for the points.
Afterwards, Lewis Vaughan said he was not thinking too much about capturing the successive scoring record, as there was still quite a way to go, but he was delighted nevertheless to be on the scoresheet again.
“It’s great to get the accolades as a player but the main thing is the team,” he said. “With the way we reacted, I think we’ve set a wee marker down in the league.”
It was a “massive” three points for Rovers which helped propel them clear, having recovered from going a goal down.
“It wasn’t great timing but, in the first half, we knew we weren’t really good enough,” he said. “Ayr came out the traps flying and we got a bit of a rocket fired up us at half time. It was very hard going but we deserved to win.
“When we equalised, the fans got right behind us again, so credit to them,” added Vaughan. “It did give us the confidence to come back to life and it shows the team has big players in big games, and can pull through.”
Jason Thomson, who scored what proved to be the decisive goal, said: “I don’t score that often but it was good to get the match winner and, apart from that, it’s a vital three points for us against one of our rivals.”
The defensive solidity when it was needed was another example of Rovers’ qualities, he added. “In the last few weeks, we’ve been scoring four or five, but you get the other side of the game where you need to dig in, and I think we showed that in the second half. We dug in and went on to get the win, which shows we have a bit of character about us.”
Raith Rovers – Smith, Thomson, Murray, Benedictus (Herron 18), Spence (Osei 90), Robertson, Buchanan (Zanatta 61), Vaughan, Barr, Matthews, Davidson. Subs (not used) – Brian, Court, McKay, Berry.
Ayr United – Hart, Higgins, Rose, Geggan, Moffat, McDaid, McGuffie (Murphy 83), Ferguson, Shankland (Gilmour 73), Reid. Crawford. Subs (not used) – Avici, Waite, Faulds, McGowan, Hilton.
Referee – Alan Muir.
Attendance – 2286.