Hibs 1 Raith Rovers 0
A gritty defensive performance from an injury-ravaged Raith Rovers side was not enough to prevent defeat in the first game of 2016 at Easter Road on Saturday.
Raith’s lengthy list of absentees was further extended when Iain Davidson and Mark Stewart both called off sick to leave manager Ray McKinnon without eight first team players.
With the squad stretched close to breaking point, midfielder Scott Robertson was forced to play as an emergency right back, but despite the upheaval, Rovers put in a dogged display to restrict the title-chasing home side to a single goal from a penalty kick rebound, while the performances of teenagers David Bates and Ross Matthews were real positives, and bodes well for the future.
However, in an attacking sense, after an encouraging opening 15 minutes, Raith barely threatened to mount any serious challenge for a share of the points. The lack of quality in the final third remains an issue that the club will hope to address in the January window if a top four challenge is to be maintained.
Given the circumstances though, McKinnon was proud of his players’ performance.
“We had eight first team players out and my boys have really rose to the occasion,” McKinnon said.
“They’ve battled hard and I’m getting everything out of them - I can’t ask for any more.
“We do lack the quality Hibs have got - there’s no doubt about that.
“But I’m getting everything out of my players week in, week out.
“They’re organised, diligent, receptive - we’re just getting mullered right now with injuries.
“We want to win every game but there’s no shame in losing 1-0 here considering the number of important players we’re missing.”
McKinnon’s main frustration was with referee George Salmond who sent Grant Anderson off in the final minute following a high speed collision with Hibs defender Paul Hanlon.
“I’m so disappointed with the referee’s decision,” he said. “He’s trying to get in between two players, he’s got a toe to it, and then their guy has clatterred into him.”
After losing their 17-game unbeaten run at Ibrox last Monday, there was a flatness about Hibs in the early exchanges as Rovers, unbeaten in five, made an impressive start.
With just three minutes on the clock, the Fifers had plenty bodies forward and Ryan McCord was inches away from meeting Rory McKeown’s knock-down in the centre of the Hibs box.
Raith continued their confident start and after a fast breakaway led by Mitch Megginson, only a last ditch block from Hanlon denied James Craigen as he pulled the trigger 10 yards out.
Raith again came close on 12 minutes as Craigen’s brilliant turn and cut-back was met by Jon Daly, who knocked it towards the back post only for the Hibs defence to frantically scramble the ball clear before it crossed the line.
Rovers were unable to sustain their bright start, and before long, Hibs started to take control.
There was almost a fortunate opener for the hosts on 16 minutes as Lewis Stevenson’s cross sailed over the head of Kevin Cuthbert and clipped the crossbar.
The 691 away fans were then on their feet demanding a red card for Hibs full back David Gray following a dreadful high speed tackle on McKeown near the corner flag. Given the ferocity and lateness of the challenge, ref Salmond was perhaps lenient in showing the player yellow.
Rovers would have been pleased with the first half, having restricted the home side to few clear cut opportunities, but the visitors shot themselves in the foot three minutes after the restart.
A failed offside trap saw Cummings break into the box and in a desperate attempt to retrieve the situation, Kyle Benedictus stuck out a leg and tripped the striker as he cut back onto his left foot.
It was a stick-on penalty and there were no complaints from Benedictus as the referee pointed to the spot before showing him a yellow card. Had he noticed that fellow defenders had also raced back to cover, Benedictus may have felt that this was a tackle he didn’t have to make.
Cummings took the spot kick himself, and although Cuthbert made a fantastic save, and then also got a hand to the striker’s rebound, the ball spun backwards over the line to leave the unfortunate ‘keeper with his head in his hands.
An improved Hibs went on to dominate the second half, but a determined Rovers managed to hang on in the hope that they would get one chance to salvage a point.
Anderson and Craig Wighton were introduced from the bench, and there was some Hibs nerves as Raith pushed forward late on, but they were unable to fashion any kind of opening as they finished with 10 men after Anderson picked up two bookings in his 20 minutes on the park.
Anderson’s upcoming suspension adds to Rovers selection worries, although the winger will be free to face Hibs at Stark’s Park this Saturday when the two teams go head-to-head for the second consecutive week, this time in the Scottish Cup.
At home, and hopefully with a stronger squad available, Raith will hope to give the Hibs defence a much more testing afternooon if they are to maintain interest in the cup.
Hibs: Oxley; Gray, Hanlon, Fontaine, Stevenson, Bartley (Keatings 81), Henderson, McGeouch, McGinn, Cummings (Anier 84), Malonga.
Subs not used: Reguero, Boyle, Feruz, Forster, McGregor.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Callachan, Benedictus, McCord (Wighton 58), Megginson (Anderson 70), Matthews, Daly, Bates, McKeown, Craigen, Robertson.
Subs not used: Law, Petrie, Ellis, Ford, Mackie.
Referee: George Salmond.