Raith Rovers 4 St Mirren 3
An outstanding hat-trick from on loan Rangers teenager Ryan Hardie fired Raith Rovers to a crucial Championship victory over St Mirren at Stark’s Park yesterday afternoon.
The 18-year-old was the star of the show as Rovers edged a seven-goal thriller to strengthen their grip on fourth place, and effectively eliminate St Mirren from the promotion play-off race.
While the goals, and the final result were to be enjoyed, this erratic Rovers performance was also a test of endurance for supporters who were left on tenterhooks throughout.
Despite looking in control at 2-0, and then 4-1 up, Raith allowed the Buddies back into the game with some sloppy play, and they had to rely on their resolve in the closing stages to hang on for the three points.
“It’s a great victory for us but we’re disappointed with how we did it,”, Raith boss Ray McKinnon admitted afterwards.
“At 2-0 we should have went on and dominated the game but we stopped doing what was productive for us.
“We had a chat at half-time, starting doing it again, went 4-1 up, then stopped again, but at this time of the season, we’ll take the three points.”
McKinnon was full of praise for the hat-trick hero, adding: “I’m delighted for Ryan.
“He’s a top young player and he’s definitely a goal machine. We’ve been missing that real goal threat all season.
“He’s only a young lad and there’s no pressure on him, but if he can do that for us on a regular basis until the end of the seaosn we’ll be delighted.”
Raith’s attacking line-up featured five changes from the defeat at Ibrox with Hardie, Mark Stewart, Ross Callachan, Kyle Benedictus and Aidan Connolly all returning in place of Grant Anderson, Ross Matthews, James Craigen, Craig Barr and Ryan McCord.
With Scott Robertson also missing out through injury, defender Lewis Toshney was again deployed in midfield, although this tactic proved less effective than it did at Ibrox in midweek.
McKinnon’s instructions to his team was to play the ball in behind the St Mirren defence at every opportunity for strikers Hardie and Stewart to chase.
The game was only three minutes old when this approach paid dividends as Callachan’s through ball saw Hardie break the offside trap and he coolly slotted past the Jamie Langfield.
Rovers direct play continued to cause problems for the Buddies defence early on and Langfield had to make a smart save to prevent Hardie from doubling the lead with a curling effort from 14 yards.
Raith’s second was only delayed until the 23rd minute as Hardie turned provider, winning possession from the Saints defence before feeding Stewart who raced through, took a good first touch then fired a sharp finish into the bottom corner.
Having put themselves into a strong position, Raith then gave St Mirren encouragement by failing to clear balls properly, and continually giving possession away inside their own half.
A St Mirren goal was on the cards and it arrived five minutes before half-time when Keith Watson rose unchallenged to head home Stephen Mallin’s corner from six yards.
Raith were fortunate to go into the break still in front as Lawrence Shankland ghosted in behind the defence but Kevin Cuthbert was quick from his line to make a huge block.
Cuthbert came to the rescue again early in the second half, diving full stretch to push away Watson’s free header as Raith switched off at the back post.
The match then swung heavily in Raith’s favour thanks to a quickfire double from Hardie, starting with a terrific hit on 53 minutes.
Harry Panayiotou’s ball forward found the striker in space and although the bounce seemed to hold him up, this was no problem to Hardie, who simply smashed it past Langfield from the edge of box.
Two minutes later, the ball broke to Hardie in the box and he showed outstanding composure and great footwork to leave defenders in his wake before picking his spot high into the roof of the net to complete his first senior hat-trick.
Three goals up, Raith should have been able to see out the game comfortably but with shades of Dumbarton away, a nervousness enveloped the side as St Mirren mounted a spirited fightback.
David Clarkson reduced the deficit on 61 minutes, cutting inside from the right and firing a powerful low effort past Cuthbert from the edge of the box, while the Raith defence and midfield stood by and watched.
And home nerves really started to jangle on 76 minutes when Watson’s shot on the turn trundled into the bottom corner to pull it back to 4-3, leading McKinnon to thump the dugout in a rage as his team failed to take chances to clear the danger.
Credit to Raith thereafter though as with momentum against them, they really rolled up their sleeves and defended steadfastly for the final 15 minutes to deny Saints any further clear openings.
There is no doubting the signficance of the three points ahead of the visit of Queen of the South on Tuesday, where a fourth home win in a row will put Raith seven points clear in fourth.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, Toshney, Benedictus, McKeown, Connolly (Anderson 56), Callachan, Davidson, Panayiotou (Matthews), Hardie, Stewart.
Not used: Thomas, Court, Craigen, Law.
St Mirren: Langfield, Watson, Webster, Baird, Irvine, Gallagher (Gow 56), Mallan, Quinn (Agnew 25), Stewart (Thompson 85), Shankland, Clarkson.
Not used: Goodwin, Cooper, Wilks, McAllister.
Referee: John Beaton