Play-off dress rehearsal ends in a draw

23-04-2016. Picture Michael Gillen. KIRKCALDY. Starks Park. Raith Rovers v Falkirk SPFL Championship. Goal Rovers, Craig Barr 55.
23-04-2016. Picture Michael Gillen. KIRKCALDY. Starks Park. Raith Rovers v Falkirk SPFL Championship. Goal Rovers, Craig Barr 55.
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Raith Rovers 2 Falkirk 2

In a sign of things to come in the play-offs, Raith Rovers and Falkirk battled out a competitive 2-2 draw at Stark’s Park in the live BBC Alba clash this evening.

Rovers were perhaps the more disappointed with the outcome, having conceded an 88th minute equaliser, but boss Ray McKinnon was pleased with his team’s performance as the unbeaten run extended to 10 games.

“We’re obviously disappointed to lose the late goal, but we can take loads of positives out of the game,” he said.

“We mixed the squad up again with five players coming in and it just shows the strength of squad we have going into play-offs.

“I’ve constantly changed things up in the last five or six weeks and they keep delivering performances.

“We’ll have a freshness going into play-offs and that could be key. We have nothing to fear from anybody.”

McKinnon made wholesale changes to the team that defeated Dumbarton the previous week with only the back four, goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert, and Harry Panayioutou retained in the starting XI.

Any notion that the changes would weaken the side were dispelled by the calibre of replacemnets as Iain Davidson, Scott Robertson, James Craigen, Joel Thomas and Louis Longridge came in.

The manager’s thinking involved resting regular starters while giving others valuable game time, but also to give potential play-off opponents Falkirk no clues over the Raith team they might face in the play-offs. Although he might be tempted to go with the same again!

Falkirk were given a boost in the race for second place before kick-off with Hibs dropping two points in a goalless draw at Cappielow earlier in the afternoon, and the visitors made a bright start.

A ball was chipped over the top of the Raith defence that Kirkcaldy-born Blair Alston latched onto but he could only stab a tame effort over the bar from 12 yards.

The Bairns enjoyed most of the early possession but on eight minutes, Rovers conjured up the opening goal in their first attack.

Panayiotou found space on the right wing and delivered a cross onto the head of Thomas, who forced Danny Rogers into a brilliant relfex save.

The ball broke loose in the goalmouth and as players converged, it was Thomas who got a vital toe-poke to send it trickling into the net.

It proved to be the striker’s last involvement as his celebration involved walking straight to the dug-out, where he was replaced by Ryan Hardie.

A hamstring strain had put paid to the Frenchman’s involvement, still, not bad for an eight minute cameo!

There was almost an immediate reply from Falkirk as Lee Miller’s looping header back across goal dropped just wide of the post.

On 22 minutes, Craigen had a go at goal against his future employers and although he didn’t quite catch his 18 yard volley properly, he still forced Rogers into a diving save.

Raith were much closer to extending their lead on the half hour as the ball broke to Hardie in the box off a defender but Rogers saved at point-blank range. Hardie then tried to be clever with the rebound but lobbed his effort onto the roof of net.

Falkirk had drifted out of the game but they created a gilt-edged chance on the stroke of half-time as Craig Sibbald fired across goal and a stretching Miller couldn’t get enough on it at the back post with the goal gaping.

Raith just about deserved the half-time lead in a closely fought game but Falkirk came out strong at the start of the second half and equalised just seconds after making a double sub.

Luke Leahy’s pass put Sibbald in behind the Raith defence and, from a narrow angle, the midfielder sent a lovely angled finish across goal that kissed the far post on its way into the net.

Rovers response was to go straight on the attack and they almost immediately got their noses back in front as Hardie raced through and forced Rogers into a good double save.

Falkirk were upping the pressure though and McKinnon made his own changes - bringing on Aidan Connolly and Ross Callachan on the hour mark as he looked to get a spark back into his team.

It worked as Raith regained the lead slightly against the run of play as Alston’s mistake allowed Hardie through on goal and the on-loan Rangers teenager scored his sixth of the season with a classy finishing, just rolling the ball past the outrushing ‘keeper and inside the far post.

Raith were now content to frustrate Falkirk and hit on the break and they almost made it 3-1 thanks to a super run from Longridge - who went box to box before firing into the side net.

The Bairns, like Raith, have had a habit of scoring late goals and they did so again with substitute Bob McHugh bulleting home a header from fellow sub Scott Shepherd’s 88th minute cross to salvage a point.
There was still time left for either side to find a winner, but a draw in the end was a fair result. If and when these two meet in the play-offs, you wouldn’t put your mortgage on picking a winner.

Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, McKeown, Benedictus, Barr, Davidson, Robertson (Callachan 60), Craigen (Connolly 62), Longridge, Panayiotou, Thomas (Hardie 8). Not used: Toshney, Anderson, Bates, Law.
Falkirk: Rogers, Leahy, McCracken, Vaulks, Taiwo (O’Hara 69), Alston, Baird (Shepherd 55), Sibbald, Kerr, Miller, Hippolyte (McHugh 55). Not used: Smith, Gallacher, Maybury, Mehmet.

Referee: Bobby Madden

Attendance: 2602