Ayr United 3 Raith Rovers 0
Raith Rovers endured a torrid night at Somerset Park as they were soundly beaten by league leaders Ayr United.
The Kirkcaldy men were second best in all aspects of the game and were fortunate to avoid a heavier defeat as they fell three points behind their title rivals.
There have been signs in recent games that Raith were struggling for form and this was the night where their problems really came home to roost.
The lack of defensive cover was exposed as manager Barry Smith again resorted to fielding Scott Robertson in defence, a tactic that had delivered results and clean sheets in previous games, albeit at the expense of his considerable presence in midfield.
But while the midfielder has more than held his own in an unfamiliar position, the superior movement and hold up play of Ayr’s forwards proved too much for a makeshift defence.
While filling in at the back, Robertson’s experience has been notably missed in the middle of the park, none more so than at Somerset Park where Raith were completely overrun.
He was moved back into his natural position early in the second half but by then Raith were 2-0 behind and chasing the game. Any chance to influence the game was gone.
It was also a night where the board’s decision to withdraw funding for the emergency loan signing of an experienced Premiership centre-half came back to haunt them.
John Sim explained at the recent AGM that the plug was pulled on the deal at the 11th hour because he wanted to see the development squad players given their chance, which is an admirable stance, but in a season where promotion is the be-all-and-end-all, the directors need to reassess whether the number one priority is bringing through youths, or winning the league, and whether the manager believes it is possible to do both. If not, then any available resources should go towards bringing in defensive cover, although that ship may have already sailed.
Losing his two most experienced centre-halves to injury has certainly caused major problems for Smith, but his reluctance to use teenager Dave McKay from the start would suggest that, in his view, the young centre-half is not quite ready for a regular start at first team level.
His lack of options left Smith with a risky choice either way, but with the benefit of hindsight, the way this game panned out, playing the youngster in defence, protected by Robertson at the base of a five-man midfield, might have been a better way to go.
This match, however, was not lost on that decision. It was decided all over the park as Raith lost all their collective and individual battles.
They were no better or worse than Ayr in the opening exchanges as the teams sized each other up, but once the hosts got the early breakthrough, all belief and composure drained from the Fifers.
The opener arrived on 16 minutes as Ayr passed their way into the Raith box with ease where Lawrence Shankland was afforded too much time to turn and shoot low past Graeme Smith.
It was almost 2-0 three minutes later as Michael Rose connected with a corner kick and John Herron was forced to clear off the line.
Ayr’s second goal was only delayed until the 22nd minute when Robbie Crawford cut in from the right and smashed a superb effort in off the crossbar from 18 yards.
Raith were struggling to do anything other than clear their lines as Ayr took a firm control of the game, almost going three up when Robertson misjudged a bounce to let Michael Moffat through, but Jason Thomson got back to put the striker under pressure, and the shot flew over the bar.
The opening half had been a tough watch for the travelling Raith fans and things looked like getting worse as top scorer Lewis Vaughan hobbled off the park at half-time.
He re-emerged for the second half but was clearly still struggling, and after completing the 90 minutes, he left Somerset with an ice pack strapped to his knee.
Smith’s half-time team talk prompted an early second half response from his side as Raith went straight on the attack from kick-off, with Liam Buchanan holding the ball up for Vaughan, who went for the near post from 18 yards only to find the side-netting.
Ayr raced up the other end and won a free-kick in a dangerous position, and after Smith spilled Rose’s powerful drive, the ‘keeper somehow recovered to prevent Moffat scoring the rebound.
Just five minutes after the restart, Raith made a double change with Dario Zanatta, who has looked far more effective as a sub than a starter, withdrawn for Jonny Court, making only his second league appearance of the season.
Ross Matthews was also taken off, replaced by McKay, who moved into defence and allowed Robertson to take up his natural position in midfield.
The changes sparked a reaction and, for a brief spell, Raith rallied.
Helped by the more physical presence of Court winning knock-downs and flick-ons, the visitors started to get up the park and they had the ball in the net on 61 minutes, but Robertson’s diving header from Vaughan’s cross was ruled out for offside.
Ayr, however, quickly re-established control and were awarded a penalty on 65 minutes when McHattie clipped Crawford in the box.
Moffat, however, was far too casual with his spot kick, which he ballooned over the bar to let Rovers off the hook.
Raith went 4-3-3 but they were still getting no joy, and as the game entered the closing stages there was little signs that they were capable of mounting a comeback.
Greig Spence, who replaced Robertson with 13 minutes to go, had a decent effort from distance that Jordan Hart saved low to his right, but in truth, a third Ayr goal looked much more likely.
And sub striker Craig Moore put the seal on a dominant home performance in the final minute with a cushioned header to give the Honest Men the winning marging they thoroughly deserved.
While the result was disappointing, and the manner of it somewhat disheartening, if there is one positive for Raith to cling to, it is that there is still a long way to go, and the manager will have learned a lot about his team.
To put things in perspective, Raith are only three points behind Ayr with a game in hand, and before last night they had the best defensive record in the country. For the most part Smith and his players have been excellent.
But with the core of the team that started the season torn away – Davidson and Benedictus in defence, Robertson and Callachan in midfield – there are issues that need addressed.
Getting injured players back will help, but rediscovering a winning system, and restoring team confidence, is the solution.
There is certainly plenty to work on.
Ayr United: Hart, Higgins, Boyle, Rose, Geggan, Moffat (Moore 71), Crawford, Ferguson, Adams, Shankland, Docherty. Not used: Avci, Forrest, McDaid, McGuffie, Faulds, Reid.
Raith Rovers: Smith, Thomson, McHattie, Herron, Murray, Robertson (Spence 77), Buchanan, Vaughan, Barr, Matthews (McKay 50), Zanatta (Court 50). Not used: Brian, Osei, Watson, Berry.
Referee: Barry Cook