Raith deny Rangers’ title party in rip-roaring finish

Raith players celebrate Louis Longridge's opener. - Credit - Fife Photo Agency -

Raith players celebrate Louis Longridge's opener. - Credit - Fife Photo Agency -

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Raith Rovers 3 Rangers 3

Raith Rovers have something of a welcome habit of snatching late, late goals this season, and their never-­say­-die attitude was exemplified once again, in Saturday’s exhilarating draw with Rangers.

Rarely has Stark’s Park witnessed a climax to a game that was as dramatic as the one which unfolded against the champions elect.

It appeared that the game was gone for Rovers, when Harry Panayiotou’s last­ minute penalty, which he won himself after a clumsy challenge from Rob Kiernan, was well tipped wide of the post by Wes Foderingham.

Instead, as the Rangers fans waited to celebrate the Championship title which the three points would have delivered, Leicester loanee Panayiotou redeemed himself in some style, by knocking home from close range after a melee in the away penalty area, sparking exultant scenes between the Raith players, fans and management team.

The draw doesn’t quite mathematically ensure Raith will finish in fourth spot and take the play-off place which goes with it, but in an extraordinary game that swung wildly from one direction to the next, it appeared for long spells that Raith wouldn’t get the point which their endeavour deserved.

A reasonably tight first 25 minutes, were blown away by four goals in just 13 minutes.

While Raith took the lead against the run ­of ­play, the away side came storming back, turning the match on its head to lead 2­1 just ten minutes later.

The fear for the home fans at that stage was that Rovers would wilt in such a situation, as has been the case countless times when a club has been in such a scenario against either of Glasgow’s big two. This Raith team are made of stronger stuff however.

The first ­half would end all ­square, and while Rangers took the lead again at the start of the second ­period, the late drama ensured the Rovers fans left the stadium with grins as wide as the Firth of Forth.

“I’m delighted for my players.” commented a clearly proud Ray McKinnon afterwards.

“Rangers were looking to win the league today, it looked like they were going to win it, but we had our own agenda too.

“We needed to take something from the game as well, and I thought my guys were great.

“Rangers are a top club, so for us to miss a penalty in the last minute, but still go on and get an equaliser, well, I’m delighted.

“We just don’t want to get beat. Touch wood if we get in the play­-offs, I don’t think anyone will fancy playing us, we’re a decent team.

McKinnon was also full of praise for last­gasp hero Panayiotou, adding: “He’s had two games in six days for his country, and scored two goals, so he’s a bit leggy, as he showed with his penalty!

“I’m delighted for him though, that’s his first goal for the club, and what a dramatic way to do it.”

Raith’s line up featured two changes from the last win over Morton.

Mark Stewart missed out after picking up an ankle knock in training, meaning Joel Thomas was handed the lone­ striker’s berth, while Aidan Connolly had to make do with a place on the bench, with Louis Longridge returning to the fold.

The latter more than justified his inclusion when he opened the scoring after 25 minutes with a wonderful finish.

Thomas picked up the ball on the right­ hand­ side following a Raith throw­-in, and while there didn’t appear to be any immediate danger following his pass inside to Longridge 25­ yards from goal, the winger elected to thump the bouncing ball first­ time, crashing it past the flat­-footed Foderingham who seemed caught unawares.

The goalkeeper then had to tip away a Thomas shot from a narrow angle as Raith looked to press home their advantage, but their lead didn’t last long.

The home side had already had a warning, when Kevin Cuthbert showed excellent reactions to repel a Harry Forrester shot from just outside the six­-yard area after the ball was pulled back to him from James Tavernier, but the respite was fleeting.

Barrie McKay’s corner­ was flighted into the box, and with the Raith players all stood stock-still, Forrester’s slight movement was enough to allow him to glance the ball in via the inside of the back­ post.

After the hard work and effort which had went into the opening half ­hour or so, it was a disappointingly soft goal to lose.

There would be even greater frustration five minutes later, when the away side took the lead.

Andy Halliday made his way down the left touchline, before slipping a pass to Forrester.

The goalscorer then showed fine awareness to pick out Michael O’Halloran’s run to the back ­post, and the winger made no mistake from close range.

With news filtering through of St Mirren’s equaliser against Hibernian, the Rangers fans, who made up the vast majority of the support inside the stadium, started to sense their club had one hand on the title, and the atmosphere was ratcheted up a notch.

It was the home fans who were singing just two minutes later though, in a topsy-turvy, breathless half of football.

Ross Callachan, who had been arguably Raith’s finest performer at that point, sent a long­ free-kick into the area, which was well won in the air by Iain Davidson. It fell just right for James Craigen, and his effort from just inside the area, somehow dribbled through Foderingham and into the net.

The Raith players would have had high hopes of building on their strong finish to the half, but there was a setback straight after the interval, when strong play from Halliday in the middle­ of­ the park, and a precise through pass to Kenny Miller, allowed the veteran to lash the ball past Cuthbert to make it 3­-2.

For all Rovers huffing and puffing in the second period, it appeared that it would all amount to nought, right up until the rip­-roaring final few seconds.

They might not be officially home­ and ­dried in the top four, but if, as expected Raith do get there, and can reproduce this form, allied with the confidence and belief which is clearly coursing through them at the moment, then they won’t just be heading into the play­-offs to make up the numbers.