All square in play-off after tough night in Brechin
Brechin City 1 Raith Rovers 1
Raith Rovers survived a tough night in Brechin to take a 1-1 draw back to Stark's Park for Saturday's play-off semi-final second leg.
A Declan McManus free-kick 20 minutes from time rescued the situation after the hosts led through a Ross Caldwell penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Rovers expected a difficult match against the side who finished fourth in League One, and that certainly proved the case as despite missing key players through injury, Brechin proved to be no pushovers on a tight and bobbly pitch.
Raith, who finished stronger than they started, will be hoping that home advantage will swing the tie in their favour come Saturday.
Boss John Hughes said: "It was a very tough night - everything that we expected.
"Although we were the better team in the first half we weren't quite at it.
"They got a penalty - and it was a penalty - but we had a couple of appeals we didn't get, and two goals chalked off, and you're thinking it might not be our night.
"But we chopped and changed it in the second half and it was a lot better. It was a great goal from Deccie from the free-kick.
"It's only half-time, the job's not done, so we rest up and go again on Saturday, but we're going to have to start a lot better.
"If we do that, on tonight's evidence, we should have enough win the game."
Hughes made only one change from the side that started the win over Ayr with Connor Brennan replacing the suspended Pavol Penksa.
As the ground filled up before kick-off it was clear that Raith's big travelling support outnumbered the home fans in a crowd of just over 1000.
After a frantic start, Raith had the ball in net on 16 minutes as defender Jean-Yves M'voto beat goalkeeper Graeme Smith for a high ball, but referee Don Robertson whistled for a foul and the away fans celebrations were cut short.
Rovers continued to press for an opener, with M'voto a constant threat at set pieces, but the visitors lacked a creative touch in open play against a physical Brechin back four.
It took the Championship side until the 39th minute to register a first attempt on target as Declan McManus fired a volley from 20 yards that forced Smith into a diving save.
Brechin had contained the visitors but had been unable to threaten themselves, until landing a sucker punch on the stroke of half-time.
M'voto lunged into a challenge on Andy Jackson in the box, and referee Don Robertson pointed to the spot.
Ross Caldwell sent Connor Brennan the wrong way to open the scoring.
Rovers thought they'd levelled instantly when Jason Thomson's cross was flicked home at the near post by Rudi Skacel but the linesman's flag was up, and the away side headed into the half-time break feeling aggrieved.
Raith signalled their intent at the start of the second half as McManus saw a goal-bound effort blocked for a corner, and Hughes made his move with top scorer Ryan Hardie coming off the bench to replace Skacel.
However, the home side were defending strongly and it took a piece of magic from McManus on 71 minutes to draw the visitors level.
A determined run from Ross Matthews resulted in him earning a free-kick 25 yards out, and the on loan Fleetwood striker hit a glorious side-foot effort into the corner of the net leaving Smith rooted to his line.
The goal seemed to sap energy from a tiring Brechin side, who appeared to have no fit substitutes, and Rovers started to launch waves of attacks.
The Fifers went close when a cross from sub Chris Johnston just needed a touch in front of goal but McManus and Hardie appeared to get in each other's way.
With two minutes left a Johnston corner fell to Kyle Benedictus at the back post and a fierce volley brought out a reflex save from Smith.
Raith would have preferred to take a victory back to Stark's Park, but a draw is far from a disaster.
It's all to play for on Saturday.
Brechin City: Smith, McLean, Dyer, Fusco, Lynas, Dale, Ford, Graham, Jackson, Caldwell, Watt. Not used: S.O'Neil, Love, Dods, Costello, P.O'Neil.
Raith Rovers: Brennan, Thomson, Benedictus, C.Barr, M'voto, Matthews, Davidson, Skacel (Hardie 57), Handling, McManus, Court (Johnston 68). Not used: Brian, Johnston, Stewart, B.Barr, Roberts, Hardie, Robertson.
Referee: Don Robertson.