Cup romance for Raith Rovers as Valentine's victory earns place in final

Raith captain Kyle Benedictus celebrates his opener. Pic: Fife Photo AgencyRaith captain Kyle Benedictus celebrates his opener. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Raith captain Kyle Benedictus celebrates his opener. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Partick Thistle 1 Raith Rovers 2

Raith Rovers fans were in love with their team on Valentine's night after a passionate performance at Firhill took them into the Challenge Cup final.

It was a night of cup romance for the Kirkcaldy side as goals from Kyle Benedictus and Regan Hendry sent them through at the expense of Partick Thistle, with Lewis Mansell's late strike proving nothing more than a consolation for the home side.

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Rovers will now face either Rangers U20s or Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the final on March 28 where they will be hoping to lift the trophy for a second time in six years having famously defeated Rangers at Easter Road in 2014.

Regan Hendry puts Raith 2-0 up. Pic: Fife Photo AgencyRegan Hendry puts Raith 2-0 up. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Regan Hendry puts Raith 2-0 up. Pic: Fife Photo Agency

It was a night to remember for the 500-plus travelling fans who were rewarded for making the trip to Glasgow on a cold Friday night rather than staying in the comfort of their own living rooms to watch the match on BBC Alba.

While Thistle may be in the division above, technically only one place separated the sides at the bottom of the Championship and the top of League One, so a competitive game was always on the cards, and so it proved.

Any team embroiled in a relegation battle and on a seven-game winless run would be considerable vulnerable and John McGlynn lined up his team to exploit that with three strikers in a revamped 4-3-3 shape.

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In the early stages Rovers struggled to get up the park as Thistle started strongest, with only an offside flag denying former Raith striker Brian Graham the opener, while Iain Davidson also made a superb block to deny the striker.

But gradually, helped by great industry in midfield, Raith started to get a grip on the game, and they stunned Firhill by snatching the lead on 31 minutes.

Kieron Bowie did brilliantly down the left, out-muscling his marker before forcing a corner, which Dylan Tait swung onto the head - or should that be shoulder - of captain Benedictus as he grabbed his first goal since 2016.

It was a well worked set piece, but the Thistle marking left a lot to be desired.

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MATCH BLOG: Partick Thistle 1 Raith Rovers 2: Challenge Cup semi-final as it happenedRobbie Thomson was called into his first save of note four minutes later as Thistle tried to hit back, turning behind a James Penrice effort with his leg as the Thistle left back had marauded into the Rovers box without being picked up.

Rovers reached half-time with their lead intact, and while Thistle had been causing numerous problems down the left, the Fifers had defended solidly for the most part.

The early stages of the second half belonged to McGlynn's men as they frustrated Thistle at every turn while threatening to double their lead in an outstanding period of play.

Steven MacLean went close on 49 minutes with a shot that deflected narrowly wide, while Bowie should have had his name on the scoresheet but blazed two good openings over the crossbar.

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Thistle then had 'keeper Scott Fox to thank twice in a minute as he first blocked Hendry's angled drive with his legs before reaching full-stretch to claw away a John Baird effort that was heading towards the top corner.

At the other end a Shea Gordon required a diving one-handed save from Thomson - his best of the night - which highlighted the need for Raith to make the most of their chances at the other end.

It was starting to look like the second goal would never come when Ross Matthews found himself in acres of space in the Jags box on 71 minutes only for his downward header to bounce up off the turf onto the crossbar.

Finally, the moment Rovers so richly deserved arrived just two minutes later when Hendry collected a pass from MacLean in the box, sold not one but two dummies to the Thistle defence, before planting a low shot into the corner past a motionless Fox.

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He sprinted the length of the park to celebrate with the Rovers fans, some of whom joined him on the pitch in joyful scenes. Travelling in numbers, putting together a display of flags and banners, and generating a deafening noise all night, the supporters certainly played their part.

The effort of the Raith players was personified when Kieran McDonald went down with cramp, but having used all three subs, the left back had no choice but to continue, despite clearly struggling.

Up front, Baird and MacLean, at 34 and 37 respectively, resembled a pair of teenagers as they closed down defenders and chased lost causes, while all throughout the team, players battled hard to win their individual battles.

Thistle had been outplayed and outworked in the second half, but the home side threw everything at Raith in the final 10 minutes, and were rewarded when sub Mansell glanced home a header from a Cardle cross with seven minutes left.

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And in the final minute, the home side came agonisingly close to forcing extra-time when another sub, Mitch Austin, found space in the box and fired an effort off the inside of the post before Rovers scrambled clear.

It was a slice of luck that the Stark's Park side had earned, and they dug deep throughout injury-time before celebrating the final whistle.

Rovers already had 12 cup finals left ... now make that 13.