Gullan shines and Baird off the mark as Raith Rovers return to top of League One

Raith Rovers striker John Baird celebrates making it 2-0 against Stranraer. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Raith Rovers striker John Baird celebrates making it 2-0 against Stranraer. Pic: Fife Photo Agency

Raith Rovers 3 Stranraer 1

Raith Rovers got back to winning ways with a deserved victory over a Stranraer side who posed them some problems.

A well-taken double from Jamie Gullan took his season's tally to five, moving the on-loan Hibs forward into the top scorer position, while John Baird finally got off the mark with his first goal of the season in his third spell with the club.

Keeping up the tradition of ex-Rovers scoring on their return to Stark's Park, it was Mark Stewart who grabbed a consolation for the visitors, but John McGlynn's men held onto the two-goal margin of victory that moved them back top of League One on goal difference.

Important to the Raith victory was the performance in midfield of Ross Matthews and Brad Spencer who exerted control throughout, both in terms of their energy off the ball, and making good use of possession when they got on it.

Four changes were made to the side that started the 2-0 defeat at Peterhead the previous week with Ross Munro replacing David McGurn in goals, while Steven Anderson took the place of the suspended Iain Davidson in defence.

The return to a back three also meant a recall for Dave McKay after a month as an unused substitute, with the final change seeing Baird handed only his second league start of the campaign, and his first at Stark's Park.

The visitors were forced into a change after just five minutes when Ryan Thomson suffered what was later to be revealed as a fractured cheekbone in a clash of heads with a team mate, and it was former Raith front man Stewart who came off the bench to a respectful ripple of applause from the home fans.

It took Rovers a while to warm up on a chilly afternoon, but after getting a scrappy first 15 minutes out of the way, they proceeded to get on the ball and, patiently, set about finding a breakthrough.

The first chance fell to Kieron Bowie, with brilliant set-up from Gullan releasing the striker into the box but with just Max Currie to beat, but the shot lacked power and the goalkeeper was able to gather at the second attempt.

Rovers were through on goal again just moments later when Michael Miller spotted the run of Baird, but from the edge of the box, the striker's attempted lob was too high and sailed harmlessly over the Stranraer bar.

The game was now being played in the visitors half, with Kieran MacDonald finding plenty space down the left, but a lack of end product was a notable frustration.

Stranraer had barely been in the Raith half, let alone their box, but they almost landed a sucker punch in the 44th minute when a shot from Scott Robertson deflected narrowly wide, then from the corner, which was only partially cleared, another shot from James Hilton drew a one-handed save from Munro.

Having committed players forward for the first time in the game, the visitors were immediately caught out at the other end, as Gullan charged down Lee Hamilton, the sole defender in the visitors half, to run clear through on goal.

With a lot of ground to make up, and plenty time, Gullan showed superb composure to round Currie and slot the ball into the empty net.

That was the final act of the first half, and Raith carried the confidence boost into the start of the second half, wrapping up the win by the hour mark with a quickfire double.

Daniel Armstrong had replaced the injured MacDonald at the interval and he played a stunning pass in behind the Stranraer defence for Baird to race onto and fire an unstoppable right-foot shot from 18 yards across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.

It was not quite the Ramsdens Cup final celebrations, but having had to wait seven appearances to break his duck, it was a clearly elated Baird who celebrated in his trademark style as he ran along the track in front of the South Stand.

The Blues almost pulled one back when Connor McManus forced Munro into tipping a powerful effort over the bar from the edge of the box, and there was enough menace in a more positive Stranraer second half to worry the home side.

At the other end, Rovers were also finding more space then they had in the first half, and Gullan put the match out of sight as he cut inside and let fly with the 'Hammer' right foot from the edge of the box, the ball flashing past Currie before he had barely had the chance to move.

As well as his goals, the 20-year-old has upped his overall game from his first loan spell last season and is becoming a key player for the Kirkcaldy side, who will be keen to retain his services beyond January.

Rovers had a flurry of chances to add to their tally with Bowie forcing Currie to tip over at full stretch with a 20-yard strike while the 'keeper somehow kept Baird out after the striker met an Armstrong corner inside the six-yard box.

Jamie Watson then replaced an injured Miller, with the loss of both wing-backs creating an imbalance in the Rovers defence, which Stranraer punished in the 75th minute, Stewart sweeping home a cut-back from Cameron Elliot.

In the knowledge that a second Stranraer goal would create panic, there were some uncomfortable moments for Rovers in the closing stages as the visitors took control for the first time in the game.

However, thanks to some timely blocks and some good handling from Munro, the home side made it to full-time without further damage, with only a marginal offside flag denying Baird a second, and Raith a fourth, as the striker nodded home from close range.

After three draws and a defeat, this was an essential three points for the Fifers to reestablish some positive momentum, and a good day got even better when it was confirmed during McGlynn's post-match media conference that Regan Hendry's knee injury is not as bad as feared, and that he could be back in the fold within a fortnight.

Rovers can now go into their cup double header in good spirits, and although they are likely to have been knocked off top spot by the time they return to league duty in over two weeks time, they can be safe in the knowledge that this win has put them in a healthy position.