Play-off rivals brushed aside as Raith strengthen top four grip

Raith Rovers 2 Queen of the South 0

Raith Rovers took a huge step towards the promotion play-offs with an impressive victory over nearest challengers Queen of the South at Stark’s Park on Tuesday night.

A close game was expected between two teams separated by just four points, but Rovers were significantly stronger and hungrier than Queen’s in every department as they extended their lead over the Dumfries club to seven points in the race for fourth place.

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Afterwards, Raith boss Ray McKinnon expressed delight with his team’s convincing display in what was their fourth straight home victory, including nine points against play-off rivals.

“I was really pleased with the boys tonight, and they really went about their business properly,” he said.

“In the last couple of games we’ve lost control at certain points, but tonight I thought we were in control for long periods.

“They are a very good side so that shows you how well we’ve played. It was a really strong performance, so I’m obviously delighted.”

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Raith are now in a strong position to qualify for the Premiership promotion play-offs for the first time, but McKinnon stressed that nobody is getting carried away.

“We’re not even looking at it like that,” he said.

“We’ve just got to keep playing and see where we end up.

“If we get into the play-offs, great, if we don’t we’ll regroup for next season.

“Now that we’re in that position we’ll give it everything we’ve got to try and stay there.

“It will be tough because there’s a lot of teams trying to chase us.

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“There will be twists and turns before the end of the season, but we’re in a good position.”

Raith made one change from the weekend win over St Mirren, with Leicester loanee Harry Panayiotou dropping to the bench, and James Craigen recalled in his place.

Lewis Toshney kept his place in the centre of midfield, with manager McKinnon explaining that the natural defender learned from sitting too deep in Saturday’s win over St Mirren.

“Against Rangers, Toshney played in holding midfield role in front of back four, but in a three,” he said.

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“On Saturday he was playing in a two but still doing the same things - sitting in there.

“Tonight he was more up on the game, winning things, and it gave us a great balance.

“I thought he was outstanding along with many other players.”

The match was stopped after seven minutes when Iain Davidson was knocked unconscious following a sickening clash of heads with Dale Hilson.

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The Rovers defender lay motionless on the turf while receiving lengthy treatment before being replaced by Craig Barr, and whisked off to hospital in an ambulance.

Thankfully, the 32-year-old recovered and was allowed home the same night.

James Fowler’s men showed Rovers a lot of respect in the first half, sitting back with plenty men behind the ball, but they almost gifted the hosts an opener on 16 minutes.

Ross Callachan’s ball over the top was left by defender and goalkeeper to each other, allowing Mark Stewart to nip in but he ran the ball out of play.

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Rovers got the lead their assertiveness deserved on 31 minutes when Ryan Hardie’s shot was blocked near the line, and Stewart was first to react to the loose ball, firing home from six yards for his 10th goal of the season.

After carrying the burden of the Raith attack on his own at times this season, Stewart now appears to be revelling in the competition, and support he now has from recent signings Hardie, Panayiotou and Aidan Connolly.

Queens had a half chance to draw level in their only notable attack of the first half when Kevin Cuthbert flapped at a corner but Callum Tapping blasted high over the bar from the edge of the box.

Raith doubled their lead on the stroke of half-time from the penalty spot after Chris Higgins was penalised for blocking Hardie’s strike with an outstretched arm.

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Craigen stepped up and sent ‘keeper Robbie Thomson the wrong way from the spot.

While Queens improved slightly after the break, Raith were still winning all the 50-50s, playing the sharper football, and creating the best chances.

A third goal would have completely killed Queens off but Craigen fired over from 20 yards, before Stewart saw a volley from Rory McKeown’s deep cross deflected into the side net.

With centre-half duo Barr and Benedictus imperious at the back, and Toshney, Callachan and Craigen picking up every second ball in midfield, Raith continued to both stifle the visitors, and create opening for themselves.

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The best chance of the second half arrived on 70 minutes as Craigen followed a brilliant run and pass sent Hardie through on goal, but this time, Saturday’s hat-trick hero was denied by a superb save from ‘keeper Thomson.

Hardie continued to hunt for this goal and a 25 yard blast was fumbled behind by Thomson, before another powerful effort after some dazzling footwork in the box was parried by the goalie.

In the end, Raith did not need any more goals as they made it through to full-time without Cuthbert being forced into any action other than a few simple catches. The team that wanted it more, won it.

Raith’s recent home results, combined with the overall commitment shown by the players, has really brought the buzz back to Stark’s Park. Long may it continue.

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Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, McKeown, Toshney, Davidson (Barr 13), Benedictus, Callachan, Craigen, Connolly (Longridge 74), Stewart (Panayiotou 73), Hardie. Not used: Anderson, Matthews, Thomas, Law.

Queen of the South: Thomson, Kidd, Dowie, Brownlie (Lyle 45), Higgins, Conroy, Tapping (Russell 45), Hutton, Pickard, Hilson (Oliver 68), Marshall. Not used: Harris, Jacobs, Murdoch, Oliver, Atkinson.

Referee: Nick Walsh.

Attendance: 1389.