Raith Rovers cling to comeback hopes after play-off first leg defeat to Queen of the South

Dave McKay (left) scores the goal that gives Raith Rovers hope for the second leg. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Dave McKay (left) scores the goal that gives Raith Rovers hope for the second leg. Pic: Fife Photo Agency

Raith Rovers 1 Queen of the South 3

In a season of epic footballing comebacks, Raith Rovers will need to produce one of their own in Dumfries on Saturday if they are to achieve promotion following a 3-1 defeat to Queen of the South in the Championship play-off final first leg at Stark's Park last night.

To an extent, the outcome was harsh on the Kirkcaldy side, who were sucker punched not once, but twice during an opening half hour when they were arguably the better side, although a largely disappointing second half led to the loss of a third goal, and left the team staring firmly at another season in League One.

A late rally was rewarded with a Dave McKay goal four minutes from time, which lifted the mood in the stadium and in the dressing room after the game, giving the Fifers a slim lifeline to cling onto heading to Palmerston Park on Saturday.

But in order to emulate the achievements of Liverpool and Tottenhem in the recent Champions League semi-finals, Rovers will need to score first in the second leg, while also keeping a clean sheet - something they haven't managed in any away game in 2019.

Rovers made one change from the side that started the semi-final second leg on Saturday, dropping Jamie Barjonas to the bench with Nathan Flanagan - an impact sub at Station Park - taking his place in midfield.

The home side started at a terrific tempo, pushing into the Queens half from kick-off and, in these early stages, the omens were good.

But the defensive frailties from the league campaign resurfaced when, under little pressure, Raith capitulated with the loss of two goals in five minutes.

The Queens opener on 17 minutes stemmed from a simple loss of concentration as, from a throw-in on the right, the ball was fed to Lyndon Dykes, who had drifted away from Nat Wedderburn into space at the edge of the area.

With space to run into, the striker showed the class that prompted Livingston to sign him and loan him back to the Dumfries club in January with a sweet finish with the outside of his boot finding the bottom corner from 18 yards.

Despite the setback Rovers continued to have the upper hand and Kevin Nisbet pounced on a slip from defender Michael Doyle to gallop into the box but, in a situation where you would back him to score, the striker curled his effort wide of the far post.

Further back the pitch, Rovers still seemed to be reeling from the loss of the opening goal and, sure enough, they conceded again - this time possession was lost from their own throw-in and Queens quickly fed the ball across the box to Stephen Dobbie.

Despite McKay and Iain Davidson doubling up on the Championship's most lethal forward, he managed to sell them both a dummy to hit the by-line before providing a cutback for unmarked Connor Murray to slide home from six yards.

Queens cutting edge forward play was to be admired, and makes you wonder why they ended up in relegation play-off place, but the Rovers defence had been painfully slow to react to the danger on both occasions.

Rovers only saving grace at this stage was that the tie still had 160 minutes to go, and two gilt-edged chances should have had them level by half-time.

A long-range volley from Nathan Flanagan was gathered by goalkeeper Alan Martin, who then attempted to throw the ball out to his defence, only to change his mind halfway through, resulting in the ball spilling loose in the penalty area.

Flanagan got there first, and the ricochet off the 'keeper landed at Gullan around 25 yards from an open goal.

Had the Hibs loanee put his foot through the ball he would have almost certainly brought the home side level, but perhaps being overly cautious in making sure he hit the target, his low side-foot attempt lacked power allowing defender Michael Doyle to race back and deflect the ball away from goal.

Then Rovers produced the move of the match, which certainly deserved a goal, as Gullan's through ball split the Queen's defence, finding Crane racing through on goal, but the left back was incredibly unfortunate to see his effort strike the inside of Martin's leg and deflect wide of the goal.

If their efforts had been rewarded Rovers would have been, at worst, level at half-time but perhaps deflated by this, they completely lost their way in the second half.

The positive, purposeful football of the opening 45 was replaced by forlorn punts up the park, with the link between midfield and attack broken.

It was evident before the hour mark that the spark had gone but John McGlynn waited until the 70th minute to make his first change, bringing Barjonas on for Wedderburn.

However, it wasn't until the double change eight minutes from time, bringing Chris Duggan and Craig McGuffie off the bench, that Rovers started to cause Queens problems again, by which time a third goal had been lost.

A poorly defended free-kick saw Darren Browlie head back across goal for Dykes to glance home his second from close range.

A 3-0 deficit and the tie dead would have been dead before the team boarded the bus to Dumfries, even more so had Dean Lyness not managed to touch Dykes effort onto the post to prevent Queens scoring a fourth, but the 86th minute goal from McKay has given Rovers hope.

Euan Murray bulldozed his way into the box and his low drilled cross was only partially cleared allowing McKay to thump it towards goal from 16 yards, the power proving too much for Martin, whose outstretched leg only diverted it into the corner of the net.

Roared on by a rejuvenated home crowd, and with Duggan making his presence felt, Rovers went in search of another in the short time remaining, and almost got it when McGuffie's terrific cross was headed towards goal by Nisbet, but Martin dived low to his right to make the save.

In the end, time ran out and, with the home leg to come, Queens are now overwhelming favourites to retain their Championship status.

Rovers put a lot into the game, which was recognised by some appreciative applause at full-time, but a combination of missed chances, ropey defending and taking too long to make changes has left them with it all to do.

To achieve promotion from this position will take a special performance, but if the effort from last night can be matched by a more clinical approach at both ends of the park, then it might not to be over just yet.