Raith Rovers move two points clear in League One after derby classic
East Fife 3 Raith Rovers 5
The final match of the decade proved a memorable one for Raith Rovers after emerging victorious from this derby thriller at sold-out Bayview.
The Kirkcaldy side were once again ravaged by injury, illness and suspension but the result ensured that, unlike last week, the story was not about the eight who were missing, rather the gutsy performance of the only 14 players available.
Five goals including doubles from Jamie Gullan and Kieran MacDonald, and a first senior goal for the hugely impressive Dylan Tait, were required to see off a Fife side who refused to give in despite trailing by three goals in the second half.
John McGlynn had limited options but the return of captain Kyle Benedictus from suspension restored balance to the defence with Jamie Watson returned to his natural right back position, and MacDonald able to resume his Andy Robertson-esque forages down the left.
The appearance of Tait in midfield came as a surprise, the 18-year-old having seen little action of late, but his contribution was immense as he helped his team boss the game in one of the most impressive first halves of the season.
Rovers were up for it from the off, their shape and assertiveness fully meriting a 3-1 half-time lead, which became 4-1 shortly after the break, before East Fife hit back in the second half, scoring twice to reduce the deficit to one, and turning the travelling support into nervous wrecks.
But just when the visitors were bracing themselves for a nervy finish, and possibly fearing the worst, Rovers players regained their composure in closing stages, helped by fresh legs from the bench, before killing the home side off with a fifth in stoppage time.
The joyous scenes that followed in the away end will only reinforce the strengthening bond between the team and the fans, who are certainly appreciating the efforts of the players in establishing a two point lead at the top of a fiercely competitive League One despite all the hardship.
Rovers took the lead on eight minutes when Watson flighted a ball into the box that was flicked on by John Baird to Gullan in space six yards out and he thumped a volley beyond Brett Long.
Despite establishing an early foothold Rovers appeared edgy in defence and a sloppy pass from goalkeeper Ross Munro went straight to Anton Dowds who raced into the box and fired narrowly wide.
Rovers were, however, the better side by some distance and they doubled their lead in spectacular style on 22 minutes when MacDonald whipped the ball over Long from the left wing - more likely an overhit cross that an attempt to shoot but either way the goalkeeper was left grasping at fresh air as the ball nestled inside his far post.
Any thoughts of a straightforward victory were wiped out within seven minutes as Scott Agnew dragged East Fife back into the game with a stunning free-kick from 25 yards that curled over the wall and beyond the reach of Munro.
The setback did not affect Rovers' overall dominance and the away side restored their two-goal advantage on 37 minutes when MacDonald bombed forward, leaving defender Stewart Murdoch on his backside before firing low beyond Long from just inside the box.
As left backs go, there can't be many around the lower leagues in Scotland producing the form of the 26-year-old part-timer.
Rovers left the field at half-time to a standing ovation from their fans but they were less pleased with their team's defending at the start of the second half as Dave McKay and Munro left a ball to each other allowing Dowds to nip in, only for the goalkeeper to redeem himself by turning the striker's effort over the bar.
From that let-off, Rovers took advantage to open up a 4-1 lead with a breakaway goal as Grant Anderson ran the length of the Fife half before seeing a shot blocked, which fell to Tait, who got his reward for supporting the attack with a toe-poked finish beating Long.
If he was tired from his lung-bursting run forward then he didn't show it in his celebration as he raced towards the Raith support with wide-eyes and a beaming smile - a moment to cherish for the youngster.
Rovers allowed a comfortable position to slip from their grasp as naive defending - leaving themselves short at the back when three goals up - allowed East Fife to score a second as Dowds found acres of space in the box to beat Munro.
Had there been any defensive players available on the bench then McGlynn may have taken this opportunity to shore things up, but without any such an option at his disposal, Rovers now looked distinctly vulnerable as East Fife began to flood forward.
And when the deficit was reduced to one with 20 minutes still remaining - Ryan Wallace turning and finishing well from the edge of the box - there was a real possibility of three points being thrown away.
There was one let-off for the away side when a poorly defended corner kick saw the ball drop to sub Pat Slattery but he somehow missed the target with his volley.
Thereafter though, Rovers put their travelling fans at ease with a thoroughly professional final 10 minutes, retaining possession and drawing fouls, during which time Regan Hendry was subjected to some particularly heavy handed treatment as he used his sublime ball control to frustrate the home side.
Having kept East Fife hemmed in near their own corner flag half for the majority of the stoppage time, Gullan then pounced for his second, and a clinching fifth goal, with a thumping finish on the angle to spark wild celebrations in the away end.
Defensively, Raith were far from convincing at times and that won't be glossed over by the manager during his video analysis with his players this week, but the overall effort of the players could not be faulted, and scoring five goals away from home against a title rival is superb.
McGlynn too deserves enormous credit for coming up with a winning game-plan when a depleted squad meant most supporters beforehand were happy to settle for a draw.
The manager and players will be the toast of Kirkcaldy over New Year, with performances like this promising a prosperous 2020.