Raith Rovers tactical changes pay off in first leg victory over Forfar Athletic

Jamie Gullan celebrates his match-winning strike. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Jamie Gullan celebrates his match-winning strike. Pic: Fife Photo Agency

Raith Rovers 2 Forfar Athletic 1

Raith Rovers will take a one-goal lead to Station Park on Saturday after a change in tactics helped them secure a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Forfar Athletic.

Goals from Kevin Nisbet and substitute Jamie Gullan, either side of a John Baird - who else - equaliser, provided the Kirkcaldy side with the minimum advantage they wanted on a night where hard work and resilience took precedence over pretty football.

Once the team sheets were handed out, all the pre-match talk was over manager John McGlynn's surprise line-up, with Forfar boss Jim Weir even admitting afterwards it took him a while to figure out what formation the home side were playing.

But having watched his team concede far too many goals throughout his second spell in charge - keeping just one clean sheet in 18 league games - McGlynn switched to five at the back, finding room for four centre-halves in a revamped starting XI.

It was a bold time to try a new, unfamiliar formation in such an important match, but having worked on things behind the scenes in training, the manager's gamble paid off with a much more solid performance in defence, while still producing the goals required to win the match.

Going forward, the team shape looked awkward at times, particularly down the right where Dave McKay, a natural centre-back, was asked to play wing-back, but he kept it simple and made it work, while on the other side, Callum Crane seemed to benefit most from the change in system as he looked far more comfortable at left wing-back, and his energetic performance up and down the park was a key factor in the victory.

In midfield, where Ross Matthews seemed to do the work of two at times, Rovers will hope to have more control of the game in the away leg, but overall, while not everything ran like clockwork, McGlynn can be pleased with the majority of his decisions.

"The goals against column will tell you we've lost too many goals, so we tried something," said the Raith boss.

"There was still an intent to score goals and win the game, but we weren't as open, and they didn't create an awful lot.

"We'd worked on it for two or three weeks. We'll assess it now and see what we do for Saturday, but we're delighted with the victory."

A central defence trio of Kyle Benedictus, Iain Davidson and Euan Murray gave Rovers a solid base to build from, and had it not been for a stunning, opportunistic strike from Baird - a player who just continues to torment his former club - then Rovers would have had that elusive clean sheet.

Forfar will still fancy their chances at home, and rightly so given Rovers horrible record in Angus, but if McGlynn's men can be as solid in the second leg, then there is a chance that they can get themselves over the line, particularly if Nisbet continues to produce the goods at the other end, as he did with tonight's well-worked opener.

With five minutes until half-time, the game had been nip and tuck, with few chances at either end, when the striker dropped deep to start a move that finished with defender Murray getting forward to the left wing position and delivering a terrific cross for Nisbet to plant a downward header beyond Marc McCallum.

Perhaps too keen to get to half-time with their lead intact, Raith's proceeded to sit deep and they were punished a minute before the whistle when Baird was afforded too much space at the edge of the box and he fired high past Dean Lyness into the postage stamp corner.

That took the wind out the home sails during the break, but another strong decision from McGlynn, bringing on youngster Gullan for Liam Buchanan at half-time, proved pivotal as the on-loan Hibs striker scored his first goal in senior football to restore the Rovers lead on the 62-minute mark.

Nisbet's free-kick attempt from 25 yards struck the wall and deflected to Gullan inside the box, where the 19-year-old's quick reactions enabled him to get a shot away before he was closed down that flew into the net off the inside of the post.

That, and his overall contribution to the second half, will have put the teenager into contention for a start at Station Park on Saturday.

The game then became stifled, which suited Rovers, with a spate of niggly challenges resulting in a flurry of bookings from referee Colin Steven.

As full-time approached Rovers started to fall back into the trap of sitting off and Lyness heroics were required after Jamie Bain broke the offside trap and attempted to take the ball around the 'keeper, who did extremely well to dive at the forward's feet, stick out a glove and palm it to safety.

Bain also had a headed chance at the back post but Crane did just enough to put him off.

Rovers did not take any risks in pursuing a third goal, but there was plenty endeavour in the side and Gullan was almost rewarded for his constant closing down of defenders, pouncing on a slack clearance in the 90th minute but his shot from the angle was held by McCallum.

A relatively low crowd of 2007, with less than 1700 home fans, for the biggest game of the season, and reduced admission prices, perhaps reflected the lack of belief among the support following a largely disappointing league campaign.

But those who did attend will have been encouraged by the fight in the side, which was a significant improvement on some of the softer league displays that resulted in too many dropped points in the title race.

In a season where Rovers have often played expansive, attacking football but failed to win, this more resilient, hard-to-beat approach was more like the McGlynn teams of old who may not have won any prizes for style, but who, more often than not, got the job done.

There is a long way to go, but maybe, just maybe, he has found a formula that can take the club back to Championship. Time will tell.