Greenock Morton 0 Raith Rovers 1
Raith Rovers kept up their magnificent form in Greenock yesterday as they grand-slammed Morton with another hard fought win effectively booking their place in the promotion play-offs.
While not mathematically there yet, Raith’s fourth win over one of their closest challengers moved them 13 points clear in fourth place with just five games left, and it would now take a miracle for either Morton or Queens to catch them.
The physical and mental efforts of the players to get themselves into this position have been quite remarkable, particularly when you think back to the sticky patch over mid-winter when Raith couldn’t buy a win, or a goal for that matter.
Since turning their form around after an influx of January signings, Rovers haven’t looked back. They have faced up to all their play-off rivals in a demanding make-or-break schedule and have beaten them all, home and away. No favours required.
The players take enermous credit for that, but it is also a reflection of the incredible job done by Ray McKinnon in his first season as manager of the Kirkcaldy club.
Despite a constantly changing starting XI, his side has remained well organised, hard to beat, resilient, and quite often entertaining to watch, especially in recent home games.
Combine his carefully thought through game plans with his clearly movitated players putting everything on the line then you have a winning mixture, and a Raith team the fans can be proud of.
Morton manager Jim Duffy summed it up perfectly afterwards when he said: “Credit to Raith Rovers, they just know how to win matches.”
McKinnon was remaining cautious over proclaiming his side as 100 per cent play-off bound, but he certainly appreciated the significance of yesterday’s victory.
“I’m really happy,” he said. “Today, the most important thing was the result.
“We knew a win down here would take Morton out the equation for the play-offs.
“We set up properly, got our goal, and I’m delighted.
“It’s still mathematically possible for Queen of the South to catch us, so we’ll just keep going and taking it game by game.”
Rovers were missing strikers Harry Panayiotou and Ryan Hardie due to international call-ups but a surprise drop out was Louis Longridge after two stand out displays against Hibs and St Mirren.
Returning to the side were Iain Davidson and Mark Stewart, who were both resting injuries and missed the midweek win in Paisley.
Given Raith’s advantage in the table, the onus was really on the home side to come out all guns blazing for the win in an attempt to close the gap.
However, Morton were simply stopped from doing so as Raith’s well balanced midfield, with Davidson protecting and Callachan, Connolly and Craigen pushing on, totally dictated the game.
Callachan, in particular, had an oustanding game, not only setting up the winner, but constantly finding space in a crowded midfield ensuring he had more touches of the ball, and was more influential in possession, than any other player on the park.
The 22-year-old took a while to get his sharpness back after a long lay-off with a dislocated shoulder, but his return to form has been just one of the many factors behind Rovers’ recent run. Add more goals and sharpen up the simple parts of his game and he could become the complete midfielder.
Raith almost made the perfect start on three minutes when Rory McKeown’s long throw was flicked on by Craig Barr and Stewart, on the stretch, knocked over at the back post. Callachan then tested Derek Gaston with a volley from 20 yards that the forced the ‘keeper into a diving catch.
A brilliant flowing Rovers move involving 4 or 5 players, started by Cuthbert rolling it out to Davidson, and ending with Connolly just overhitting a final ball to Stewart, was evidence of the visitors confidence in possession after a run of six wins in their last eight.
Rovers were comfortable - perhaps a little too comfortable - as concentration started to waver slightly approaching half-time and Morton had chances.
The Raith defence looked stretched for the first time in the game on 36 minutes as the ball fell to Stefan McCluskey in space in the box, but a goal-saving block from Kyle Benedictus prevented the winger’s effort from hitting the net.
A minute later, goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert was required to produce heroics with an amazing reaction save to prevent Benedictus from scoring an own goal from Michael Miller’s low driven cross.
Half-time allowed Rovers to regroup and a positive start to the second half produced the all-important opener in the 53rd minute.
Raith won the ball high up the park, and a lovely through pass between defenders from the impressive Callachan put James Craigen through on goal.
Gaston rushed out but Craigen got the slightest touch to take the ball past him and then fire into the empty net with defenders closing in.
Morton pushed bodies forward in an attempt to rescue their play-off hopes but the Raith defence put up formidable resistance.
Barr, Toshney, Benedictus, Davidson - they seemed to win everything that came into the box - while full backs Thomson and McKeown put the shackles on the home side’s two key weapons, wingers Bobby Barr and McCluskey, and both ended up being subbed.
Toshney got himself in the way of a goal-bound Declan McManus shot on the hour, while Cuthbert was at full stretch to tip over a superb long range effort from McCluskey.
There were claims for Ton penalty as Craig Barr blocked a shot from namesake Bobby Barr with his elbow - which was raised - but with the ball blasted from close range, it would’ve been a harsh decision and referee Stephen Finnie sided with the visitors.
Rovers had plenty chances to extend their lead on the break - late subs Joel Thomas could have either set up a goal or scored himself on a few occasions but the final shot or pass wasn’t quite good enough.
One goal proved to be enough, and there was a real sense of accomplishment at full-time as the players celebrated with the vocal travelling fans. The challenge now is to maintain the form for play-offs, and who knows, Raith could be the team to avoid.
Morton: Gaston, Miller, O’Ware, Gasparotto, Russell, McCluskey (McMullan 72), McKee, Forbes, Barr (Samuel 73), Johnstone, McManus. Not used: Kilday, Lamie, MacDonald, Scullion, McNeil.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, McKeown, Barr, Benedictus, Davidson, Callachan (Matthews 85), Connolly (Longridge 77), Craigen, Toshney, Stewart (Thomas 77). Not used: McCord, Anderson, Court, Law.
Referee: Stephen Finnie