Raith Rovers 3 Morton 2
Raith Rovers showed remarkable willpower to defeat and deflate play-off rivals Morton in an exhilirating match at Stark’s Park yesterday.
Rovers reclaimed the lead immediately after conceding an equaliser, not once but twice, during an action-packed second half to move four points clear in the race for fourth place.
A draw would have been enough to keep Rovers ahead of the visitors, who were on a high after a stunning 3-0 win at Easter Road in midweek, but the Kirkcaldy men simply refused to settle for a point.
While the performance was far from perfect, the determination to win was evident throughout, particularly when answering Morton’s 88th minute equaliser with a 90th minute winner, in an exciting ending that will live long in the memory.
A month ago, the loss of two goals would have almost certainly killed off any hopes of victory, but the new signings have energised the attack, with seven goals in the past three games helping the team to seven points from nine, and restoring confidence throughout the side.
Raith made one change from the 2-0 win over Livingston the previous week.
Craig Barr was unlucky to drop out after a solid return from injury, but Lewis Toshney is having a great season, and he was recalled from suspension at centre-half.
The game was seven minutes old when Raith took the lead with a contender for goal of the season.
Rory McKeown picked up a clearance inside the Morton half, drove into space then unleashed a powerful, swerving strike from 35 yards that dipped under the crossbar.
The element of surprise combined with the blinding sun all played a part, but the sweetness of the strike and movevement on the ball was the key factor. Nobody expected McKeown to hit it from so far out - least of all stunned goalkeeper Derek Gaston who was left grasping at fresh air.
Raith were on the back foot for spells, but they had a chance to extend their lead on 23 minutes when Aidan Connolly’s cross dropped to Harry Panayiotou on the edge of the box but he snatched at the chance, sending his volley harmlessly wide.
Raith had a solid first half defensively with Kevin Cuthbert not called into a save despite some Morton pressure, mainly via dangerous set pieces as referee Mat Northcroft persistently penalised home defenders in a physical battle with the Greenock front two.
Rovers made a poor start to the second half, giving the ball away cheaply and they were fortunate on 56 minutes when Declan McManus sent a free header over the bar.
That seemed to be the second half wake up call as a minute later, midfielder Scott Robertson sent a 20-yard piledriver towards the bottom corner that Gaston finger-tipped wide at full stretch.
Robertson’s all action display, arguably his best since joining the club, deserved a goal as he appeared to cover every blade of grass in thwarting and setting up attacks at either end of the field.
Cuthbert was called into serious action for the first time on the hour mark as Joe McKee drove into space 25 yards out and his fierce strike was pushed behind by the diving keeper.
A key change saw Raith bring on striker Ryan Hardie on 64 minutes in place of James Craigen, with Mark Stewart moving into a wide left position in an attempt to shore things up.
However, Morton grabbed an equaliser in the 73rd minute as a sweeping move ended with McManus knocking home Paul McMullen’s low cross from close range.
Raith’s response was immediate as almost straight from kick-off, Hardie’s ball sent Panayioutou racing through and after a last-ditch challenge from a defender, Connolly collected the loose ball and showed superb composure to round the advancing Gaston and stroke the ball into the empty net.
That should have been three points secured for Raith but a defensive mix-up in the 88th minute led to Morton’s second equaliser.
Lewis Toshney’s attempted clearance only succeeded in giving McManus a clear run on goal and although Iain Davidson managed to race back and deflect the striker’s initial effort onto the post, McManus followed up to force it over the line.
There was real sense of deflation in the stands, but on the pitch there was only determination and for a second time, Raith hit back within two minutes.
There appeared little danger when Hardie collected the ball at the edge of the Morton box, but the teenagare showed great footwork to weave his way through a a crowd into a goal-scoring position.
He took a touch too much and was challenged in the act of shooting, but the striker got the lucky break his tenacity deserved as the ball fell back at his feet and he steered a toe-poke through the legs of Gaston to spark wild scenes of celebration.
The manner of victory speaks volumes for the team spirit and character of Ray McKinnon’s side, and what a crucial three points this could turn out to be ahead of some key fixtures.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, McKeown, Toshney, Davidson, Callachan, Robertson, Craigen, Connolly, Panayiotou, Stewart. Not used: Law, Anderson, McCord, Matthews, Hardie, Court, Barr.
Morton: Gaston, Kilday, Lamie, O’Ware, McKee, Forbes, Johnstone, McLuskey, Russell, McManus, McMullan. Not used: McNeil, Miller, Scullion, Quitongo, Tennant, Tiffoney, Strapp.
Referee: Mat Northcroft