Forfar Athletic 3 Raith Rovers 2
Raith Rovers’ league form went AWOL at Station Park this afternoon as they were dumped out of the Irn Bru Cup by part-timers Forfar Athletic.
The League Two leaders were the hungrier team throughout as they fought back from a goal down to claim a deserved victory against a poor Rovers side who failed to build on their impressive second half showing at Tannadice last week.
Raith would have been aware of the difficult task that faced them having lost a pre-season friendly at the same venue only a few months ago, but they were well off the pace from the first whistle.
Despite a ponderous start, Rovers took a 20th minute lead through Mark Stewart, but this only served to give the Kirkcaldy side a false sense of comfort as they quickly found themselves 3-1 down.
Rovers eventually upped the tempo in the second half and Declan McManus pulled it back to 3-2, with substitute Joel Coustrain injecting some much-needed energy, but the damage had been done.
The absence of Jason Thomson (suspension) and Jordan Thompson (cup tied) meant Gary Locke was forced to reshuffle his defence and midfield, while a growing injury list meant that development squad duo James Berry and Andreas Thorsen were required to make up the numbers on the bench.
Nonetheless, this was still a strong enough Raith starting XI to progress through the tie, and the manager offered no excuses for his team’s poor display.
“We had to make a couple of changes to the team, but we certainly expected better than the first 45 minutes,” he said.
“We were well on the front foot in the second half, but for me it’s all about our attitude in the first half. We’ve got to be better than that.
“Give Forfar credit because they worked hard and made it difficult for us, but we’ve got to move the ball quicker than that.
“We’ve started the season well, so I’m not going to over elaborate on it, but we’re disappointed for the supporters that we’re out the competition.”
In addition to the two enforced changes, Locke gave striker Stewart the starting place his recent sub displays merited, with Lewis Vaughan dropping to the bench.
Iain Davidson returned to central midfield after missing four weeks with a back injury while, after several sub appearances, Rudi Skacel was handed his first start for Raith in a wide position.
The difference in tempo between the two sides was evident in the early exchanges as a lively Forfar side tried to move the ball at speed, while Raith were unhurried and easily closed down.
Home striker David Cox should have done better than blast into the side-netting after wriggling his way through a static Raith defence after 10 minutes.
Rovers woke up for a brief spell, during which they created two great chances for Stewart, who scored at the second attempt.
On 15 minutes, Callachan hit the by-line and found Stewart in the box who took a touch to set himself then fired against the legs of ‘keeper Grant Adam, with Callachan knocking the rebound wide.
The opener was only delayed a few minutes as a fresh air swipe from Forfar defender Jamie Bain allowed Skacel to collect the ball on the left and cross to the near post for Stewart, who stole a yard on his marker to fire first-time past Adam from close range.
Rovers were enjoying a spell of superiority but if they thought the game would be a dawdle, they were quickly made to think again as Forfar were level within 10 minutes.
Midfielder Lewis Milne brushed off the attentions of Davidson to run into a huge chasm of space between the Raith midfield and a backing off defence.
With time to size up the target, Milne let fly with a sweet 25-yard strike that flew into the top corner past a helpless Conor Brennan.
Six minutes later, the hosts grabbed the lead as Milne again found space, only for Davidson to resort to fouling the midfielder as he shaped to shoot from a similar position to where he scored from.
Thomas O’Brien took the free-kick and although the wall took the sting out of the effort, the ball broke free in the box, and with Raith defenders impersonating statues, Josh Peters reacted sharpest to fire past Brennan.
The lack of movement from anyone in a Raith shirt to a loose ball in their penalty box suggested a few players were asleep on the job.
The first half ended with Raith on the attack, as both Skacel and Kevin McHattie saw efforts blocked in the box, and Rovers were almost in again immediately after the break when Stuart Malcolm was short with a back header, but Adam was quick off his line to deny McManus.
Raith’s performance now had the urgency that the first 45 lacked, if not the cohesion, but they were punished for more poor defending as Forfar extended their lead just before the hour mark.
A ball to the back post found Peters in acres of space and the striker, who was on the radar of Raith last season, showed his prowess with another excellent finish, firing beyond Brennan on the angle.
The goal prompted two Raith changes in quick succession with Vaughan and Coustrain replacing Stewart and Davidson, and Rovers subsequently pulled a goal back on 66 minutes.
Bobby Barr swung a corner kick into the six yard box where Declan McManus managed to hold off the attentions of goalkeeper Adam to nod the ball over the line.
The remainder of the game was spent mostly in the Forfar half as Raith searched for an equaliser, but with the hosts closing down and battling for every ball, as they had from the start, there were precious few openings for the Championship side.
Vaughan had two efforts - a 16-yard snapshot from a Skacel lay-off that was held by Adam, and a 25-yard free-kick that lacked the venom to beat the former Rangers goalie.
Time seemed to have ran out on Rovers when they were presented with one final, golden chance with the final kick of the ball.
Adam spilled Callachan’s shot to the edge of his six yard box but, from a slight angle, Vaughan sent the rebound sailing high and wide of the target.
The disappointment and frustration was etched all over the faces of the Raith players at full-time but they got what they deserved for not reaching the standards set in the league campaign thus far.
Forfar Athletic: Adam, Bain, Kennedy, Munro, Malcolm, O’Brien, Peters, Milne, Cox, Swankie (Denholm 74), Scott (Aitken 88). Not used:, Mackintosh, Fotheringham, Devine, Long.
Raith Rovers: Brennan, McHattie, Callachan, M’Voto, Benedictus, Stewart (Vaughan 58), Barr, Matthews, Davidson (Coustrain 64), Skacel, McManus. Not used: Berry, Thorsen, Cuthert.
Referee: Alan Newlands.