SATURDAY’s trip to bottom of the table Airdrie may not have been the most memorable of matches, but it resulted in one of Raith Rovers’ most important wins of the season.
Not only did Rovers end a five month wait for an away win, they also maintained a cushion over the team’s below them.
It was the sixth time the clubs had met this season and that, combined with with the bitterly cold weather, probably contributed to Airdrie’s lowest ever first division crowd.
When an artificial pitch requires two inspections before eventually being cleared of snow you can be forgiven for electing to stay in the warmth of your own home.
Even with several layers on, the cold was almost unbearable.
Not since the first day of the season in August had the league’s bottom club tasted a victory at home, while Rovers were without a win on their travels since October 27.
For both teams, there would never be a better chance to end their unwanted records.
Rovers were forced into two changes - top scorer Brian Graham missing out through illness and Laurie Ellis ruled out with a calf strain.
It meant a quick recall for striker Pat Clarke, while Dougie Hill was handed his first start since his third red card of the season, against Hamilton on January 19.
Player-boss Grant Murray had asked his troops to start the match with the same verve they had shown in the previous week’s derby against Dunfermline.
Whether it was the soulless atmosphere inside a near empty stadium, or the repetitive nature of this fixture, Rovers were out of sorts in the early exchanges.
They were second best to a more alert Airdrie side, summed up by the way they lost the opening goal in the eighth minute.
Eddie Malone should have cleared the ball from the back post but his hesitation allowed Jamie Bain to nip in and stab the ball past a startled David McGurn.
Airdrie continued to set the pace and they could have extended their lead had they been more accurate with a couple of curling shots from the edge of the box.
Rovers forays into Airdrie territory were few and far between but whenever they did make it into the final third, they exposed the home side’s weaknesses at the back.
From their first corner on the half hour, Clarke was left unmarked inside the six yard box but he somehow managed to glance his header wide of the post.
Greig Spence was then unlucky to see a snapshot from a Josh Watt cut-back strike the base of the post.
However, most of the traffic was in the opposite direction, and had it not been for McGurn, Rovers would have fallen two behind in the 40th minute.
The ‘keeper brilliantly pushed out Steven Hetherington’s 20-yard piledriver before scrambling to his feet to smother McLaren’s rebound.
Spence was Rovers most lively player throughout a poor first half and he single-handedly dragged the team out of a hole by making a goal for himself out of nothing just a minute before the break.
He wriggled his way into the box past two defenders then slid in ahead of the out-rushing goalkeeper to send the ball trickling over the line.
After a stern word from Murray at half-time, Rovers had a bit more life about them in the second half, albeit neither side looked like finding a winner until Grant Anderson replaced namesake Stuart in 65th minute.
Anderson’s pace down the right touchline immediately started causing Airdrie problems and with 12 minutes left, he conjured up a terrific winner.
He collected Allan Walker’s superb cross-field pass, sped into the box past full-back Marc Warren’s desperate attempts to hack him down, and drilled a low finish inside the far post.
Rovers still had work to do though.
They had seen wins turn into draws with the loss of late goals in the previous two away fixtures at Cowdenbeath and Falkirk.
However, there would be no such lapses of concentration this time and they comfortably saw out time to give their away form a timely boost.