Pressure shifts to Ayr as Raith reclaim top spot with victory in Stranraer

Lewis Vaughan scored his 23rd goal of the season to put the seal on the 3-0 victory in Stranraer.
Lewis Vaughan scored his 23rd goal of the season to put the seal on the 3-0 victory in Stranraer.

Stranraer 0 Raith Rovers 3

The glorious Stranraer sunshine provided the perfect backdrop as Raith Rovers claimed a resounding 3-0 victory which took them back to the top of League One, for the time being at least.

The stakes could not have been higher as failure to win would have handed Ayr United the chance to win the title live on BBC Alba, but the pressure now shifts squarely onto Ian McCall's side, who must take at least a point from their trip to Alloa this afternoon to reclaim first place ahead of the final weekend of the season.

Whatever happens, the title will now be decided on the final Saturday of the season, which Raith will approach in high spirits regardless, having appeared completely out of the running just two weeks ago when they fell five points adrift with three games remaining.

Even if Rovers don't get the results they require from elsewhere, the positive outlook is that the team appears to be hitting some form and building momentum, which will stand them in good stead if they end up having to settle for the promotion play-offs.

The small band of Raith supporters who made the long journey south-west included such characters are Shrek, Spiderman and an Oompa Loompa among their number, as per the annual tradition of fancy dress for the final away match.

Those fans, who sang their hearts out throughout, and those following the game back home, may have expected a nerve-shredding afternoon against a Stranraer side that had won four-in-a-row, and who had beaten Raith on their previous visit to Stair Park in January.

However, the visitors picked the perfect time to produce one of their best footballing displays away from Stark's Park this season, combining guile and grit to ensure the result was rarely in doubt after Euan Murray's early opener.

Raith made one change from the victory over Queen's Park last week, with Celtic loanee Regan Hendry returning to the midfield at the expense of John Herron, who dropped to the bench.

An early goal was exactly the script Barry Smith would have had in mind, and it was no less than Rovers deserved for a fully charged start.

Bobby Barr won a corner, which Lewis Vaughan flighted to the near post for defender Murray to rise highest and glance a superb header across goal and inside the far post.

Rovers were rampant in these opening exchanges, pressing the game superbly and pouncing on Stranraer slackness all over the park to create chance after chance.

Vaughan showed why he was announced as a nominee for the PFA League One Player of the Year during the week with a stunning 25-yard free-kick on 14 minutes that cannoned back off the crossbar. The rebound fell to Liam Buchanan but a defender managed to make a goal-saving block near the line.

Stranraer briefly threatened an equaliser when midfielder Scott Robertson (yes there were two on the pitch) found himself on the end of a cut-back at the edge of the box but his powerful strike was turned behind by the legs of Graeme Smith.

However, most of the first half action was at the other end, where Buchanan was looking particularly sharp only for his final finish to let him down.

Two sitters were passed up in quick succession with the striker unable to convert a Bobby Barr cross from inside the six-yard box, albeit a defender getting a vital interception, before pouncing on a weak pass-back from Morgyn Neill only to drag his shot wide with Vaughan perfectly placed for a cut back.

A less experienced striker may have allowed these misses to play on his mind, but Buchanan is as self-assured as they come and he got the goal his overall play deserved on the stroke of half-time, this time making no mistake with a close range header after wizard wing play from Dario Zanatta, who put the ball on a plate after whizzing past two markers.

The two-goal advantage was no less than Raith deserved for their first half dominance as Stranraer, with nothing but pride at stake, failed to match their visitors' passing and movement, nor their hunger for the points. As observed by a member of the home director's box, his side was 'getting a doing'.

Raith had to negotiate a tougher spell in the early stages of the second half as Stranraer started to get on the ball and apply some pressure, but a vital goal-line clearance from Murray, who excelled at both ends of the park, prevented Kyle Turner from reducing the deficit, and raising the anxiety levels.

It took until 13 minutes left for Raith to be able to completely relax as Vaughan, who was denied in a one-on-one with Max Currie earlier in the half, showed no mercy second time round as he thrashed the ball home at the back post after Buchanan had glanced Barr's cross into his path.

Rovers could have added to their three-goal tally numerous times, particularly when substitute Greig Spence outsmarted the last defender to go clear, only to blast wildly over, while at the other end, ex-Rover Grant Anderson shot tamely into Smith's arms when it looked easier to score.

Rovers boss Smith was a happy man at full-time.

"We knew that to win the league we had to win our last three games and hope something else happens," he said.

"We've given ourselves the best chance of doing that by taking the league to the final game of the season.

"We've done our bit, now other people will be thinking about ifs and buts."

Over to you, Ayr.

Stranraer: Currie, Robertson, Neill, McGowan, Hamill, MacPherson (Hawkshaw 74), Agnew, Turner, Elliot (Baxter 62, Anderson, Okoh (Dykes 62). Not used; McLaren, Barron, Scott, Gray.

Raith Rovers: Smith, Thomson, McHattie, Davidson, Murray, Robertson, Zanatta (Matthews 88), Hendry, Vaughan (Furtado 89), Buchanan (Spence 79), Barr. Not used: Brian, Herron, Benedictus, Court.

Booked: Davidson

Referee: Kevin Graham

Attendance: 524