Raith battle hard to claim huge three points in wind-swept Arbroath

Greig Spence was on the scoresheet for the fourth consecutive game. Pic: George McLuskie
Greig Spence was on the scoresheet for the fourth consecutive game. Pic: George McLuskie

Arbroath 1 Raith Rovers 2

Every win is crucial in this League One title race, particularly away from home, but Raith Rovers' victory at a wind-battered Gayfield felt like one of the most important of the season.

It was certainly their hardest fought three points of the campaign as the Kirkcaldy men battled heroically - and rode their luck at times - to survive a second half onslaught against one of the division's strongest part-time sides.

A ferocious gale turned this into a game of two halves and Raith made the most of the first half wind advantage to forge a two-goal lead through Greig Spence and Dario Zanatta.

The question was whether that would be enough and, as expected, Arbroath proceeded to lay siege to the Raith box after the break.

The hosts pulled one back on the hour, and only strong-willed defending, superb goalkeeping and the occasional fortunate bounce prevented an equaliser.

Raith boss Barry Smith said: "In the first half we did excellent to get two good goals, albeit with the wind.

"We knew it would be difficult in the second half - Arbroath know how to play the wind here - but the boys dug deep.

"Smithy's had a couple of tremendous saves and the defenders really had to be strong.

"If we're being honest it's not a game of football that people pay to see, but we can only praise our boys for handling the conditions."

Rovers travelled to Angus without an away victory in two months, while league leaders Ayr United were going for a club record 10th straight win in Airdrie.

With that in mind this was a potentially a pivotal weekend in the title race, and Ayr's surprise 2-0 defeat only makes this much-needed win all the sweeter, with the gap at the top now reduced to five points, with two games in hand to come.

Smith added: "Our focus is on us, but I'm not going to deny that you look at Ayr's results because they are top of the league at the moment.

"It's more important that we focus on what we're doing and if we keep winning, we'll be where we want to be at the end of the season."

Rovers welcomed Iain Davidson back into the starting line-up, and his return from injury could not have come at a better time as his experience was certainly required, particularly in the latter stages of the second half with several towering headers clearing the danger.

The back four was reshuffled with Euan Murray moving to left back, which allowed Jason Thomson to return to right back, while teenager Dave McKay completed the back four.

Otherwise, Raith were unchanged from the 2-2 draw in Airdrie two weeks ago.

The visitors won the toss and elected to play with the wind in their favour in the first half - a decision which paid off.

The strength of the gusts became evident quite quickly as Arbroath goalkeeper David Hutton's first goal kick swirled back and landed no further than 30 yards from goal.

If Arbroath had difficulty clearing their half, the Raith also struggled to keep the ball in play at times with passes overhit out of the park as players struggled to judge the conditions.

Raith went close in the third minute when Jason Thomson drew a fine one-handed save from Hutton with a powerful header from Lewis Vaughan's corner.

Another Vaughan corner on 19 minutes produced the opener as Arbroath's zonal marking approach failed to pick up Davidson at the back post, and when his volley rattled back off the post, the ball ricocheted into the net off Spence.

Graeme Smith had been a virtual spectator but had to push away a long range effort from Blair Yule in the 25th minute as Arbroath made a rare break forward.

Rovers went back on the attack and doubled their lead on 32 minutes when Liam Buchanan's neat turn in the box was followed by a low ball across goal that was turned home by an equally sharp finish by Dario Zanatta.

At two up, Raith were now where they wanted to be, but they should have got a third six minutes before half-time.

Having cleverly recognised that he could not be flagged offside from a goal kick, Spence positioned himself behind the Arbroath defence and when Smith's wind-assisted kick sailed over the head of everyone, the striker was left one-on-one with Hutton.

It was the type of chance a striker on a four-game scoring streak ought to have buried, but on this occasion he got his finish all wrong, screwing it horribly off target before looking down to blame the turf under his feet.

Thankfully the miss did not prove to be a factor in the outcome, but Rovers had to endure a torrid second half against the maroon wind machine.

There was a close call on 55 minutes when McKay left a ball to Smith, only for Danny Denholm to nip in and round the Raith 'keeper but fortunately his touch took the ball too far wide and his attempt at finding the empty net went beyond the far post.

Arbroath did pull one back though just a minute later as Ross Matthews appeared to get the final touch as an inswinging corner kick found its way into the net.

While defending for their lives, Raith also showed a willingness to hit on the break, helped by some determined tackling in midfield from the likes of Matthews and Scott Robertson, and Buchanan forced Hutton to tip wide with a well-struck effort from 18 yards.

Arbroath went back on the attack and the wind certainly played a part as Davidson misjudged a punt forward to allow Denholm through, but again the striker's touch took him wide and Smith was able to narrow the angle and make the block.

There was an incredible escape for the Fifers on 75 minutes when Murray sliced a clearance into the air, which blew towards his own goal, and it took a huge bounce over 'keeper Smith who somehow reached back and clawed it off the line.

Smith was then caught in no mans land coming for a cross which Colin Hamilton headed over a gaping goal, while at the other end, Matthews let fly from 25 yards and for the second time in the second half, Hutton was forced into a full stretch save.

Arbroath, quite literally, threw caution to the wind in the final 10 minutes and for Raith, it was all hands on deck to hold onto the three points.

Every attack required at least three attempts to get the ball out the box, and each time it was eventually cleared, the ball was swiftly returned to the mixer.

As the game entered injury-time Arbroath looked to have found a way through when Gavin Swankie found space 18 yards out and fired towards the top corner.

The shot looked in all the way, and Raith hearts sank, but somehow Smith managed to get his hand to the ball and make just enough contact to divert it onto the bar.

A quite astonishing save given the circumstances.

It proved to be a match-winning stop as referee Anderson finally called a halt after five minutes of injury-time.

Raith's celebrations at full-time with the good numbered travelling fans said everything about the magnitude of this win.

Arbroath: Hutton, Whatley, Little, O'Brien, Hamilton, Denholm, Martin, Yule (Swankie 70), McIntosh (McCord 65), Linn (Kader 70): Not used: Henry, Hester, Prunty, Gomes.

Raith Rovers: Smith, Thomson, Davidson, McKay, Murray, Matthews, Robertson, Vaughan, Zanatta, Spence, Buchanan (Barr 78). Not used: Watson, Berry, Osei, Court, Lennox.

Referee: Euan Anderson

Attendance: 1035