Queen of the South 1 Raith Rovers 2
Raith Rovers kept up their fantastic form and officially confirmed their place in the promotion play-offs with a dogged victory away to Queen of the South.
The final result was harsh on the hosts - who were better on the day - but Raith are so deeply entrenched in the winning habit that even a below par performance could not knock them out of stride.
It wasn’t pretty at times - the centre-halves provided the goals and Kevin ‘Cat’ Cuthbert was required to play a blinder between the sticks - but the final result again underlined the resolute character of the Kirkcaldy side.
The odds will be stacked against them in the play-offs - they will need to negotiate six matches against bigger clubs to reach the Premiership - but on current form Raith fans can dare to dream.
A delighted Ray McKinnon said: “It’s been a long season and we’ve managed to get over the line so we’re obviously extremely happy.
“This is a tough place to come and we were a bit depleted but we’ve got good winners in our team and they’ve come up trumps.
“It’s a fantastic achievement by the players to be where we are with three games to spare - it’s incredible.
“Now we can actually plan and start to think about the play-offs - I don’t need to touch wood any more!
“I can’t praise the team highly enough.”
A key feature of Rovers’ eight game unbeaten run has been McKinnon’s ability to rotate the squad without impacting results, which came to the fore again in Dumfries with three changes made to the side that drew with Rangers last week.
With Iain Davidson only fit enough for the bench, Scott Robertson made a timely return from a five week injury lay-off in the middle of the park.
Ross Callachan was suspended due to an accumulation of bookings, Aiden Connolly taking his place, while Ryan Hardie’s return from a three game absence meant fellow striker Joel Thomas dropped back to the bench.
With confidence clearly flowing following the dramatic ending to the Rangers match, Rovers made a bright start and James Craigen forced Queens ‘keeper Robbie Thomson into a finger-tip save from a superbly controlled volley from 20 yards on seven minutes.
It led to back-to-back corners for Raith, the second of which produced the opener as Kyle Benedictus showed great determination to out-muscle his marker and bullet home a close range header from Connolly’s delivery.
It was a strong start from Rovers and it almost got better on 15 mintues as a neat one-two between Connolly and Louis Longridge sent the latter driving towards the Queens box, but his left foot shot swerved off target.
The sight of Iain Russell diving in the box is a familiar sight to Rovers fans - his theatrics have been a feature of previous meetings - but referee Kevin Clancy wasn’t conned by his attempts to win a penalty by collapsing under the slightest pressure from Jason Thomson on 25 minutes.
He would also try to win a spot kick in the 93rd minute by running into Craig Barr and falling over but again Clancy wasn’t interested, and Russell was given an earful by the enraged Raith defender. Surprisingly, neither dive earned the Queens forward a booking.
It wasn’t until the 31st minute that Raith endured their first real scare as Dale Hilson found space in the box but Benedictus came to the rescue with last ditch block.
Queens started to take charge and Cuthbert was called to make his first big save, diving full stretch to keep out Darren Brownlie’s header.
After a strong start, Rovers had fallen out of the game with Hardie becoming an increasingly isolated figure up front.
It was no surprise therefore when Queens grabbed an equaliser eight minutes after the break as Hilson got the better of Barr before blasting a rocket half-volley past Cuthbert from 20 yards.
Queens almost struck again immediately after the restart as Callum Tapping burst into box but Cuthbert managed to deflect his effort over bar with an oustretched arm.
Raith were suddenly sparked into life as Longridge sprinted through the Queens defence onto Robertson’s pass but his shot from a tight angle was pushed past the near post by Thomson.
Back at the other end, only a top drawer save from Cuthbert kept out Kyle Hutton’s point blank header - great reflexes from Raith ‘keeper who was living up to his nickname, the Cat.
The save laid the foundations for victory as three minutes later, Raith took the lead against the run of play.
Connolly took a corner and just seconds after seeing his header cleared off line, the ball found its way back to Barr at the edge of the box and the defender showed great composure to chest the ball down and send a sweet volley into the bottom corner of the net.
Barr has missed a lot of football in his two years at Raith but his commanding performances since returning from injury in February have surely pushed him into McKinnon’s thoughts for next season. He has been a colossus.
The Rovers defence were again put under the cosh but it took until the 85th minute for Queens to force Cuthbert into another save - and what a save it was as he somehow kept out Hilson’s bullet header from six yards. The Queens striker could scarcely believe it.
A minute later, the woodwork came to Rovers’ rescue as Lewis Kidd overhit his cross from the right and this time Cuthbert could only watch as the ball rebounded off the crossbar.
With two minutes left Cuthbert denied the Doonhamers again as Russell got goal-side of Jason Thomson and just had the ‘keeper to beat, but the goalie kept his cool, stayed big, and blocked his effort with his legs.
With the sound of the full-time whistle came the confirmation of Raith’s place in the play-offs. The only needed a point, but this team just keeps grinding out the wins.
Queen of the South: Thomson, Kidd, Dowie, Brownlie, Higgins, Russell, Tapping (Harris 68), Hutton (Millar 76), Murdoch, Hilson, Oliver (Lyle 59). Not used: Atkinson, Jacobs, Pickard, Conroy.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, McKeown, Barr, Benedictus, Toshney, Robertson, Craigen (Anderson 78), Connolly, Hardie (Thomas 89), Longridge (Panayiotou 56). Not used: Law, McCord, Davidson, Court.
Referee: Kevin Clancy