Raith face uphill task after disastrous first leg in Alloa

Iain Davidson receives his marching orders to compound a miserable night for Raith Rovers in Alloa. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Iain Davidson receives his marching orders to compound a miserable night for Raith Rovers in Alloa. Pic: Fife Photo Agency

Alloa Athletic 2 Raith Rovers 0

Raith Rovers hopes of playing Championship football next season are on life support after a disastrous play-off semi-final first leg in Alloa last night.

Two gift-wrapped goals, courtesy of appalling defensive mistakes, compounded by a late red card to defender Iain Davidson, resulted in a 2-0 defeat that leaves the Kirkcaldy club with an uphill battle in the second leg at Stark's Park this Saturday.

The tie is, of course, only at the halfway stage, but any salvage mission is going to require a complete transformation in performance and attitude as Rovers finished this game bereft of the fighting spirit you would expect from a club desperate to win promotion.

After the overwhelming disappointment of allowing the League One title to slip through their fingers in front of a packed Stark's Park last Saturday, the pressure was on Barry Smith and his players to produce a response in this first leg tie. They failed miserably.

While goalkeeper Graeme Smith and left back Kevin McHattie were guilty of the lapses in concentration which gifted Alloa their goals, there was several others on the night who fell miles below the standard expected in such an important match.

After the game, the manager was seen pacing the corridor before bursting into the away dressing room and loudly chastising his players. Smith had every right to tear into them, but he will be only too aware that, as the boss, the buck ultimately stops with him.

Having failed to break down Alloa on Saturday, the only change was a defensive one as Ross Matthews replaced Dario Zanatta on the wing.

While he cannot legislate for the individual errors that undoubtedly affected the game plan, Smith's perseverance with tactics and team selection are open to criticism.

Raith started the match positively enough, albeit without looking particularly threatening, but with enough of a snarl in their play to suggest they were up for the challenge.

Lewis Vaughan and Bobby Barr both had tame efforts from the edge of the box saved, with Alloa struggling to get into the game.

However, everything turned on a goalkeeping howler in the 22nd minute.

There was plenty time to effectively deal with Davidson's pass back, but Graeme Smith's inability to clear his feet quickly enough resulted in Ross Stewart charging down his attempted clearance, gathering the loose ball, then firing past the stranded stopper at his near post.

His team mates could only stare in disbelief as the initiative had been handed to the Wasps on a plate.

The experienced 'keeper had clearly not recovered from the mistake when, five minutes later, his attempted throw to Jason Thomson only travelled a few yards and he had to pounce on the ball before Alloa could capitalise.

The result was an indirect free-kick in the box, but Smith was spared further embarrassment as Stewart's strike following the lay-off was blocked by the 10-man wall.

A few minutes later Smith was beaten all ends up by a terrific 25-yard free-kick from Jordan Kirkpatrick that flashed inches wide.

After the overwhelming disappointment of Saturday, the manner in which the first goal was lost was another psychological blow for the team, and one they struggled to recover from.

The half-time brought a chance to regain focus, and the reaction immediately after the restart was mildly encouraging as the team pushed forward, but all they could muster was a few corners which led to nothing.

Jason Thomson had a half-chance when the ball broke to him in the penalty box, but under pressure, he could only stab an effort high over the bar.

The Vaughan-Buchanan partnership was again proving ineffective against Alloa's towering defence, with any attempt to play direct resulting in the ball coming straight back, and this pattern eventually led to Alloa doubling their advantage.

McHattie had control of the ball in the left back position, but Kevin Cawley charged him down, then shrugged the defender aside for too easily in the chase for the loose ball before crossing to Iain Flannigan to sweep home a well-controlled shot from 16 yards.

Smith immediately called for subs and although Greig Spence and Dario Zanatta were introduced, the pattern did not change as Raith continued to struggle to create even a half chance, with Alloa looking more capable of adding to their tally.

Kirkpatrick and Cawley both had good shooting opportunities which Smith saved comfortably, although the 'keeper did particularly well to stop a deflected Jon Robertson effort from crossing his line, sticking out a leg to deflect it to safety when it appeared the ball was heading in.

The closest Raith came was a snapshot from Zanatta from 20 yards that carried power, but not accuracy, and any hope of taking a goal back to Stark's Park all but disappeared with a red card to Davidson in the 80th minute.

The defender picked up a second booking after referee Don Robertson ruled that he had caught Scott Taggart with an elbow as the pair tussle for a high ball. It looked innocuous from the stands, but it left Raith hanging onto a two-goal deficit.

The only positive from a shambolic night was that no further damage was inflicted, although the wounds from this first leg may already be beyond repair.

To recover this tie Raith will need to score three times, something they have been unable to do once in 180 minutes against a well-drilled Alloa side who appear to have them sussed.

However, given the potential consequences of failure, Rovers have no choice but to give it their best shot.

Alloa Athletic: Parry, Taggart, Crane, Graham, McCart, Fleming (Smith 67), Cawley (Renton 82), Hetherington (Robertson 37), Stewart, Kirkpatrick, Flannigan. Not used: Meggatt, Monaghan, Goodwin, Wilson.

Raith Rovers: Smith, Thomson, McHattie, Murray, Robertson, Buchanan (Spence 55), Vaughan, Barr (Furtado 72), Matthews (Zanatta 59), Davidson, Hendry. Not used: Brian, Herron, Benedictus, Court.

Referee: Don Robertson

Attendance: 1133.