Dundee United 2 Raith Rovers 2
Only a few months ago Raith Rovers fans were lamenting the loss of Ray McKinnon to Dundee United, while questioning the appointment of Gary Locke as his replacement.
But after yesterday’s stunning fightback at Tannadice, which kept Raith five points ahead of McKinnon’s side, you would be hard pushed to find a single Rovers supporter who is still of the same mind.
While United fans booed their team off after throwing away a two-goal lead, the excellent turn-out of 815 away fans chanted Locke’s name following another positive performance and result.
McKinnon worked wonders at Raith last year, particularly in the second half of the campaign, but Locke has made an equally impressive start, while putting his own stamp on the side.
His managerial acumen came to the fore at Tannadice yesterday as he played a big part in turning the game around when a heavy defeat looked on the cards.
After falling 2-0 down in a worringly one-sided 25 minutes, a key tactical change, complimented by two stunning goals, completed a brilliant comeback to maintain Rovers unbeaten start, which stretches to 15 league games including the end of last season.
“It was a great fightback - but forget about the first 25 minutes,” Locke said.
“Once we got that out the road, I thought we played really well.
“We made a tactical change at 2-0 down, and it got us back in the game.
“After that I thought the boys were brilliant.”
With both goalkeepers Kevin Cuthbert and Aaron Lennox injured, Raith were relieved to complete the signing of former Kilmarnock and Northern Ireland Under 21 international Conor Brennan on the morning of the match.
The ‘keeper was handed an instant debut and was certainly thrown in at the deep end as he picked the ball out of his net twice in the opening 23 minutes with his new team mates miles off the pace against a slick United side.
Brennan had made a good early impression, making a save to deny Simon Murray after Jean-Yves M’voto misjudged a through ball, but he was powerless to prevent Willo Flood’s 25-yard volley finding the bottom corner on 17 minutes.
Waves of United attacks continued and the incessant pressure resulted in Rovers conceding a penalty when Flood was caught at the edge of the box as Declan McManus’ attempted a hooked clearance.
Referee Craig Thomson pointed to the spot and Cammy Smith sent Brennan the wrong way with a confidently struck penalty. A minute later, Raith assistant Darren Jackson, was sent to the stand.
At this stage, with United so dominant and looking capable of scoring more, it seemed that the wheels were about to come off in spectacular fashion, until Locke steadied the ship.
The Raith boss had kept faith with the same 4-4-2 system that had served him well in the opening three games, but on this occasion, it wasn’t working. A switch to a 4-3-3, with Ross Matthews moved from the wing into the centre of midfield, was pivotal to his side regaining control.
Flood had dictated the game in the opening half hour, but Matthews put a stop to that, and Raith started to see more of the ball, while carrying a threat.
Kevin McHattie fired a warning shot with a 25-yard strike that was deflected just wide, before Rovers pulled a goal back on 38 minutes with a glorious effort from on-loan Rangers midfielder Jordan Thompson.
Lewis Vaughan sent a free-kick into the box and after Cammy Bell punched it to the edge of the area, Thompson caught the ball on the drop to send a stunning volley into the roof of the net.
The half-time scoreline was a get out of jail card for Raith as they could have been three goals down, but their second half performance more than merited the point.
They were on the attack straight from the restart which sent the United defence into panic mode with Coll Donaldson slicing a clearance straight to McManus who saw his overhead kick saved at point-blank range by Bell.
Rovers continued on the front foot, and sensing United’s vulnerability, Locke sacrificed a midfielder, Thompson, to send on attackers Mark Stewart and Rudi Skacel.
Much like the previous week’s derby win, the subs had a positive impact, with Stewart in particular causing the United defence real problems with his runs into the channels.
The equaliser Raith’s second half play deserved arrived on 72 minutes when McManus turned Donaldson to set up McHattie who sent a thunderous strike into the top corner from 22 yards.
It would be hard to pick a favourite out of Raith’s two goals - both were so good.
United’s first real chance of the second half arrived with 15 minutes left as Nick van der Velden found space in the box but Brennan, who had been a second half spectator, saved his low drive with his foot.
Skacel sent a looping header onto the roof of the net late on before Rovers survived an injury-time goalmouth scramble to claim a deserved point.
There is a long way to go, but if the opening four games are anything to go by, then Raith have a team, and manager, capable of mounting a push for promotion.
Dundee United: Bell, Dillon, Donaldson, Toshney, Murdoch, Murray (Obadeyi 67), Fraser (Spittal 77), Smith, Flood, van der Velden, Robson. Subs not used: Zwick, Telfer, Ballantyne, B.Smith, M.Smith.
Raith Rovers: Brennan, Thomson, McHattie, Callachan, M’Voto, Benedictus, Vaughan (Stewart 69), Barr, Matthews, McManus (Davidson 79), Thompson (Skacel 69). Subs not used: Cuthbert,, Osei, Roberts, Court.
Referee: Craig Thomson