Hibernian 2 Raith Rovers 0 (Hibs win 2-1 on aggregate)
Raith Rovers’ season is over after a heartbreaking 2-0 defeat to Hibernian at Easter Road this afternoon in the Premiership play-off quarter-final second leg.
After claiming a superb 1-0 first leg victory at Stark’s Park on Wednesday night, a promotion pipe dream had turned into a burning belief that the outsiders from Kirkcaldy could overcome one of Scottish football’s biggest clubs on their way to a semi-final against Falkirk.
However, those flames were quickly doused as Hibs struck twice inside 11 minutes to completely turn the tables, and despite a brave fightback from Rovers, who left absolutely everything on the park, they were unable to salvage the tie, to the dejection of 1600 travelling fans.
Raith boss Ray McKinnon, who may well have taken charge of his last Raith game amid interest from Dundee United, looked crestfallen as he addressed the media afterwards.
“I’ve no complaints - the boys gave absolutely everything,” he said.
“We knew Hibs would come out in the first 20 minutes and have a right go, which they did.
“They got a wicked deflection to put them in the lead and then a set piece has undone us.
“After the first 25 minutes we were competitive - we could’ve pulled it back to 2-1 at a point - and there was a massive effort in the second half.
“I’m extremely proud of the players and there’s no words to describe how horrible it feels. The players are absolutely devastated because they’ve given everything.”
McKinnon refused to be drawn on his future, adding: “I’ve got another year left at Raith so I’ll just go home, reflect on what’s went on today, chill out for a bit and see what happens.”
Raith’s preparation for the match would have undoubtedly focused on seeing out the expected early onslaught, however those plans were in tatters within eight minutes.
A fortunate deflection certainly didn’t help as Hibs’ opener, a 20-yard strike from John McGinn, took a huge deviation off the boot of midfielder Lewis Toshney which sent the ball spinning over the helpless Kevin Cuthbert and into the back of the net via the underside of the bar.
With Easter Road bouncing, Raith now had to show character and bottle - traits they’ve had in spades this season - but it deserted them as Hibs continued to flood forward.
James Craigen, under pressure, ran the ball 10 yards towards his own touchline, and straight out for a needless corner, from which Darren McGregor rose highest to power home a header for 2-0.
It had taken Hibs only 11 minutes to completely obliterate the 90 minutes of hard work that Raith had put into getting a one-goal advantage at Stark’s Park in midweek.
At this point Raith fans may have considered settling for not being embarassed, however, McKinnon and his players are made of stern stuff and after eventually settling into the match, they gave Hibs a run for their money.
The game plan was quickly changed as the manager gave both full backs licence to bomb forward and on 28 minutes, Rory McKeown’s back post ball found Louis Longridge in space, who drilled the ball into the box before Hibs scrambled it behind for a corner.
It was encouragement for Raith, and their next attack produced an enormous chance.
Craigen’s ball was perfectly flighted over the Hibs defence to put Ryan Hardie clear and although the striker’s attempt was blocked by Conrad Logan, the ball broke to Longridge in space in the box.
The first-time shot was on but the winger took a touch past the goalkeeper, then lost his footing as defender Darren McGregor made a goal-saving block on the six-yard line.
You feared Raith wouldn’t get a better chance - and so it proved.
While the Fifers had plenty of the ball in a brave second half display, and sent countless balls in the Hibs box, they just couldn’t find the quality final pass.
Three attacking subs were introduced - Mark Stewart, Harry Panayiotou and Joel Thomas - but Rovers were just missing that little bit extra quality, whether a Stokes up front, or a McGinn in midfield, that might’ve kept them in the tie.
Unfortunately though, while the clubs may be in the same division, financially, they aren’t in the same league. That’s what makes Raith’s play-off efforts all the more admirable.
With Raith committing bodies to attack, and Hibs catching them on the break, it was ‘next goal wins’ football - however, in the end, Hibs didn’t need another goal, despite a nervy last 20 minutes.
Liam Henderson forced Cuthbert into a diving save, then saw an effort deflected a fraction wide, before the infamous Easter Road jitters set in.
A sense of panic was reflected as Fraser Fyvie punted the ball into the stand as the home crowd grew restless - and Raith almost took advantage on 76 minutes.
Ross Callachan pinched possession 40 yards from goal to set up an attack, and with the Hibs defence caught and outnumbered, Panayiotou overplayed his through ball to Stewart and a big chance was gone.
Hibs almost settled it in the 84th minute - David Gray meeting McGinn’s free-kick at the back post with a diving header that rattled the post - so Raith were still alive as we headed towards injury time.
Their final assault on the Hibs box in the 93rd minute almost produced a lifeline as a Thomas flick was chased by Stewart but defender McGregor just got their first to prevent a clear shot on goal at the expense of a corner.
Everyone, including Raith ‘keeper Cuthbert, piled into the Hibs box, and Easter Road held its breath.
Callachan floated the ball into the six yard area, but as Raith players leapt in hope, goalkeeper Logan reached up and grabbed it out the air to huge cheers from the relieved Hibs faithful.
The full-time whistle followed seconds later, and Raith players collapsed to the turf. It was a devastating defeat, their first in 13, but to have come this far was an achievement to be proud of.
The terrific travelling support showed their appreciation with a standing ovation, and the players returned the sentiment, some handing over strips and boots.
For some, including the manager, it may have been an emotional farewell.
Hibernian: Logan, Gray, Henderson (Fontaine 81), Hanlon, Fyvie, McGeough (Bartley 65), Stevenson, McGinn, McGregor, Stokes, Cummings (Keatings 80). Not used: Oxley, Boyle, Gunnarson, Dagnall.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, McKeown, Barr, Benedictus, Davidson, Toshney, Lonridge (Stewart 64), Callachan, Craigen (Panayiotou 51), Hardie (Thomas 75). Not used: Law, Anderson, Connolly, Robertson.
Referee: John McKendrick