Raith Rovers 1 Hearts 3
You could argue that the big decisions went against Raith Rovers on Tuesday night, but the reality was that they were simply beaten by a superior Hearts side in every department.
Rovers were not disgraced, battling gamely to get back in the game at 1-1 after falling behind, but Christian Nade’s red card left them with an uphill task, and in the end, the 3-1 victory was no less than the visitors deserved.
Hearts were just too good on the night, as they have been for most sides this season, but the biggest disappointment for Raith was the way they started the game - on the back foot, unable to retain possession, and inviting pressure.
Had the hosts started with the same intent they showed in the lead up to, and aftermath of Craig Barr’s equaliser, they may have given the champions elect a more uncomfortable evening.
Grant Murray made one change to the side that lost in Dumfries on Saturday with Grant Anderson returning to the line-up, and Martin Scott dropping back to the bench.
Rovers lined up in a 4-4-1-1 with Lewis Vaughan played in the hole behind Christian Nade, but as the team struggled to get the ball forward in the early exchanges, everyone except Nade was a defender.
The opening half an hour was just a procession towards the Raith goal with some top drawer saves from David McGurn and last-ditch defending standing between Hearts and an avalanche of goals.
McGurn’s busy night started in the fourth minute as Sam Nicholson’s cut back found James Keatings in acres of space in box, but the Raith ‘keeper dived to his left to somehow block the striker’s attempt.
McGurn made another cracker of a save on 22 minutes, diving the opposite way this time, stretching to the maximum to turn behind Keating’s low curler from 18 yards that looked destined for bottom corner.
A minute later Keatings burst to the by-line to dink a superb ball to back post, where Genero Zeefuik must have thought he’d scored only for Rory McKeown to make a brilliant goal-line block.
Raith were hanging on, but not for much longer as Hearts took the lead on 26 minutes, amid some controversy, as Keatings’ effort deflected into the path of Kevin McHattie, who was standing directly in front of McGurn.
He looked at least two yards offside as he touched it past the goalie, and even looked sheepish as he celebrated the goal, only awarded after some hestitation from referee George Salmond.
At the time, the verdict was that the assistant referee had made a mistake, but apologies are due because TV replays appear to show McHatte was, in fact, onside when the initial shot was struck.
Only now, after losing the first goal, did Raith appear to come out their shells as they showed more urgency in possession a greater desire to get forward, and Nade was only inches away from connecting with Grant Anderson’s drilled cross on 41 minutes.
Two minutes later, Raith turned their first, and until then only spell of pressure into an equaliser as Ryan Conroy’s corner was met by Barr, who leapt superbly to glance a header into the top corner.
The game was no longer a completely one-sided affair although Hearts continued to do most of the pressing and a long range effort from Nicholson inside a minute of the second half was inches wide.
More brilliance from McGurn was required on 53 minutes to push away a bullet free-kick from Alim Ozturk at full stretch, then in the 63rd minute, Rovers wasted a glorious chance to take the lead as Anderson charged into box and only had to pick out Nade, but sent the ball sailing over striker’s head.
Rovers chances of taking something from the game diminished two minutes later as Nade careered into a challenge with McHattie at full speed, catching the defender late, and sending him spinning across tehe turf in pain.
While there was no malice in the tackle and a yellow card may have sufficed, it was a reckless lunge for a ball he was never likely to win, and you can understand why the referee deemed it worthy of a red.
Murray responded by bringing on Mark Stewart to replace Vaughan, but the game now returned to the first half pattern of attack versus defence, only this time Rovers had a man less.
The hosts defended bravely and held out until the 79th minute when ex-Raith loanee Jamie Walker, just a few minutes after coming off the bench, provided the moment of magic, unleashing a 25-yard dipper that left McGurn with no chance.
With tiredness now setting in, a slack back-pass from Ryan Conroy gifted Hearts a third with five minutes left as Billy King pounced to send a deflected effort past McGurn at his near post.
For all Rovers’ effort and frustration with the decisions that went against them, the gulf between the two teams was just too big on the night.
Raith Rovers: McGurn, Thomson, McKeown, Barr, Watson, Fox, Anderson, Callachan, Conroy, Nade, Vaughan (Stewart 70). Not used: Hill, Moon, Scott, Robertson, Matthews, Cuthbert.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, McHattie, Wilson, Ozturk, Gomis, Nicholson, King (Anderson 87), Pallardo, Keatings (Walker 73), Zeefuik (El Hassnaoui 87). Not used: Sow, McGhee, Eckersley, Gallacher.
Referee: George Salmond