Raith Rovers 2 Hibernian 1
Raith Rovers asserted their promotion credentials last night as they came from behind to beat Hibernian at Stark’s Park in the live BBC Alba clash.
While Rovers impressive record against the teams below them has put them firmly in the driving seat for fourth place, their lack of a victory against the top three sides suggested they might just be making up the numbers come play-off time.
However, this impressive result and performance should instil some belief for play-offs, as well as going a long way towards getting them there.
The three points were just as crucial to keep some distance from the chasing pack, with Morton, Queens and St Mirren all laying down the gauntlet by winning handsomely, scoring 13 goals between them.
Rovers rode their luck at times - Jason Cummings miss of the season contender was an almighty let-off - but they certainly deserved their victory as their hard work and endeavour proved more than a match for the quality in the Hibs side.
A surprise team selection proved a masterstroke from manager Ray McKinnon as his decision to partner defenders Iain Davidson and Lewis Toshney in midfield helped to stifle Hibs, and showed the value of having such versatility in the squad.
Sticking with two up front also ensured Rovers carried a threat all game, with Mark Stewart grabbing the winner, his 11th of the season, while Ryan Hardie tormented the Hibs centre-halves with his pace and work-rate.
There was great legs throughout the Rovers team with Hibs players often swarmed in possession, while Rovers also showed good energy on the ball, with Louis Longridge proving particularly good at dragging the team up the park on his return to the starting 11 - just one of many contenders for Raith’s top performer.
A delighted McKinnon recognised the significance of the victory: “It was important to win that tonight if anything arises later in the season,” he said.
“Over the piece we’ve probably deserved more out of the games against Hibs, and I think we got that tonight.
“They are a very good side and have been beating Premier League sides for fun, but if you look at our games over the season they’ve been very tight.
“Tonight was another very even game but we deserved to shade it.”
The only low point from a great night for Raith was the attendance - just 2386 inside Stark’s Park was almost 3000 down on the cup tie between the sides in January.
A variety of factors - Hibs third away game in a week and an evening slot to accomodate live TV coverage undoubtedly affected the turn-out, but it was nonetheless a disappointing crowd for such a big match.
The Rovers fans who did turn out certainly responded to another full-hearted display, giving the players great backing throughout, as well as a rousing reception at full-time after a fifth straight home win - Stark’s Park really is becoming a fortress again.
Raith made a good start and were edging their opponents in terms of possession, but Hibs looked more threatening on the break as Kevin Cuthbert was forced into early action to push away an effort from Cummings, before plucking an Anthony Stokes header out the air.
Hibs took the lead on 25 minutes as Rovers made a meal of defending a corner kick.
Cuthbert failed to get any distance on his punch, then Davidson did likewise with a poor clearing header which fell straight to Stokes at the edge of the area who fired low into the net through the crowded box.
Raith responded on 37 minutes with an equalising goal from an unlikely source.
Craig Barr’s ball over the top found Toshney in the centre-forward position, who certainly looked the part as he chested the ball down between defenders before sliding a shot in the bottom corner.
A superb goal-saving block from Jason Thomson denied Stokes a certain goal a minute before half-time, while there was still time for Raith to threaten once more before the break as Hardie was just crowded out after a brilliant run, before Stewart’s volley was deflected wide.
Raith continued to play on the front foot early in the second half and came close on 52 minutes when Hardie burst to the by-line and his cut back was knocked against his own post and wide by defender Liam Fontaine.
Raith’s second goal was only slightly delayed as from Longridge’s outswinging corner, Barr’s flick on found Stewart lurking a the back post who leapt superbly to nod home.
Rovers defended solidly throughout but they had a five-minute wobble in the aftermatch of taking the lead which they were lucky to survive.
Only a poor first touch from Cummings prevented him from going clean through before a last-ditch block from Toshney denied Stokes.
But the real let off arrived on 58 minutes as the ball arrived at unmarked Cummings at the back post who only needed to divert it over the line from two yards out but he somehow contrived to hit the underside of the bar, to the astonishment of everyone inside the ground.
The young striker was prompty subbed and sat in the away dug-out with his head in his hands.
Raith managed to steady the ship and got themselves back into the game with chances to extend their lead.
On 63 minutes, Hardie failed to make a proper connection with Ross Callachan’s cross from six yards out and the ball trickled wide, then five minutes later Callachan had two attempts from inside the box, the first blocked and the second ending up in the side net.
Raith sat deeper in the closing stages as Hibs threw everything at them and there were a few hearts in mouths on 84 mintues as sub Chris Dagnall’s flick spun inches wide.
The striker went even closer two minutes later with a looping header towards the back post that bounced down off the bar.
Raith hung on through five minutes injury-time to claim a significant scalp, and restore their seven point advantage in fourth place. With seven games left, they are almost there.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, Barr, Benedictus, McKeown, Longridge (Craigen 80), Toshney, Davidson, Callachan, Hardie, Stewart (Anderson 80). Subs not used: Law, McCord, Panayiotou, Thomas.
Hibernian: Oxley, Gray, McGregor, Fontaine, Stevenson, Bartley, Boyle, McGinn, Keatings (Dagnall 73), Cummings (El Alagui 60), Stokes. Subs not used: Virtanen, Handling, Gunnarsson, Thomson, Donaldson.
Referee: John McKendrick.