Raith Rovers 1 Ayr United 1
Raith Rovers remain top of League One after an engrossing 1-1 draw with title rivals Ayr United at Stark's Park this afternoon.
The result meant Rovers lost their perfect home record, but they will not be disappointed with the draw that keeps them one point ahead of Ayr with two games in hand, particularly as they had to come from behind to earn it.
The match was fiercely competitive throughout, with Ayr's industrious approach earning them six bookings compared to Raith's one, and almost twice the number of fouls, but the Kirkcaldy side stood up to the physical challenge and neither could argue with the outcome on the balance of play.
The top of the table clash attracted a bumper 3064 crowd, generating a decent atmosphere, with around 1000 more Raith fans than on an average Saturday. The team did not let them down, and perhaps some will be tempted back after watching a pulsating 90 minutes.
Raith manager Barry Smith said: "It was a good old-fashioned game of football where two teams went toe-to-toe.
"The coaching staff of both teams will pick the pieces out of it, but for the fans it was probably a great game to watch.
"The crowd was excellent and I think they saw the fighting spirit of the players in the second half."
A major talking point after the match was Ayr manager Ian McCall's somewhat sour assessment that certain Raith players had somehow lacked professionalism in the game, but when asked to expand on his accusations, he declined.
"There are one or two of their players who are very much not in their manager’s image with how they conduct themselves," he said.
“Barry was a magnificent professional but one or two of their players are not like that.”
Smith refused to be drawn into a war of words, simply stating he had no need to defend his players. With an unbeaten home record and only two league defeats so far this season, Raith will be more than happy to let their football do the talking.
Raith's preparations weren't helped by the sudden departure of Dario Zanatta, recalled by Hearts during the week, and with Bobby Barr only just back in full training after injury, Smith opted to field four central midfielders, with Ross Matthews and John Herron occupying the wide areas.
Ayr bolstered their squad with the addition of goalkeeper Jack Ruddy on loan from Wolves in midweek, who knocked Michael Hart to the bench, while both sides were without key players in defence due to injury.
There were nerves on the pitch in the opening exchanges as both sides took time to settle.
Ayr were gaining the most joy in the forward areas, particularly through Michael Moffat dropping off the front and collecting the ball in space.
The visitors fashioned the first chance of the game on 18 minutes, and it was a good one as Jamie Adams raced into the box untracked but sent a free header over the bar from eight yards.
Raith were struggling to get service to the front two in the first half, but Lewis Vaughan almost manufactured the opener with a run from midfield, into the heart of the Ayr box, that saw him curl an effort inches wide of the post.
Ayr got their noses in front on 35 minutes when Moffat again dropped deep to pick up possession, taking Iain Davidson with him, before clipping a glorious pass over the head of Dave McKay for Shankland to race through and coolly lob goalkeeper Graeme Smith.
Raith were perhaps fortunate to reach the break without further damage inflicted upon them as Ayr were adamant that a Jason Thomson trip on Shankland in the box should have resulted in a penalty. Referee Barry Cook, however, felt otherwise.
Having lost the first half, Raith boss Smith responded with a positive change at the break, replacing Herron with a more natural wide player in Barr, and immediately Raith had more thrust in attack, with the equaliser arriving just 90 seconds after the restart.
Greig Spence won a free-kick on the right, before dusting himself down to get on the end of Vaughan's near-post delivery to flick the ball past Ruddy and into the net via a touch off the inside of the back post. Game on.
The second half turned into an end-to-end battle with neither settling for the draw.
Shankland had a decent chance to restore Ayr's lead straight away but fired over, but the visitors were handed an even better opportunity on the 50-minute mark as they were awarded an indirect free-kick on the Raith six-yard line after the ball became trapped under Iain Davidson's legs.
Things got rather heated as players jostled for position on the goal-line with Adams suddenly falling to the floor clutching his face after a coming together with Barr, causing the Raith fans behind the goal to erupt in fury suggesting the player was attempting to get Barr sent off.
Once things settled, Raith lined up all 11 players on the line, and the ball was laid back for Shankland to strike. The South Stand held its breath before erupting with joy when the effort was blocked near the line before being booted to safety.
Raith then enjoyed a good spell, with Ross Matthews forcing Ruddy into a diving, albeit comfortable save, before Barr embarked on a mazy run past three players before overhitting the final pass that would have put Spence in the clear.
Barr then got on the end of Spence pass but couldn't get his shot away when in a good position, and the ball broke to Vaughan at the edge of the box who blasted inches over.
The same player then hit a stunning free-kick from fully 30 yards that grazed the roof of the net on the way over with some Raith fans at the opposite end of the ground thinking it had gone in.
During this good spell of Raith pressure, Ayr picked up several bookings, with the overly aggressive Adams fortunate not to pick up a second yellow for persistent fouling, a fact recognised by McCall who replaced him with striker Craig Moore.
Both teams continued to trade punches heading into the closing stages, with Barr inches away from connecting with a Thomson cross six yards out, before Alan Forrest forced Smith to tip over with a snapshot from 12 yards.
Ayr arguably needed the win more, and push bodies forward in the final minute, and they were almost rewarded when Declan McDaid was afforded too much time and space in the Raith box and he rattled a shot against the top of the crossbar.
With so little to separate the sides across 90 minutes, it is almost certain that the title race will remain equally as close until the final few weeks, although Raith have the chance to take the upper hand with the first of two crucial games in hand coming up at Stranraer next week.
Raith Rovers: Smith, Thomson, Herron (Barr 45), Murray, Spence, Robertson, Buchanan, Vaughan, Matthews, Davidson, McKay. Not used: Lennox, Barr, Osei, Court, Hendry, Watson, Berry.
Ayr United: Ruddy, Boyle, Rose, Moffat, Forrest, McDaid, Ferguson, Adams (Moore 67), Shankland, Reid, Bell. Not used: Hart, McGuffie, Hilton, Faulds, Murphy, McCowan.
Referee: Barry Cook