Ayr United 3 Raith Rovers 0
Raith Rovers promotion hopes suffered a severe blow as they were soundly beaten at a rain-soaked Somerset Park yesterday.
It was not just the result, but the manner of it which was most concerning as, for the second time this season, Raith were thoroughly outperformed in every department at the home of their title rivals.
While Ayr United deserve all the credit for a dominant showing, which surely now makes them favourites for the league, there is no question that Raith's woeful performance contributed to their own downfall.
An overly cautious approach set the tone straight from kick-off, but it was the gutless reaction to losing the first goal that was the biggest let down.
From the 35th minute onwards Raith were a beaten side and for the team to fold in a game of this magnitude, and in front of almost 500 travelling fans, is incredibly disheartening. Especially when we know they are capable of so much better.
Barry Smith’s change of tactics from his favoured 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 reflected his concerns over the absence of Iain Davidson, John Herron and Scott Robertson - three experienced players who form part of the spine of the strongest starting 11.
The system, had it been executed properly, could have caused Ayr problems, however, the way it was implemented only played straight into the home side’s hands with lone striker Willis Furtado left isolated, wingers barely involved, midfielders too deep, and a defence that panicked in possession and punted the ball up the park to no one.
Had the wide men been prepared to go looking for the ball instead of letting the game pass them by, had the midfield shown more bravery in getting on the ball and supporting the front, and had the back four and goalkeeper defended cross balls in a competent manner, then perhaps the outcome may have been different.
Rovers’ failure to press the game gave the Ayr midfield an embarrassment of time and space on the ball, while their full backs simply marauded forwarded to join the attack at will as Raith retreated further back the park.
The visitors particularly struggled down the left side where Ayr winger Declan McDaid caused numerous problems, particularly in the first half.
A fully fit Kevin McHattie is an asset, but the left back looked nowhere near ready to be thrown into such a high-paced game after a season plagued by injuries. It was not his fault, but his lack of match fitness was just one of several weak links.
Celtic loanee Regan Hendry, having barely featured since arriving in January, was also suddenly thrust into this top of the table clash. The teenager was certainly not to blame, and was one of the few who actually tried to show composure on the ball, but his lack of game time certainly didn't help prepare him for such an occasion.
Those two had an excuse to be off the pace. The majority, however, let the team down and there were just too many passengers in a match where Raith needed everyone to stand up and be counted.
The trio of absences didn’t help but as an excuse it is a thin one, particular as Ayr have had their share of injury troubles this season and are currently missing their club captain. After all, it’s a squad game, albeit Ayr do seem to have invested a little more in that department.
For all their failings on the day, Raith still have a right to feel aggrieved with match referee Gavin Ross as the hosts should have been reduced to 10 men midway through the first.
With the game still 0-0, Lawrence Shankland stepped onto the back of Ross Matthews’ leg after the pair had tussled for the ball, in full view of both the referee and his assistant on the touchline.
Shankland knew what he was doing, and in choosing to stand on his opponent rather than step over him, he was asking for a red card. Additional force or not, Matthews would have felt those studs in his leg with the player’s weight behind it.
Not even a booking was shown, suggesting that the officials either somehow failed to spot it despite appearing to look directly at it, or they simply chose to ignore it.
That incident aside, Ayr, and Shankland in particular, were excellent and such was their superiority, Raith would’ve needed an extra man to have had a chance.
Both teams looked up for it in the opening exchanges. Tackles were flying in, play raged from end-to-end, and the action was breathless.
Ayr were first to threaten as Michael Moffat found space in the box but Aaron Lennox was equal to his low effort, doing well to hold on as strikers raced in for a rebound.
At the other end, Bobby Barr's pinpoint crossfield pass found Dario Zanatta, who cut inside and fired a powerful shot from 16 yards that Jack Ruddy could only parry, before the defence scrambled clear.
At this point Raith were at least playing their part in a rip-roaring contest, but the longer the half wore on, the more reserved they became.
Ayr were beginning to attack in waves, and with McHattie struggling to contain McDaid, the winger won a free-kick on the corner edge of the box for a tug on his shirt.
McDaid sent the cross into the near post where Shankland stole a yard on his marker to bullet a header past Lennox.
The roars from the Somerset Road end only sent Raith further into a shell as they desperately looked to cling on to a 1-0 deficit until half-time.
Schoolboy defending two minutes before the break put paid to that as Ayr again found space down the right, this time crossing to the back post where defender Jason Thomson, presumably without a shout from the goalkeeper, crazily headed the ball straight back into the heart of his own box and on a plate for Jamie Adams to send a volley towards goal, which Lennox then spilled over the line.
Smith responded at the break, changing system back to 4-4-2 and replacing Zanatta with Jonny Court, whose second half effort was perhaps the only positive from the game as he certainly put himself about and did a reasonable job at trying to hold the ball up.
However, any flickering hope that Raith could mount an unlikely fightback was quickly ended as more poor defending from a 53rd minute corner led to pinball in the box before Moffat swept the ball home from six yards.
Given Raith's biggest strength all season has been their defensive record, that they have started to lose poor goals for set pieces in recent weeks is a major concern, and something that must be addressed if they are to stay in the title hunt.
More changes were made, with Liam Buchanan brought on for Hendry, and Lewis Vaughan shifting from midfield, to up front, and back again only serving to frustrate and confuse a player who Raith are no longer getting the best out of.
At 3-0 down, Rovers were now a ramshackle side with little shape or purpose to their play, and they were only spared from a heavier defeat by the woodwork after a Michael Rose header from another corner struck the post, while Lennox also made a good stop from Moffat.
Rovers did manage one decent attempt on goal, but a 20-yard Furtado effort which was deflected narrowly wide only brought sarcastic cheers from the home fans. For the visitors, the full-time whistle could not come soon enough.
Everyone at Raith will be licking their wounds after such a chastening 90 minutes, but the players were back in training this morning in preparation for the midweek trip to Forfar, where there needs to be a positive reaction that carries through until the end of the season.
Raith showed character to recover from their previous thumping at Somerset Park in November, and there are enough games left for them to do so again, but it's going to take a lot more courage and conviction than was on display yesterday.
It may not feel like it, but the Kirkcaldy men are still top of the table by a point, and Ayr still need to go and win some tough fixtures to take advantage of their game in hand. The title is still up for grabs, but six points from the next two games are a must. Then take it from there.
There will be unhappy fans after this performance, and rightly so, and the team needs to take the criticism on the chin, and quickly move on.
Now, more than ever, everyone needs to stick together.