Things went from bad to worse for Raith Rovers at Station Park last night as a dismal 2-1 defeat to Forfar Athletic left their title hopes hanging by a thread.
The Kirkcaldy side are still top as it stands, but are now relying on Ayr United losing twice during the run-in, while also needing to win all of their own seven remaining games.
With no wins in the last four outings, and performances lacking all the ingredients required of potential league winners, that is now looking a tall order, particularly when you factor in Ayr’s recent form, and vastly superior goal difference.
The away dressing room door remained shut for 50 minutes after full-time before Barry Smith emerged angry, verging on distraught, with his team’s display. His players are failing to justify the belief he has in the them right now, while he is also struggling to find the right formula that gets the best out of them, particularly away from home.
The focus for the run-in has to be on restoring some resilience and belief in the side, which will be required if they end up facing the play-offs. The players also need to step up and show that they want it enough, because over the past two games, it would be fair to question them.
The manager certainly set out his stall to attack, accommodating strikers Willis Furtado, Lewis Vaughan, Greig Spence and Liam Buchanan in the starting line-up as he looked for a positive reaction from Saturday’s woeful display in Ayr. Iain Davidson also came straight back into the defence after suspension.
There were three casualties from Somerset Park as out went Bobby Barr, Dario Zanatta and Kevin McHattie, while John Herron and Scott Robertson again missed out through injury, and their experience was certainly missed in the middle of the park where Raith lacked composure and were completely overrun for the second game running.
However, there are few excuses for the lack of leadership on display as there were enough experienced players in the side to handle second bottom part-time opposition, especially in defence where Raith failed to deal with the simple tasks throughout the night.
Rovers were fortunate not to fall behind in the ninth minute as Furtado tried to beat his man deep in his own half, but only ended up giving it away, allowing Matthew Aitken to break through on Aaron Lennox, but fortunately for Raith, the striker sent his effort narrowly wide of the far post.
Raith were searching for confidence after Saturday and they survived another let-off after another dangerous giveaway on 14 minutes. This time goalkeeper Lennox looked for Jason Thomson but instead kicked the ball straight to Dale Hilson, however, the ‘keeper redeemed himself by saving the striker’s low effort from 20 yards.
Spence hooked a Thomson cross over the bar as Raith tried to impose themselves, but the team only came alive for a brief spell after Vaughan switched wings from right to left, the position where he started season on fire, and he quickly set off on a penetrating run which led to a foul near the box.
The forward tried to turn back the clock to his free-kick scoring exploits earlier in the season by whipping a shot to the near post but Marc McCallum was equal to it, pushing it behind for corner.
A minute later, Raith won another free-kick only the left and this time Vaughan pinged his delivery into the heart of Forfar box, where skipper Kyle Benedictus rised highest, but his header fell agonisingly wide.
Just when Rovers looked to be building up a head of steam, they allowed Forfar to finish the half on top by retreating back the park and conceding needless fouls around their own box.
And they were almost made to pay on the stroke of half-time as Andy Munro headed a free-kick past Lennox from close range, but there was relief among the Rovers ranks as the assistant referee’s flag went up for a marginal offside.
For all their line-up showed intent on paper, in reality Raith hadn’t threatened the Forfar goal nearly enough, with Buchanan somehow managing to look isolated and left to chase lost causes despite all the forward players on the park.
A big push was required in the second half to get the three points they needed, instead the performance went backwards.
Forfar were the ones who emerged from the half-time break more fired up, and by 58 minutes Smith had seen enough.
A double change saw Bobby Barr and Dario Zanatta replace Buchanan and Spence, the marquee summer signings who have gone off the boil.
The change had zero effect though and Raith got out of jail on the hour as a Murray Mackintosh cross was blocked by the outstretched hand of Euan Murray as a refereeing decision finally went in Rovers’ favour.
However, the Kirkcaldy side were unable to take advantage of the reprieve and just a minute after making a key save at the feet of Dale Hilson, goalkeeper Lennox dropped a cross in his six-yard box, leaving Aitken the simple task of stroking the ball into the empty net.
It was a howler, an absolute gift from the ‘keeper, but it had been coming and their 68th minute opener was no less than Forfar deserved for a dominant second half.
Raith’s reaction to falling behind was muted at best, with a Regan Hendry pop from distance slicing wide the only attempt the visitors could muster. And when the Celtic loanee lost possession on the halfway line in the 75th minute, the home side cut through the Raith defence with ease as Aitken slid the ball home from six yards to make it 2-0.
This time Raith did have a quick response, pulling one back three minutes later as Furtado’s corner fell to Vaughan at the back post, and he fired a low shot on the turn past McCallum to give the league leaders a glimmer of a lifeline.
A draw would have been considered a poor result before kick-off, but Raith would have gladly accepted a point in the closing stages. That they never even came close to salvaging one, despite introducing another striker in Jonny Court and sending everyone up the park, says everything about the team’s current impotence,
It’s too early to say that this defeat was terminal to Raith’s title hopes, especially as Ayr still need to win their games in hand.
But teams that get outplayed and outfought at this stage of the season tend not to win leagues.