Ayr United 0 Raith Rovers 2
Raith Rovers got their Championship campaign off to a flyer with a 2-0 victory against newly-promoted Ayr United at Somerset Park this afternoon.
A difficult opening match was expected at what has been a notoriously tough venue over the years, against the side who came up through the play-offs last season, but Raith were a step ahead of the hosts throughout most of the 90 minutes.
Particularly pleasing for the visitors was that both goalscorers, Ross Callachan and Ross Matthews, are home grown talents with Callachan dictating the midfield, and Matthews grabbing his first senior goal for the club.
The clean sheet was a bonus after conceding in all four Betfred Cup games, while another big plus was the performance of Rangers loanee Jordan Thompson, handed an instant debut in midfield due to an injury to Iain Davidson.
The 19-year-old from Belfast showed why he was previously on the books of Manchester United with great composure on the ball, and a few touches of class, in an encouraging first outing.
Raith boss Gary Locke certainly enjoyed a better start than last season when he suffered a 4-0 home defeat to Dundee as manager of Kilmarnock, but he was not getting carried away with the victory.
“It’s a good start, but that’s all it is,” he said. “I’m delighted with the performance, but we’ve got a long way to go. Collectively, it was a good team performance and we’ve got to keep that up.”
Raith’s first half showing was particularly impressive with the forward trio of Bobby Barr, Declan McManus and Lewis Vaughan a constant threat.
A lively start to proceeding saw chances at both ends inside the first two minutes.
Raith fans were still trickling into the away end when Kevin McHattie floated a free-kick into the box, finding Kyle Benedictus unmarked, but the defender couldn’t get purchase on his header and it was an easy gather for goalkeeper Greig Fleming.
Ayr raced up the park and Paul Cairney - the Honest Men’s most dangerous player throughout - cut inside from the left and bent a right foot effort from 22 yards just wide with Kevin Cuthbert at full stretch.
Thompson was close to debut goal on eight minutes when he met Barr’s cut-back in the box but his effort was blocked by a defender in the six-yard box.
Raith’s opener arrived on 19 minutes and it was no surprise that Barr was involved as he had the Ayr defence on toast.
Matthews’ deep cross found the winger at the back post, and he turned his marker in a flash before dinking a ball back across goal to Callachan who planted a bullet header past Fleming.
The goal was just rewards for Callachan, who covered almost every blade of grass in a spirited, all-action performance. If he can shake off the inconsistency and turn in these kind of displays week in, week out, he could be Raith’s star man this season.
There were loud appeals for a Raith penalty just two minutes later as Vaughan nutmegged defender Nicky Devlin, who then stuck out a leg and appeared to bring the striker down. Ref Euan Anderson was in a great position, but failed to penalise.
The rejected penalty claims were evened up five minutes later when Cuthbert parried a long range Daryll Meggat free-kick back into the danger area, and Kevin McHattie prevented Cairney from finding the open net with a high boot that connected with ball and face, leaving the forward bleeding.
Anderson, again, decided to side with the defender and had to have words with irate Ayr manager Ian McCall on the sidelines.
The home side fashioned their best chance of the first half on 34 minutes as a lovely one-two on the edge of the box caught out the Raith defence, and left Cairney one-on-one with Cuthbert.
The Raith ‘keeper reacted superbly, rushing from his line to make the block at the striker’s feet, injuring himself in the process, although he was able to continue after treatment.
Raith were close to doubling their lead five mintues before the break with two chances falling to McManus in quick succession.
Firstly, after being played in by Vaughan, the on-loan striker drew a superb one-handed save from Fleming with a powerful effort.
The ball was returned to the penalty area by Callachan, but this time McManus was denied by the woodwork as his header bounced back off the inside of the post, with ‘keeper Fleming only just scrambling clear as Vaughan looked to pounce.
Ayr improved after the break and a sustained period of possession finally resulted in a gilt-edged chance for Alan Forrest on 64 minutes.
Cairney blocked a clearance as the Raith defence dithered in clearing their lines, and the ball fell for Forrest in space in the box, but he dragged a poor effort well wide.
Home heads seemed to drop after that as Raith came back into the game and Fleming had to be at full stretch to cut out a McManus cut-back that would have left sub Rudi Skacel with a tap-in.
Raith’s killer second goal arrived 15 minutes from and again it was Barr who was the creator with a blistering run down the left, before picking out Skacel in the middle.
The Czech’s strike was parried by Fleming, but the ball fell to Matthews just inside the area, who stroked it into the gaping net for his first senior goal.
Raith were comfortable thereafter, and Skacel, who looked dangerous after replacing Vaughan, went close to adding a third in the last minute but snatched an effort wide of the near post from sub Scott Roberts cross.
There will be tougher challenges ahead, but this was a pleasing start for Raith, and a solid platfrom to build from in the upcoming home matches against St Mirren and Dunfermline.
FFP MAN OF THE MATCH: Ross Callachan - made telling contributions at both ends of the park. Scored the opener and set the tempo for his side throughout a non-stop 90 minutes.
Ayr United: Fleming, Devlin, Murphy, Meggatt, Boyle, Crawford (Thomas 82), Docherty, Adams (O’Connell 85), Donald (McGuffie 62), Cairney, Forrest. Not used: Rose, Hart, Wardrope, McCracken.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, M’voto, Benedictus, McHattie, Thompson, Callachan, Matthews, Barr (Robertson 88), Vaughan (Skacel 70), McManus (Stewart 86). Not used: Johnston, Osei, Coustrain, Lennox.
Referee: Euan Anderson