Livingston 0 Raith Rovers 1
The unstoppable force that is Ray McKinnon’s Raith Rovers continued their relentless charge towards the play-offs with a 1-0 win in Livingston this afternoon.
A dead rubber final league game could have given the Kirkcaldy side a legitimate excuse to ease off with one eye on Wednesday, but a strong team selection, coupled with a determined performance, ensured there was no let up in momentum.
It means Raith will go into their promotion quarter-final, now confirmed as versus Hibs, unbeaten in 11 games and having collected 10 more points than any other team in the Championship since the end of the January transfer window.
A truly amazing statistic, especially given the resources of some of the teams in the division.
A mark of Raith’s character has been their ability to grind out victories - 15 of their 18 league wins have been by a single goal margin - and so it proved again as Aidan Connolly’s strike early in the second half proved the difference.
“It was a tough game today, mentally, because everybody’s thinking about Wednesday,” said boss McKinnon.
“Overall I’m really pleased because it keeps the momentum going and the guys will be confident going into the play-offs.
“The pressure is not really on us. Anything we do from now is a bonus, but I’ve told the players to go and grab the opportunity.”
Aside from the suspended Kyle Benedictus, McKinnon sent out something close to his strongest starting XI against a Livi side who made a handful of changes ahead of their own relegation play-off against Stranraer.
After a scare in the second minute when Jordan Sheerin was denied by a superb last ditch block from Craig Barr, Rovers went on to dominate the first half.
Ryan Hardie was a thorn in the Livi defence in the early exchanges and he fashioned a chance for himself in the 11th minute, nutmegging the last defender to go through on goal but goalkeeper Scott Jamieson managed to turn his effort just wide of the far post.
Raith were racking up goal attempts and corner kicks as they kept Livi under constant pressure, but with the final shot or pass lacking a killer edge, the game remained goalless.
The visitors were almost caught against the run of play on the stroke of half-time when the ball fell to Matthew Knox unmarked at the back post, and only a brave block from Iain Davidson, who threw his body in front of the shot, prevented a certain goal. It was a challenge that perfectly summed up the dedication to the cause that McKinnon has instilled in his players.
Raith had another fright straight after half-time as the hulking figure of Sheerin out-muscled Davidson and drew a point-blank save from Kevin Cuthbert.
However, in their first attack of the second half in the 49th minute, Raith got the goal that their overall first half play had merited.
Jason Thomson picked out Louis Longridge at the edge of the box and the tricky winger drove past a defender before squaring for the unmarked Connolly to fire home from six yards. It was a precise, incisive move, described afterwards as a “five-a-side goal” by Livi boss David Hopkirk, who was less than happy with his side’s defending.
By the 70th minute, Rovers had made all three subs - James Craigen, Longridge and Barr - were all replaced by the returning Mark Stewart, Harry Panayiotou and Ross Matthews.
Barr left the field after treatment on a head knock but McKinnon confirmed afterwards that the move was purely precautionary and that the big defender will be fit for Wednesday.
Midway through the second half Rovers lost their rhytmn and for a 15-minute spell, Livingston had the upper hand.
Sub Jordan White should have equalised on 75 minutes when a poorly defended short corner saw the ball drop to the striker’s feet in the box, but he dragged his effort wide.
Cuthbert then made another superb save to deny Knox from close range, after a clear push on Rory McKeown was unpunished by referee Craig Charleston.
Rovers recovered from their wobble, however, to comfortably see out the victory with Connolly twice close to doubling his tally in the closing stages.
On 83 minutes the 20-year-old sent a rocket shot towards goal that was heading in until blocked by Morgan Neill - who certainly felt it as it left an imprint on his thigh.
Davidson went close with a back post header, and with the last kick of the game, Connolly again found space inside the area and his low effort was just kept out by Jamieson, who spilled it past the post.
This Raith team are clearly enjoying themselves, playing with confidence and will go into the play-offs without an ounce of pressure or expectation. It could be the perfect blend.
Whatever happens over the course of the next week, or three, McKinnon and his players can be proud of their achievements.
Livingston: Jamieson, Halkett (Cole 71), Kakay, Neill, Fotheringham, J.Mullen, D.Mullen (White 71), Knox, Sheerin (Buchanan 59), Telfer, Currie. Not used: McCallum, Stanton, Pittman, Longridge.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, Callachan, Toshney, Davidson, Hardie, Connolly, Longridge (Panayiotou 67), McKeown, Craigen (Stewart 48), Barr (Matthews 71). Not used: Law, Anderson, McCord, Bates.
Referee: Craig Charleston