Ten-man Rovers dig deep for victory over Stranraer

Nathan Flanagan and Kevin Nisbet celebrate after the latter put Raith 2-1 in front. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Nathan Flanagan and Kevin Nisbet celebrate after the latter put Raith 2-1 in front. Pic: Fife Photo Agency

Raith Rovers 2 Stranraer 1

There was relief at the final whistle on Saturday as 10-man Raith Rovers held on for victory over Stranraer.

Two clinical finishes from Kevin Nisbet either side of a Luke Donnelly equaliser had the home side 2-1 ahead and in good shape as half-time approached.

But a 43rd minute red card for defender Euan Murray for two bookings picked up within minutes of each other put a different complexion on things, and the 10 men had to show a great deal of resilience in a mostly backs-to-the-wall second half to hold on for three points.

The sending off was not the only hurdle for Raith to overcome as they were also missing four key players through injury, including three forwards, namely Lewis Vaughan, Chris Duggan and Lewis Milne.

Given the lack of attacking options it was a surprise to see Liam Buchanan left on the bench, with John McGlynn instead opting to hand midfielder Ryan Stevenson his first ever league start on the right side of a five-man midfield.

The 19-year-old acquitted himself well before being replaced just minutes into the second half by another teenager, Jamie Watson, who put in a brave performance at right back following the red card to Murray.

With James Berry also coming off the bench late on, it was encouraging to see the youngsters contributing to a hard-earned three points.

Stranraer left Stark's Park feeling robbed - they were giving Raith problems even before the red card - but for all the difficulties they faced, the home side showed in patches that they are continuing to improve under McGlynn.

Both goals were well-worked, while some of the link-up play with 11 men on the pitch was pleasing on the eye, but it was the hard work, organisation and sheer determination of the second half that impressed most.

Rovers got off to the ideal start as they fashioned an opener inside five minutes.

Nathan Flanagan was the architect, pinching the ball from dithering defender David Brownlie before timing his pass perfectly for Nisbet to go clear and steer an ultra-confident right-foot finish high past Max Currie into the top corner.

Rather than build on this good start, Raith seemed to sit back and allow Stranraer to gain a foothold in the match, with the visitors enjoying a good spell which ultimately led to the equalising goal on 28 minutes.

A long free-kick towards the back post from Jamie Hamill was nodded back across goal, where it fell for the unmarked Donnelly, and he lashed an unstoppable shot past Robbie Thomson. There have been too many goals conceded from set pieces this season, and Rovers' failure to win the first header, or deal with the knock-down, will be a concern for McGlynn.

Almost immediately the visitors had the chance to take the lead with PJ Crossan getting the better of Kyle Benedictus to race into the box and fire a low shot inches wide with Thomson frozen to the spot.

The scare seemed to knock Raith back into their early groove and Flanagan found space down the left to cross for the inrushing Stevenson, who hesitated slightly when the goal opened up, which saw his goalbound effort blocked for a corner.

Rovers regained the lead on the 39th minute with the move of the match and Flanagan was at heart of things again, with another penetrating run through midfield before finding Ross Matthews, who in turn clipped the ball into the path of Nisbet.

The striker still had plenty to do as he collected the ball in centre of the box, but a composed touch took him past the defender, and once given a clear sight of goal, there was only one outcome as he fired beyond the diving Currie.

Referee Steven Kirkland had penalised Murray a number of times throughout the first half. The defender seemed to get involved in a running battle with the whistler, and in such circumstances there is usually only one winner.

A shoulder barge on Crossan earned Murray his first booking in the 41st minute, and just two minutes later a theatrical fall in the box after a coming together with defender Adam Cummins was ill-advised as he gave the ref a decision to make.

After an initial moment of hesitation, Murray's appeals for a penalty appeared to make up Mr Kirkland's mind, and the referee brandished a second yellow card, followed by the red, to leave the defender with the long walk to the tunnel.

If there is such a thing as a preferred time to lose a player, then just seconds before half-time at least gave Raith the chance to regroup at the interval.

No changes were made, but after Thomson was called upon to make a vital one-handed save to keep out a Grant Anderson header straight after the restart, McGlynn quickly introduced Watson, and the 18-year-old full back handled the situation well, making a number of important interventions as the team defended their lead.

Rovers were coping well with the man disadvantage and only a long-range effort from Kyle Turner, which bounced narrowly wide, and a cross-come-shot from substitute Mark Lamont which forced Thomson to backpedal and tip over the bar, gave them any cause for real alarm.

Nisbet ran himself into the ground ploughing a lone furrow up front, supported whenever possible by Flanagan, a willing runner both going forward and tracking back, and it was no surprise that neither player lasted the 90 minutes, with Nisbet appearing to succumb to cramp.

Callum Crane was another who played a vital role in relieving pressure in the second half, with a number of forward forays helping his team to get up the park. The on-loan Livingston left back looks to have a great engine.

Given the circumstances Raith would need some bounces to go their way as the game entered the closing stages and twice they got out of jail; firstly, thanks to a well positioned Iain Davidson who cleared off the line from a Donnelly shot, then in the final minute, substitute Innes Cameron headed wide from six yards when it looked easier to score.

A lengthy period of injury time followed but Regan Hendry, who just got better as the game went on, took much of the pressure on his young shoulders, taking the ball for a run down the touchline, holding it in the corner flag and drawing a foul from Hamill.

The full-time whistle brought relief, and cheers as the home fans applauded their teams efforts.

While victories are always welcome regardless of how they come, Rovers will hope for less stressful 90 minutes in the weeks ahead.