Red card drama as Raith Rovers return to top of League One
Raith Rovers 1 Airdrieonians 0
Amid the drama of four red cards - three on the park and one in the dugout - Raith Rovers dug deep for a hard-earned victory that took them back to the top of League One.
On a wet and windy afternoon at Stark's Park, the home side finished with nine players, having fought to preserve a one-goal lead for the majority of the second half with 10 men following a 53rd minute red card for defender Iain Davidson.
Ross Matthews, the scorer of what proved the match-winning goal three minutes before the break, also received his marching orders deep in stoppage time.
That came after referee Greg Aitken had levelled up the teams by sending off Airdrie full back Callum Fordyce in the 83rd minute.
Both latter red cards looked no worse than yellow card offences, although Davidson, having gone in high and late in an attempt to play the ball, could have few complaints.
The visitors also finished with nine players, losing Charlie Reilly to injury in the 89th minute after using all their subs, while their manager, Ian Murray, was also banished from the touchline, receiving a second yellow card for protesting a late penalty claim.
With the referee struggling to keep control, and Airdrie goalkeeper David Hutton effectively playing outfield, the closing minutes were absolute mayhem as Rovers desperately defended their box against a barrage of high balls and long throws.
It took real mettle to get over the finish line for a fourth clean sheet in a row, knocking an Airdrie side who had won their last six off the top of the table.
"It's a massive win," said a delighted John McGlynn. "One thing you can't ever question this team on is their guts and determination.
"What they've shown there is amazing, to fight and scrap and dig out a 1-0 win."
Rovers made three changes from the side that started the win over Montrose the previous week with Grant Anderson, Tony Dingwall and Kieron Bowie returning to the starting line-up.
Dropping to the bench were John Baird and Dylan Tait, while Steven Anderson was ruled out with injury, alongside Dan Armstrong, Michael Miller, Regan Hendry and Lewis Vaughan.
The home side started on the front foot and were unlucky not to take the lead on three minutes when Bowie outmuscled a defender to lay off to Jamie Gullan who rattled a shot against the post from 20 yards.
Airdrie showed their intent shortly afterwards with a header form Paul McKay that clipped the top of the crossbar after Rovers had played themselves into trouble at the back.
The game settled into a even contest - low on quality but with plenty effort on display from both sides.
Airdrie fashioned a clear opening on 39 minutes as Calum Gallacher's clever reverse pass put Callum Smith in the clear but he shot wide of the target with just Ross Munro to beat.
Rovers punished that miss on 42 minutes when Dave McKay's deep cross found Kieran MacDonald beyond the far post and his low drilled ball back across goal was turned into the net by Matthews - his reward for a tigerish first half display in the middle of the park.
The second half was only eight minutes old when Rovers were reduced to 10 men after Davidson's high tackle on Kurtis Roberts resulted in referee Aitken brandishing a straight red card.
It came at a time when Davidson was bossing the game, so much so that he was voted as the man of the match via the fans app, but it forced Raith into a quick rethink.
Gullan was immediately sacrificed as Jamie Watson came into right-back position, with Dave McKay moving across to centre-back.
Despite the man advantage Airdrie struggled to take control of the game, and it was Raith who came close to scoring with MacDonald's cross just evading Bowie.
All over the park Rovers were putting in a huge shift, particularly captain, and birthday boy, Kyle Benedictus who put his body on the line to make a number of telling clearances with head and foot, as well as blocking a goalbound header from Paul McKay.
Bowie, leading the line on his own at the age of 17, had ran his legs into jelly before being replaced by Joao Victoria, who made a telling contribution with six minutes left.
Picking up a clearance deep in his own half, he skipped past his man to run into space, before being crudely brought down by Fordyce as he crossed the halfway line.
With no attempt to play the ball, the Raith fans chanted 'off,off', possibly more in hope than expectation, but referee Aitken duly obliged by brandishing his red card for 10-a-side.
Airdrie continued to press but found no joy against a Rovers side defending for their lives, and it was the home side who suddenly had a man advantage when Reilly went down under a fair challenge from Brad Spencer, and was unable to continue.
Numbers were soon even again though as the game entered injury-time, the referee flashing his red card for a third time in front of a stunned Matthews after the midfielder caught his man late in a tackle - the type of challenge typically punished by a yellow card at worst.
Chaos ensued as Airdrie pushed everyone forward for the final throw of the dice, including goalkeeper David Hutton.
The ball broke to Dale Carrick 20 yards out, and his effort was deflected by Benedictus, who appeared to dive with both arms outstretched, the ball ricocheting onto the crossbar before being frantically cleared as Raith somehow avoided conceding either a penalty or a goal.
Now into the 95th minute, there was still time for Aitken to show his red card once more, this time to Airdrie manager Murray, who had earlier been shown a yellow card for dissent.
The final whistle blew shortly afterwards to bring a remarkable match to a close as Raith celebrated a victory that could prove to be a very important one.
They may not be playing their best football at the moment, but encouragingly, McGlynn's men are now showing the resilience of a side with serious title credentials.
However, with two key suspensions added to a lengthy injury list, it will take another mammoth effort in Falkirk next week to keep the run going.