Relief as Raith claim long-awaited win
Raith Rovers 2 St Mirren 0
After more than four months and 17 games without one, Raith Rovers have finally won a football match.
Relief swept Stark's Park last night as the 2-0 victory over St Mirren finally put an end to one of the longest winless runs in the club's history and earned John Hughes his first win as Rovers manager at the fourth attempt.
Ryan Hardie was the hero with two goals from the bench while Slovakian goalkeeper Pavol Penksa marked his debut with a clean sheet - the team's first in 12 games - as Raith opened up a nine-point gap over the bottom of the table Buddies.
It wasn't pretty, but in the circumstances, it was never going to be a free-flowing football display that would pull the team out the rut. With confidence low, Rovers simply had to show that they had the stomach for a relegation fight, and in that regard, the players answered the bell.
On a night where an on-form St Mirren side played the better football and enjoyed more possession and territory, Raith did the ugly side of the game - blocking shots, making tackles, tracking runs - to ensure that nothing would be given away cheaply.
Hughes appears to be restoring the organisation, work ethic and team spirit that was sorely lacking towards the end of Gary Locke's reign. Now that the monkey is off the team's back, he will hope to stamp his style of play on the side.
For all the hard work, Raith had zero goal threat until the introduction of Hardie in the 67th minute.
The 19-year-old substitute brought a penalty box presence that a determined display had been lacking, and his finishing prowess proved the difference between the sides.
Hughes made a number of changes to the side that lost in Ayr last midweek.
Ryan Stevenson dropped to the bench after his cameo in goals, with Penksa taking his place between the sticks after only one training session with his new team mates.
A solid defensive performance meant he had a fairly quiet debut, but in terms of his kicking and handling the new stopper made a good impression. He did flap at one cross in the first half, but his eagerness to come off his line to punch clear proved more of a help than a hindrance on the night.
Mark Stewart replaced Hardie in the starting line-up, but lasted only 19 minutes before picking up a knee strain, while Kevin McHattie dropped out injured, meaning centre-half Kyle Benedictus was shifted out to an unfamiliar left back position, where he had a fine game.
There was also a recall for Bobby Barr, and if ever a player showed the difference that confidence can make it was the winger as after a largely quiet first hour, he burst into life after setting up the opener, with the type of penetrating runs that made him one of the team's early season stand-outs.
As well as personnel changes, Hughes tinkered with his tactics, as Chris Johnston, more noted for his wing-play, was drafted into a more central position, playing just off the front, as the manager looked to address a lack of creativity from midfield.
The move almost paid off immediately as Johnston found himself in space 22 yards out but his low drive was well held by 'keeper Billy O'Brien.
However, Saints soon established a foothold in the match as Raith adopted a pensive approach, with Declan McManus becoming increasingly isolated in attack.
But for all their possession in the Rovers half, Saints found it hard to penetrate a packed defence, where Iain Davidson looked back to his best, playing in front of the back four, and helping prevent a number of dangerous attacks in their tracks.
Saints best chance arrived on 37 minutes when John Sutton won a knock-down, which Lewis Morgan latched onto inside the box, before rolling an effort across the face of goal and inches wide of the far post.
Rovers needed the break to regroup but they almost struck on the stroke of half-time when Johnston won a free-kick 30 yards out, and McManus clipped the outside of the post with a powerfully struck set piece.
The second half continued in largely the same vein with St Mirren doing most of the pressing. There was a let-off on 57 minutes when Stevie Mallan pumped a long free-kick into the Raith box which Harry Davis had time to bring down, but he could only scoop an effort over the bar.
Three minutes later Penksa was called into his first serious save when Mallan fired a 30-yard free-kick towards the bottom corner, but the big 'keeper got down well to smother.
The hosts also survived a penalty claim when the ball appeared to strike the arm of Jean-Yves M'voto. Referee Crawford Allan paused, and stared, but decided not to award, leading a swarm of protests from Saints players.
Rovers' best attack came on the hour mark as Benedictus hit the by-line and his pull back led to a stramash the ended with McManus looping a header over the bar.
The introduction of Hardie gave the Rovers crowd a lift, and he responded with the opening goal 16 minutes from time.
Barr disappeared down the tunnel to collect the match ball, and St Mirren appeared to have forgotten about him as he reappeared to collect a Benedictus throw-in, before crossing for an unmarked Hardie to glance a lovely header inside the far post.
The pressure to hold onto a slender one-goal lead would have been immense going into the closing stages had it not been for a long overdue slice of good fortune in the 80th minute.
Saints keeper O'Brien inexplicably threw the ball straight to Hardie, who showed composure to then stepped around the stricken stopper and roll the ball into the unguarded net for a vital two-goal goal cushion.
Rovers were able to see out the remainder of the match relatively pressure-free, and a huge weight lifted off the club's shoulders on the full-time whistle.
After a particularly dark winter, we can but hope that a corner has been turned.
Raith Rovers: Penksa, Thomson, Callachan, M'voto, Benedictus, Johnston, Stewart (Matthews 19), B.Barr, Davidson (Hardie 67), McManus. C.Barr. Not used: Stevenson, Roberts, Coustrain, Skacel, Thompson.
St Mirren: O'Brien, Demetriou, Mackenzie, Sutton, Eckersley, Morgan, Davis, Mallan, Magennis, Smiith, McGinn. Not used: Ewings, Irvine, Baird, Loy, Storie, Todd, Fjelde.