Stevenson steps up in goals but defeat puts Raith in relegation mire

Raith Rovers played an outfielder in goals last night as a 1-0 defeat at Ayr United dragged them firmly into a relegation battle.

Wednesday, 1st March 2017, 11:40 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 11:21 am
Striker Ryan Stevenson performed well as a makeshift goalkeeper despite Raith's 1-0 defeat in Ayr on Tuesday. Pic: Michael Gillen
Striker Ryan Stevenson performed well as a makeshift goalkeeper despite Raith's 1-0 defeat in Ayr on Tuesday. Pic: Michael Gillen

With all three recognised goalkeepers injured, and attempts to draft in emergency cover proving unsuccessful, Rovers were forced to name striker Ryan Stevenson between the sticks after their pleas to the SPFL for a match postponement fell on deaf ears.

The calamitous situation made headline news across the UK in the lead up to kick-off, however, the stand-in stopper was blameless, and even produced two excellent saves to give his team mates a chance to take something from the game, which they failed to take.

Farid El Alagui's second half header sealed the victory for the Honest Men to close the gap between the ninth-placed club and Raith to just one point, and put them in all kinds of trouble at the bottom of the division.

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Stevenson's goalkeeping skills were put to the test as early as the opening minute - and he responded impressively.

A high hanging ball was sent into the box and striker Farid El Alagui rose above a flat-footed Jean-Yves M'voto to power a downward header towards goal.

It was an effort that would have challenged a proper goalkeeper, but Raith's makeshift number one got down low to his left to tip the ball wide.

It served as a confidence booster, not only for Stevenson, but the whole Raith team as they enjoyed the better of the opening half, with the expected Ayr bombardment failing to materialise.

A protective back five was not completely at the expense of attacking intent with the likes of Chris Johnston, Declan McManus and Ryan Hardie all playing in advanced roles, and full backs Kevin McHattie and Jason Thomson given licence to get forward.

The shape served Rovers well and they almost opened the scoring on seven minutes when Johnston popped up in the heart of the box to roll an effort underneath 'keeper Greg Fleming only for defender Nicky Devlin to boot the ball off the line.

McManus then broke a crooked offside trap to race clear into the box, but from a tight angle, he took his shot too early, and it trundled through to Fleming, when perhaps waiting for support was the better option.

Raith continued to create the better openings and came within inches of the opener on 27 minutes as Johnston's inswinging cross was met by Hardie's glancing header and the ball looped over a stranded Fleming and bounced back off the bar.

Callachan thumped rebound into back of net but a foul given against McManus who barged a defender out the way.

Raith went close again on 35 minutes as Hardie stole possession from a defender and drove to byline and his near post cross was headed just wide by Johnston.

After his early save, Stevenson had been required only to use his feet, with some effective kicking, until the 41st minute when Ayr at last tested him with a shot from distance.

Michael Rose, who had replaced the injured Paul Cairney on four minutes, let fly with a low, powerful shot that was arrowing towards the bottom corner until Stevenson dived full stretch to push the ball behind.

As half-time approached there was almost a disaster in the Raith defence as a clumsy Jean-Y'ves M'voto failed to deal with simple punt over the top allowing Alan Forrest to nick in behind but his attempted chip was straight at Stevenson.

When ref Willie Collum blew for half-time, the 100 or so travelling Raith fans gave Stevenson a rousing ovation for his 45-minute clean sheet, while on the balance of play and chances created, the visitors could have been ahead.

The second half started with McManus taking a neat touch past a defender to open up space 25 yards out but, having done the hard work, he fluffed his effort, drilled a 20-yard shot well wide.

A huge chance was passed up on 51 minutes as a free-kick into the Ayr box landed at Benedictus at the back post, who blasted the ball across the six yard box where an unmarked Hardie, with the goal at his mercy, somehow redirected the ball away from the target, instead of towards it.

Raith's failure to capitalise on chances was punished on the hour mark as Ayr, who had barely threatened since half-time, won a corner, which was taken short, and this appeared to catch out the markers in the middle as El Alagui headed home from six yards.

Manager John Hughes responded to the set back by introducing Joel Coustrain for Benedictus, a winger for a centre-half, and the young Irishman, as he often does when given a chance, looked bright on the ball.

However, this was in contrast to most of his team mates who, after losing the goal, appeared to lose what little belief they had started the match with.

It wasn't until a double substitution with 10 minutes left that Raith started to look capable of getting back into the game, with Mark Stewart and Bobby Barr replacing McManus and Johnston.

In fact, Barr should have equalised with his first touch but he headed over bar from six yards after Coustrain's cross bounced through to him at the back post.

Raith's inability to take the right decision in the final third was summed up when midfielder Ross Callachan charged into a chasm of space, only to shoot woefully off target from fully 40 yards with good options for a pass.

There was a 90th minute penalty shout as Jason Thomson collapsed under a challenge from Paddy Boyle after ghosting in behind the full-back, but referee Willie Collum pointed for a goal kick, sparking a furious reaction from the Rovers players.

It was a decent shout, even Ayr players afterwards admitted it could have been given, but Raith have not been awarded a single penalty kick in the league this season.

The full-time whistle sounded shortly afterwards to condemn Raith to a full four months, and 17 games, without a victory - a truly woeful statistic. A manager has already gone, but the players are the ones who must now look in the mirror and question whether they are up for the fight.

Ayr United: Fleming, Devlin, Gilmour, Forrest, Cairney (Rose 4), McGuffie (Boyle 83), McKenna, Wardrope (Moore 56), Meggat, El Alagui, Balatoni. Not used: Hart, Harkins, McKenzie.

Raith Rovers: Stevenson, Thomson, Callachan, M'voto, Benedictus (Coustrain 69), McHattie, Johnston (B.Barr 79), Davidson, Hardie, C.Barr, McManus (Stewart 79). Not used: Matthews, Roberts, Skacel, Thompson.

Referee: Willie Collum

Attendance: 1103