Two dropped points for Raith after late Ayr equaliser

Raith Rovers 1 Ayr United 1
Joel Coustrain fires home Raith's opener against Ayr. Pic: Fife Photo AgencyJoel Coustrain fires home Raith's opener against Ayr. Pic: Fife Photo Agency
Joel Coustrain fires home Raith's opener against Ayr. Pic: Fife Photo Agency

Two red cards, two stunning strikes, and two dropped points for Raith Rovers.

Irish winger Joel Coustrain looked set to be Rovers' match-winner after his brilliant opener lit up a bitterly cold night at Stark's Park.

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However, with both sides reduced to 10 men, Gary Harkins conjured up a spectacular free-kick equaliser with just three minutes to snatch a deserved point for the Honest Men.

A young Raith side featuring six outfield players aged 23 or under were leading 1-0 when Kyle Benedictus received his marching orders for a needless second booking after 35 minutes.

The hosts were under the cosh but the numbers were evened up early in the second half when referee Craig Charleston showed Paul Cairney a straight red for a crude challenge on Ross Callachan.

Despite numerical parity being restored, Rovers were unable to regain control of the game and Ayr's second half dominance was rewarded with the late leveller.

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Raith boss Gary Locke made two changes to the side that failed to impress away to Dumbarton on Saturday with Coustrain and Scott Roberts taking the place of Ross Matthews and Chris Johnston on either wing.

Matthews retained his place in the starting 11 though, shifting inside to centre midfield with Rangers loanee Jordan Thompson dropped to the bench.

There was little action in the early exchanges to heat up the hardy souls inside Stark's Park - that was until the 17th minute when Coustrain cracked home his first goal in senior football.

The youngster, making his first competitive start since signing in the summer, cut inside from the right and struck a powerful left foot shot from 22 yards that took a slight deflection to leave Ayr 'keeper Greg Fleming with no chance.

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Coustrain's pace and positive play had given Raith an extra dimension in attack that had been missing in recent performances, and the youngster won a free-kick 20 yards out after tormenting the Ayr defence with a determined run on 22 minutes. Kevin McHattie's whipped set piece attempt wasn't far away.

On the back of three clean sheets, the Rovers defence was looking particularly solid but Ayr almost grabbed an equaliser on 26 minutes as Kevin Cuthbert dropped a cross under heavy pressure, and the ball was scrambled behind.

Raith were furious that Cuthbert had not been awarded a foul, and Benedictus took his protests too far, earning a booking for dissent that would prove very costly.

From the corner, Craig McGuffie's delivery looked to be swinging inside the far post but Cuthbert at full stretch managed to tip it onto the crossbar.

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Raith's early promise had started to fade by the time Benedictus lunged into a crazy late challenge on Nicky Devlin to earn his second booking.

Locke immediately reshuffled his pack, sacrificing striker Mark Stewart to bring on midfielder Jordan Thompson, with Matthews moving to right back and Iain Davidson to centre-half.

Ayr took advantage of the extra man to lay siege to the Raith goal with only a crucial last-ditch block from Davidson preventing an equaliser before the break.

Even with 10 men, Raith were guilty of being overly cautious at the start of the second half as they set up camp on their 18-yard line and invited Ayr to flood forward in numbers.

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Only a miss of the season contender allowed the hosts to keep their lead when Devlin's cut back found Kevin Nisbet unmarked at the back post but, with the entire goal at his mercy, the Ayr forward somehow scooped the ball over the bar.

It was one-way traffic but Raith were given a lifeline when Ayr midfielder Cairney crudely wiped out Callachan with an overly aggressive tackle right in front of the Rovers dug-out, which erupted in protest, and Charleston brandished his red card for a second time.

It was a chance for Rovers to regain the initiative, however, the visitors continued to hold the upper hand, and McGuffie skinned Kevin McHattie to go clear in the box but seemed in two minds as he fired into the side netting.

Locke made his final two changes with Rudi Skacel and Chris Johnston brought on in place of Coustrain and Roberts, but the subs had little impact as the Kirkcaldy side spent the majority of the closing stages desperately defending their narrow lead.

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Despite their poor second half showing, Raith looked to be holding out for a fourth clean sheet in a row until the 87th minute when Kevin McHattie fouled Harkins 22 yards out.

The veteran midfielder has shown his quality from set pieces throughout his career, and he duly stepped up and curled a beauty around the wall and inside the post to condemn Rovers to a third straight draw.

The goal prevented Raith from reclaiming third place from Morton, but it could have been worse for the Kirkcaldy men as Cuthbert pushed a Rab Crawford shot over the bar in injury time as the home side scrambled over the finish line.

Rovers are now unbeaten in six but some of the performances haven't been good enough. Apart from Falkirk away, they have been over-reliant on a strong defence, and things aren't quite clicking further up the park.

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Injuries to experienced players remain a hindrance, but if Raith are to maintain a top four challenge, they need change the formula.

Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, McHattie, Callachan, M'voto, Benedictus, Stewart (Thompson 37), Matthews, Davidson, Coustrain (Skacel 65), Roberts (Johnston 69), McManus. Not used: Brennan, Vaughan, Osei.

Booked: Benedictus, McHattie. Red card: Benedictus.

Ayr United: Fleming, Devlin, Crawford, Harkins, Cairney, Nisbet (O'Connell 69), Meggatt, Wardrope, McGuffie (Rose 65), Balatoni, McKenna. Not used: Hart, Forrest, Donald, Boyle.

Booked: Balatoni, McGuffie. Red card: Cairney.

Referee: Craig Charleston.

Attendance: 1241.

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