With Raith playing host to Falkirk in the last game at Stark’s Park of the 12/13 season, the two teams bridging the mid-table gap faced off one last time.
The sides’ respective fortunes this season are somewhat in contrast. The Rovers have, by most accounts, underachieved, currently sitting 6th despite managing to retain a core of experienced players, many of whom are the subject of transfer speculation. Meanwhile, Falkirk have exceeded expectations by achieving 5th and reaching the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, despite what is generally considered an inexperienced side.
Indeed, with the announcement from the Raith board that, in the absence of meaningful league restructure, the Stark’s side could be looking at an entirely part-time squad next season, we may well have lessons to learn from the team that Elvis built, largely from the club’s own academy.
One lesson not on offer, however, was goalscoring, as the match played out with few clean-cut chances, with respective top goal-scorers Lyle Taylor and Brian Graham were effectively contained by the opposing defenders and starved of opportunities.
The Rovers lined up in a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation than has been seen of late, with both Ellis and Gaffer Murray rested while the back line comprised Jason Thompson, Simon Mensing, Dougie Hill and Reece Donaldson.
Fellow youth player Ross Callachan was given a place in midfield alongside Allan Walker, while Ross Laidlaw wore the gloves in favour of David McGurn.
The game started energetically with play moving rapidly from box to box, although precious little end product was on show. Ross Callachan showed the athleticism and determination which have been lacking in midfield this season, while Joe Cardle looked eager to make his mark on the game, running tirelessly throughout, occasionally switching wings with Grant Anderson.
Graham and Taylor did what they could with minimal service in the early stages and the visiting striker managed to direct a couple of headers toward the Raith net.
The home side were unlucky not to be ahead on the 25 minute mark when Grant Anderson evaded a challenge on the right-wing before delivering a low drive across the six yard box, which somehow continued untouched, eventually trundling out for a goal kick.
A hilarious dive from Lyle Taylor on 38 minutes showed his frustration with his lack of involvement, while a sneaky trip on perceived culprit Reece Donaldson shortly after was less becoming still of the Englishman.
Cardle blazed wide as the half drew to a close, sending the teams in wondering how to break the dead-lock. Indeed, the sides emerged in the second half with renewed determination.
Ross Callachan continued to impressed with his contribution at both ends of the pitch, showing he has the creativity to start attack, and the pace to follow it, in true box-to-box style. However his skill and athleticism were occasionally betrayed by his failure to recover his position, exposing his teammates to counter-attack.
Reece Donaldson looked less comfortable in his defensive capacity at left back, struggling to contain a pacy David Weatherston on the Falkirk wing. However, the Raith youngster showed his ability to get forward in support, putting his own turn of speed to good use on the flank.
Simon Mensing, an unflinching presence in the centre of defence, marshalled his teammates throughout, and was a reminder of the atmosphere in which these young players are learning. That is, one of great experience and constructive advice as well as expectation.
David McGurn’s lanky protégé Ross Laidlaw also underlined his mental, as well as physical, strength on the hour mark as Walker once again turned over the ball in the centre circle, leading to a close range shooting opportunity for the visitors. Despite having had little to for a spell Laidlaw showed no loss of concentration, calmly pawing the ball away from danger and preventing a potential deficit.
With three changes made, including the introduction of youth team striker Lewis Vaughan, the Rovers enjoyed greater possession in the late stages of the game. Slick interplay – more than once involving a lay-off from Brian Graham dragged deep again– saw the Rovers create a couple of half-chances, although both Graham and Cardle looked disappointed after they blasted wide under pressure.
A deserved man of the match award for Ross Callachan was met with applause, which continued until the team had walked down the tunnel, with the fans keen to show their support for the team for the last time at Stark’s in what has been a trying season.
As his players look forward to a summer holiday, their uncertain tenure in Kirkcaldy means Grant Murray’s work may just be beginning. With one game to go this season, the Gaffer has another chance to evaluate the Rovers’ emerging talent in the first division against a strong Livingston side, themselves comprising several youngsters.
As Partick Thistle, and indeed every team in the SFL has shown, a blend of youth and experience is vital for success and sustainability. With a core of youth players already performing at a high level, the seeds have been sewn at Stark’s and, come August, Rovers fans will be hoping it is not just the pitch which has grown to full-strength over the summer.
Prediction: Livingston 2 – 3 Raith Rovers