Brian Graham took his tally for the season to 15 with a double as ten-man Raith Rovers narrowly avoided a nightmare 280-mile round trip to Banff for a midweek Scottish Cup fourth round replay with Deveronvale.
The Highland outfit thought they had done enough to take the tie back to their Princess Royal Park on 12 December but Graham sent Rovers into tomorrow’s draw with an exquisite 89th-minute free-kick.
The manner of the loss for a team that had already taken the scalps of SFL sides Peterhead and Stirling Albion was hard to stomach for visiting manager Charlie Charlesworth, who questioned two late, contentious decisions by referee Paul Robertson that had a critical influence on the result.
Vale were adamant captain Scott Fraser – who had cancelled out Graham’s opener with a penalty that led to Rovers defender Dougie Hill being dismissed – won the ball in a challenge with substitute Greig Spence.
Robertson thought otherwise and Graham struck a delightful free-kick over the wall. Charlesworth’s ire was further inflamed at the official’s decision seconds later to whistle for an infringement on goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw after Kyle Rae’s cross landed in the net.
“We are bitterly disappointed, not just with the result but with the decisions in the last couple of minutes,” said Charlesworth.
“The goal that was chopped off was a goal for me. The keeper has not got his hands on the ball and it’s gone in the back of the net. I have to be careful what I say but it was a poor decision.
“Two minutes before when they score the second goal from the free-kick, it was a tackle.
“It sounds like sour grapes, it was two massive decisions and it’s absolutely killed us. I have really enjoyed that and it’s a shame to be out. We had a great cup run.”
Rovers edged a largely forgettable first half as the home supporters were left frustrated by profligate finishing from on-loan Hearts winger David Smith, Pat Clarke and Graham.
Marksman Graham then made amends by heading in an Eddie Malone cross in the 55th minute.
Vale’s hopes of a prolonged Scottish Cup run did improve three minutes later when Hill was shown a straight red card for barging over Kris Duncan in the box and Fraser slotted home the penalty. Graham then curled in his stunning set-piece from 25 yards to settle the tie.
“The one thing you have to do in cup football is get your name into the hat for the next round and that’s hat we’ve done,” said Rovers manager Grant Murray.
“The games in this league are difficult enough as it is and to be going up there for a replay would have been the last thing we wanted.”