HAVING been absent from the Scottish Premier League for nine years, a few more days may not seem too long to wait for Partick Thistle to confirm their comeback.
But there was no disguising the sense of anti-climax in Maryhill last night as they fell just short of clinching the First Division title in front of their own fans.
This goalless stalemate against Raith Rovers all but confirmed it but the finishing line has yet to be officially breached.
Alan Archibald’s team are now nine points clear of Morton but with a massive goal difference advantage of 17 over their championship rivals. Only a collapse of Devon Loch proportions can foil them now and Thistle will look to complete the job at Falkirk on Saturday.
The SPL may appear more like purgatory than the promised land in light of current events but securing top flight football is no less prized for a club like Thistle. Kicking off on the verge of ending their lengthy exile, they initially appeared inhibited by the magnitude of the occasion.
It is no exaggeration to say they could have found themselves three goals behind inside an opening 15 minutes which saw them completely lacking in cohesion and tactical discipline at the back.
This may have been a relatively meaningless fixture for Raith Rovers but the visitors began with no shortage of purpose about their work. Just 25 seconds had elapsed when Brian Graham pounced on a mistake from Thistle full-back Stephen O’Donnell to find himself one-on-one with Scott Fox.
Rovers’ leading scorer looked a banker bet to claim his 25th goal of the season but screwed his shot just the wrong side of the goalkeeper’s left hand post.
Fox, who had signed a new two-year contract earlier in the day as he committed himself to Thistle’s imminent top tier return, was forced into action in the third minute when Greig Spence broke free of some neglible defending but directed his shot too close to the ‘keeper who made a solid save.
The anticipated script was certainly not being followed as far as the large home support were concerned and their sense of anxiety increased when Fox had to touch a looping cross from Jason Thomson over for a corner.
Raith, it seemed, were perhaps subconsciously reluctant to spoil their hosts’ party. It was certainly difficult to explain how they missed the best chance yet of that opening spell.
Stuart Bannigan’s mistimed header sent Spence racing free in splendid isolation with only Fox to beat, only for the forward to lack any composure as he drove his shot straight at the ‘keeper.
Fortunate to still be in the game, Thistle gradually began to make a telling impression on it. They finally forced Rovers ‘keeper David McGurn into action in the 28th minute when he reacted well to keep out a well struck 22 yard shot from James Craigen.
Thistle managed to build momentum from there, Chris Erskine dragging a left foot shot wide of the target and then Kris Doolan heading a Sean Welsh cross just over in quick succession. The champions-elect were firmly on the front foot now and should have gone in front six minutes before the interval. McGurn managed to get a touch on a Ross Forbes cross but could not prevent the ball dropping to Doolan. To the horror and disbelief of the Thistle fans behind the goal, the striker managed to scoop a shot over from little more than two yards out.
The pace and intensity of Thistle’s play increased noticably at the start of the second half and the flow of proceedings was almost exclusively towards the Raith penalty area.
Erskine saw a shot deflected narrowly wide as the home side began to exert some sustained pressure but they were being frustrated by some compact and resolute defending.
Archibald replaced the tiring Forbes with Steven Lawless in a bid to inject greater directness and energy into his side and the diminutive substitute was quick to make an impression. He smartly laid an Aaron Sinclair cross into the path of Erskine who should have done better than steer his shot wide of McGurn’s left hand post.
When McGurn made a magnificent double save in the 70th minute, diving to his left to keep out a Lawless shot and then recovering his poise quickly to block O’Donnell’s follow-up effort from close range, Thistle perhaps began to sense this was not going to be the night they had hoped for.
Partick Thistle: Fox, O’Donnell, Dowie, Balatoni, Sinclair; Craigen (Elliott 75), Welsh, Bannigan; Forbes (Lawless 58), Doolan (Craig 80), Erskine. Subs not used: Daniels, Archibald.
Raith Rovers: McGurn, Thomson, Mensing, Ellis, Malone; Cardle (G.Anderson 81), Callachan, Walker (S.Anderson 73), Hamill (Hill 61); Spence, Graham. Subs not used: Watt, Roberts.
Referee: K Clancy.