The Gary Locke renaissance at Raith Rovers – the Lockiessance, if you like – continued to gather pace despite the club losing their 100 per cent record and dropping from the top of the table at the conclusion of this come-from-behind draw at Tannadice.
While Hibs look a comfortable bet for the second tier title after registering their fourth straight win, with each passing week the Kirkcaldy side are asserting themselves as genuine contenders for promotion, which they showed by matching Dundee United, the consensus pick to finish runner-up, on their own turf.
When Locke took over the manager’s hotseat at Starks Park in the summer, the news was met with an indifferent response from Raith fans. An aspect of his management, which helped foster a feeling of distrust at the appointment, was a tendency for his previous sides (Hearts and Kilmarnock) to endure a skelping in games where things weren’t going their way, during which Locke would stand muted on the sidelines, powerless to stop the bleeding.
This encounter looked to be heading for similar misfortune, but instead of allowing the contest to get out of hand,
Locke reacted with a tactical switch that helped bring his team back into the match. And while they may have won the point thanks to a pair of outrageous efforts from Jordan Thompson and Kevin McHattie, there’s no doubting they were the stronger of the two sides after going 2-0 down.
“It was a great fightback. We can forget about the first 25 minutes, but once we got that out of the way I thought we played really well,” said Locke. “We made a wee tactical change and I had a real go at the boys at half-time, which was deserved, but I felt we dominated the second half.”
Raith began the game in a straight forward 4-4-2 system, though their early performance was as flat as their formation.
Dundee United by contrast were vibrant, inventive and charged at their opponents with real purpose. One such attack saw Cammy Smith break into the area and go down under the challenge of McHattie. However, Craig Thomson interpreted it as a dive, and booked Smith for the action, much to United’s incredulity.
A short-time later Simon Murray forced Conor Brennan into a front post save before Willo Flood saw his follow-up effort blocked by McHattie.
There would be no stopping Flood when the ball next dropped for him, as he took aim and found the bottom corner with a rasping effort from 20 yards. The veteran midfielder then played a massive part United’s second, showing great tenacity to win a loose ball ahead of Declan McManus a couple of yards inside the box and drawing a clumsy foul from the Raith forward. Smith tucked away the penalty to put United in cruise control.
While Locke’s change was a major factor in the visitors coming back into the game – as the away side went to a midfield three with Lewis Vaughan and Bobby Barr flanking McManus – there was a sense United’s players thought the game was won as they failed to maintain their early intensity.
In the end they were undone by a pair of world class efforts. Thompson, on loan from Rangers, ran on to a dropping ball at the right side of the United penalty area and lashed it into the top corner at the near post with a stunning first-time, left-footed volley. As special a goal as it was, it was possibly eclipsed by McHattie’s equaliser with 18 minutes remaining. Controlling a lay-off from McManus, the left-back took aim and found the far top corner with a thunderous effort from 25 yards.