A red card for goalkeeper Pavol Penksa after barely a minute was surely not in the team-talk manager John Hughes said would be delivered by kitman Simon Pollock. Penksa, who was brought in to solve a goalkeeping emergency, caused a crisis all on his own, launching into Craig Moore and deserving an instant dismissal.
It was a blow from which the home side recovered, with a resolute and brave display that earned the victory they needed, courtesy of Jonny Court’s first-half strike and a Declan McManus winner in the 90th minute.
Relegated Ayr, who lost keeper Greg Fleming to a worrying neck injury in the second half, went down with a fight after equalising through Ross Docherty, though the five-goal win they needed was never likely, and St Mirren’s point against Hibs ensured Raith’s efforts were in vain and they now face Brechin City over two legs to save their Championship status.
“We showed great character to come back and score the winner,” said Hughes. “We were looking for a favour from elsewhere and unfortunately it never happened.
“All credit to the players and I’m really proud of them, their character and everything they did, their work ethic. They were out on their feet and to play 90 minutes with ten men and go and win the game, I can’t ask any more from them.”
The nightmare start followed a ball over the top which sent Moore clear and he was cleaned out by Penksa, who had come charging from his area.
After worrying signals from the visiting players for medical assistance, thankfully Moore was able to walk down the tunnel to be replaced by Declan McDaid. Rudi Skacel was sacrificed by the home side to allow Conor Brennan to replace Penksa in goal.
The gameplan may have been ripped up but the sending-off necessitated even more effort and commitment from the home side. They had been accused by Hughes of “not caring” after last weekend’s 5-0 thrashing by St Mirren, but that could not be in question after this display.
“I was asked what reaction I would get to my comments last week and I think you saw it,” added Hughes. “But it was too little, too late.”
Rovers snapped into tackles, piled men forward with energy at every opportunity and chased lost causes. None more so in the opening spell than striker Court. The 21-year-old was handed his first start for the club in their hour of need and was clearly desperate to make an impression.
He did that seven minutes from the interval as he gave Raith the lead they craved. Kyle Benedictus curled an excellent pass in behind the Ayr defence for Court to chase and the youngster won the race to reach the ball first and he clinically speared his low shot beyond Fleming.
Three minutes later, Danny Handling volleyed in for Raith following a superb move, only to have his celebrations cut short by the linesman’s flag. The cheering swept round the ground again shortly after the interval when news of Hibs’ goal against St Mirren crossed the Forth, with a more muted response when St Mirren subsequently equalised at Easter Road and when Ayr did the same in the 70th minute.
Rovers were left chasing shadows as Ayr found space for the first time in the game and Ross Docherty applied the finish from 25 yards beyond a laboured Brennan dive.
If the Raith keeper was slow to react at the equaliser, he made amends with a wonderful stop from Alan Forrest’s penalty with 12 minutes remaining. Referee Steven McLean infuriated the home players by penalising Benedictus for a hand ball but Brennan dived full-length to his left to turn Forrest’s effort aside.
McManus popped up with a minute of regulation time remaining to turn in a Jean-Yves M’voto knockdown and give Raith the win they required, but full-time at Easter Road knocked the celebrations flat.
“We were never going to win by five goals,” admitted Ayr manager Ian McCall, who said Fleming had been knocked unconscious and had been taken to hospital. “Raith Rovers had so much to play for, in realistic terms far more than us.”