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Kai Kennedy vs Ben Williamson: Who came out on top when Rangers prospects crossed swords in front of Ibrox academy chief Craig Mulholland?

Kai Kennedy in action
Kai Kennedy in action

Craig Mulholland, Rangers’ head of academy, had ample choice of destination on Saturday afternoon.

A quartet of Ibrox prospects – James Maxwell, Rhys Breen, Ciaran Dickson and Dapo Mebude – started in Queen of the South’s draw with Inverness.

Lewis Mayo and Jamie Barjonas were on opposing sides as Dunfermline played out a 1-1 stalemate at Ayr United.

Mulholland would have seen Chris McKee sent off and Adam Devine last 70 minutes if he had made the trip to Angus, with Brechin’s travails continuing with a 4-2 defeat against Albion Rovers.

That is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the Rangers youngsters currently cutting their teeth away from the spotlight of Govan. Even discounting senior players such as Brandon Barker and Jordan Jones, the Premiership champions have 25 players out on loan, with the process overseen by Billy Kirkwood.

Yet, even amid a veritable feast of fixtures to choose from, it was no surprise to see academy chief Mulholland in attendance as Raith Rovers crossed swords with Arbroath at the weekend.

The midfield scrap between Kai Kennedy and Ben Williamson provided an intriguing sub-plot during a breathless 2-2 draw. One pushing for promotion as part of a purring, easy-on-the-eye Rovers outfit; the other fighting for survival at the foot of the table and already among the first names on the Lichties team-sheet.

But who came out on top?

ROUGH DIAMOND

A Rangers representative has been at every Raith homes match since Kennedy’s arrival on loan in January, such is the high regard in which he is held by the Glasgow giants.

You can understand why an in-person assessment of his performances is required. His virtues do not always shine through on a highlights package, yet are blindingly obvious when you watch the diminutive playmaker closely.

Kai Kannedy, 21, celebrates

Speed of thought, intelligent movement and sharp passing are all required to excel in Raith’s fluid formation; nominally a 4-4-2 diamond, but with each midfielder given scope to roam and the attackers often dropping deep.

The constant rotation of the diamond; Reghan Tumilty playing like a right-winger; Kennedy drifting from left to centre – it is all superbly coached by John McGlynn, but also requires players with the ability to think on their feet and embrace creative freedom.

Already, during his 15 appearances at Raith Rovers (one goal and four assists) Kennedy has illustrated he is one of those.

It was his dash in from the left-flank after 29 minutes which found Dylan Tait on Rovers’ way to opening the scoring against Arbroath. Tait subsequently slipped a super pass to Regan Hendry and, although his effort was saved by Derek Gaston, Dan Armstrong knocked in the rebound.

Along with Hendry and Brad Spencer, Kennedy conducted the orchestra for the remainder of the half and appeared destined to be on the winning side and receive a glowing write-up from the watching Mulholland.

CRAFT AND GRAFT

If Kennedy if all grace – until the moment he produces an explosive burst of pace – then Williamson is more of a brunt-force footballer, albeit not without an eye for a pass.

Willowy and energetic, covering the artificial surface at Stark’s Park with elastic strides, you can see why he is already a firm favourite of manager Dick Campbell’s.

“He [Campbell] is not really the type to say ‘well done’ but I’m sure he’ll let you know if he’s not happy,” said Williamson recently. “That’s maybe an old school style, but I think it’s exactly what I needed.”

Williamson has started every single Championship match Arbroath have played since he joined the club in January. That says more than a pat on the back ever could.

On Saturday, his tireless running saw him attack the slipstream of lone striker Jack Hamilton with regularity. That willingness to burst forward saw him lash a powerful drive inches wide of the post in the opening exchanges. Williamson is still waiting for his maiden senior goal, but one suspects it is imminent.

Williamson recently signed a new contract until the summer of 2022 at Rangers and, as well as growing as a senior professional at Gayfield, he will return to Ibrox having matured away from the pitch.

Ben Williamson speaks to the BBC

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that Williamson is now in Arbroath’s ‘bubble’ and cannot train with Rangers (as would normally be the case for youngsters on loan at part-time clubs). Instead, he is relying on his own diligence in following fitness and development plans laid out for him as he seeks to maintain his progress.

Williamson is also in regular contact with Rangers youth coach Kevin Thomson; a valuable sounding board for any aspiring midfielder. He may lack a little of the effortless elegance of the former Scotland internationalist, but is similarly fond of a crunching tackle.

That was illustrated in the second half in Kirkcaldy when – with Rovers leading 2-0 – the Arbroath man robbed Kennedy of possession and sparked a counter-attack. That move would result in Jack Hamilton halving arrears and igniting the unlikeliest of comebacks.

It was the most notable confrontation between the two youngsters, and proved to be one of the most pivotal moments in the match.

GOING THE DISTANCE

It speaks volumes for the faith John McGlynn has in Kai Kennedy that he lasted the full 90 minutes at Stark’s Park.

With Raith defending an advantage, it would have been easy for McGlynn to withdraw a 5ft 4ins, waspy creator. Instead, Armstrong and Tait were withdrawn as Rovers protected their point.

Nevertheless, Kennedy undoubtedly drifted out of the game. “We dropped the standards that we had set in the first half, took too many touches, didn’t make the right passes,” said McGlynn after the match.

Upper hand: Williamson

It would be churlish to suggest this was aimed at Kennedy, but it would be incredibly charitable to argue that it did not apply to him.

Williamson, by contrast, was in the heart of the action for the 82 minutes he played – fitness and physicality clearly improving with every passing week in the Championship – and was at the forefront of Arbroath’s laudable comeback.

As a result, Williamson will be the happier with the outcome; not only the result of the match, but his own display – albeit both kids ensured Mulholland’s drive to Fife was not a wasted one.

‘Absolutely magnificent’: Ricky Little and Jack Hamilton epitomise Arbroath attitude as Raith Rovers are pegged back

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