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4 Raith Rovers talking points as Stark’s Park side fail to arrest slump ahead of huge Dundee United clash

Ian Murray's side are now four points adrift at the top of the Championship.

Raith Rovers manager Ian Murray looks thoughtful.
Raith Rovers manager Ian Murray is seeking answers to a run of five straight defeats. Image: Ross Parker / SNS Group.

For Raith Rovers, defeat to Airdrie on Friday night not only ensured their worrying slump continues but it also dashed hopes of a fourth consecutive SPFL Trust Trophy final.

The Stark’s Park side suffered the agony of falling at the final hurdle in the cup against Hamilton Accies last season but now do not have the opportunity to make up for that bitter disappointment.

Nikolay Todorov’s early strike was enough to earn bogey team Airdrie a 1-0 victory and a third win from four meetings of the sides this season.

The fillip Raith were desperate for ahead of their next outing against Dundee United a week on Friday failed to transpire. They now need to find answers quickly if their title dreams are not also to slip away.

Airdrie striker Nikolay Todorov.
Airdrie’s Nikolay Todorov was the match winner again against Raith Rovers as he scored for the third game in a row in the fixture. Image: Ross Parker / SNS Group.

Make or break clash with Dundee United

In many ways, Raith have found themselves in an unexpected position in the league this season.

A title race could not have been predicted when the Championship kicked off in August.

Yet, as they moved into winter, there they were hanging on to the coat-tails of favourites Dundee United.

When Rovers went to Tannadice in mid-December and plundered a 1-0 victory courtesy of Dylan Easton’s wonderful strike it took them into unchartered territory.

But, from hunter to hunted, that five-point advantage has quickly turned into a four-point gap at the summit.

Raith Rovers' Dylan Easton battles for the ball against Airdrie.
Dylan Easton (left) was Raith Rovers’ hero the last time they faced Dundee United but was quiet against Airdrie on Friday night. Image: Ross Parker / SNS Group.

Ian Murray’s side have won just once since beating United and have now lost their last five outings in all competitions.

They surely cannot afford another defeat when they next play, against United on February 16?

Their dreams of reaching the Premiership will not be wiped out with another reverse, as there remains the play-off route so nearly taken by Partick Thistle last season.

But hopes of maintaining a title challenge will surely wither if United do something they have not managed this term and beat their Stark’s Park opponents in a potentially pivotal clash.

Back to basics in defence

The welcome return to fitness of Keith Watson was possibly the only positive Raith could glean from Friday night’s defeat to Airdrie.

Having been out of action since September 23, for the 34-year-old to last the full 90 minutes was a bonus.

Also having Euan Murray back available after shoulder and groin complaints of late, the Rovers rearguard took on a more balanced look.

With Ross Millen and Liam Dick on either flank, it was a back four that boss Murray would have envisaged being the bedrock of his team this season.

Keith Watson (right) returned to the heart of the defence against Airdrie for Raith Rovers for the first time in over four months. Image: Ross Parker / SNS Group.

As it has turned out, the quartet have only started three league games together all campaign.

The blustery conditions and abrasiveness of opponents such as match-winner Nikolay Todorov did not make for a comfortable evening against Airdrie.

Losing a goal after just five minutes perhaps betrayed a rustiness in both personnel and understanding.

But the experience of all four, and their desire to carry out the gnarly basics of defending, will be a starting point as Raith try to find their feet again for the visit of United.

Missing mojo

Rovers now have almost a fortnight to find answers to the perplexing rut in which they now find themselves.

When things are going well, everyone wants games coming thick and fast.

The opposite is true when there is a significant downturn in form and results.

Without a game next weekend because of the Scottish Cup, Raith have the opportunity for some soul-searching and deep analysis of what has gone wrong.

Manager Murray and his staff have previously sought a turnaround with a change of personnel and, at times, tactics.

However, against Airdrie, it was a more recognisable formation that kicked off – four at the back, a diamond midfield and two up front.

Raith Rovers manager Ian Murray has much to ponder ahead of the visit of Dundee United on February 16. Image: Ross Parker / SNS Group.

Lewis Vaughan, Dylan Easton and Callum Smith, all such important figures at various points in the campaign were all present and correct.

But there remains something missing.

Confidence is clearly not brimming, opportunities are snatched at and too often the safe option of a long ball towards either the target of Zak Rudden or Jack Hamilton was chosen.

Murray admitted Raith were missing their ‘mojo’ and they are certainly no longer the team that plays with a smile on their faces.

Perhaps the only way for that to return is to taste victory again. But wins may also be dependent on rediscovering that early-season swagger.

It appears a ‘chicken and egg’ type conundrum.

Singing section silenced

Raith trialled a new ‘singing section’ at the front of the Penman Stand at Stark’s Park on Friday night against Airdrie.

In a statement ahead of the semi-final encounter, directors said, ‘it’s fairly apparent that the atmosphere at home games is far flatter than it is away’.

The answer, they hoped, was a designated area for those willing to generate some morale-boosting noise.

It all fell flat fairly quickly, however, thanks to events on the pitch. The loss of a goal after just five minutes instantly wiped out much of the pre-match enthusiasm.

Blue smoke billows around the away end at East End Park housing the Raith Rovers supporters. Image: Ewan Bootman / SNS Group.
Raith Rovers fans at the New Year Fife derby with Dunfermline at East End Park. Image: Ewan Bootman/ SNS Group

A previous experiment with fans in the area of the Railway Stand closest to the away end also failed to convince.

It may be Rovers try again with the section, and proposals to introduce safe standing into the stadium in future have been well received by supporters.

But the bitterly disappointing 90 minutes against Airdrie was proof that fans in these ‘singing sections’ cannot be expected to ignore events on the pitch.

When confronted with another poor performance and, ultimately, a fifth straight defeat, as well as a fifth consecutive home game without a victory, supporters will be subdued wherever they are.