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Ross County earn narrow lead over Raith in play-off final to boost survival bid
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Anthony Brown
Press Association
Jack Baldwin (right) celebrates scoring County’s second (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Jack Baldwin (right) celebrates scoring County’s second (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Ross County boosted their hopes of avoiding relegation from the cinch Premiership as they eked out a 2-1 play-off final first-leg lead over Championship promotion hopefuls Raith Rovers at rain-soaked Stark’s Park.

After a dull first half, County seized command with a 53rd-minute penalty from Yan Dhanda following handball by Euan Murray before captain Jack Baldwin made it 2-0 with a 71st-minute header.

But Rovers gave themselves some hope of salvaging the tie in the return leg in Dingwall on Sunday when they pulled one back through Sam Stanton with eight minutes remaining.

The Kirkcaldy outfit are looking to return to the top flight for the first time since 1997 while the Staggies, who beat Partick Thistle in last season’s play-off final, hoped to extend their five-year stay in the Premiership.

Raith boss Ian Murray made one enforced change to the side that started last Friday’s semi-final second leg against Partick as on-loan County midfielder Kyle Turner – ineligible to face his parent club – was replaced by Jack Hamilton.

County manager Don Cowie sent out the same XI that started Sunday’s 2-2 draw at home to 10-man Aberdeen, a result that ultimately paved the way for St Johnstone to leapfrog them into 10th place in the cinch Premiership and send them into this play-off.

The visitors started aggressively, pushing their hosts on to the back foot early on, although they had to wait until the 18th minute for their first notable opportunity when Simon Murray headed a Dhanda free-kick wide of the far post.

The home side then came into the game for a spell, and Euan Murray got on the end of an Aidan Connolly cross but failed to find the target with his header from 12 yards.

Both sides were struggling to make the opposition goalkeeper work but County threatened two minutes before the break when Will Nightingale’s strike was deflected for a corner, from which Baldwin waltzed past three Rovers players in the box before seeing his drive blocked at the near post by keeper Kevin Dąbrowski.

Having failed to pose too many problems for their top-flight visitors before the break, Raith went desperately close to an opener four minutes into the second period when Lewis Vaughan sent Connolly down the right and the winger cut inside and curled a dipping shot just beyond the far post.

There was deflation for the hosts just a minute later, however, when County were awarded a penalty after a VAR check deduced that Murray had stuck out his arm in the box to block Eli King’s shot from 25 yards out. Dhanda’s powerfully-struck spot-kick found the net but only after crashing off the inside of Dabrowski’s left-hand post.

Raith went close to an equaliser on the hour mark when Connolly’s low strike from the edge of the box was deflected behind by Ryan Leak, although it did appear to be going just wide in any case.

Dabrowski made a fine save with 20 minutes remaining when he got down to his left to tip behind a curling effort from King. But the goalkeeper was helpless seconds later when the resulting corner, taken by Dhanda, was headed down into the net by Baldwin from just outside the six-yard box.

Just as it looked like the tie was slipping away from them, though, Rovers grabbed a lifeline in the 82nd minute when Vaughan slid Ross Matthews in down the right and the full-back’s cut-back was emphatically despatched into the net by Stanton from eight yards out.

The hosts pressed for an equaliser in the closing stages, but they will require a victory in Dingwall on Sunday if they are to have any chance of ending their 27-year wait for a Premiership return.


Scottish PremiershipRaith RoversRoss County
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