Last night when writing the pre-match preview for this game, I said that if Rovers were to take anything from today's game it would go down alongside the wins against Airdrie and Aberdeen in terms of unlikeliness. John McGlynn had seen three consecutive matches postponed before a COVID outbreak left him with one day to prepare against the league leaders. To win the game was beyond belief - what was even more incredible was that they did it in style. They took the game to the home side but also defended astutely - it's a cliched point but not one player let the side down. It was by no means a one sided affair for either team and the highlights above truly are an advert for Scottish football.
With the squad coming out of self-isolation on Friday, it was nearly impossible to know how Raith would line up. After 2pm, when the team lines were released there was a unanimous agreement among fans that we were fielding our strongest team with the exception of Tait and Duku. Gozie Ugwu ploughed a lone furrow up top in his first start for the club and was offered supported by Daniel Armstrong and new signing Kai Kennedy out wide.
Rovers started the game on the front foot and showed no signs of the rustiness you might expect of a team who hadn't played a game in over three weeks. Craig Halkett nearly gave the visitors a gift when he narrowly deflected a shot wide of his own post for a corner. But the away side's pressure paid off when the resulting corner bounced about in the box to fall to Ugwu. With his back to goal, the striker showed tremendous initiative to back-heel the ball into the far corner to catch Craig Gordon completely off-guard.
A good start threatened to turn into a great one when Daniel Armstrong was brought down by Stephen Kingsley in the box. Referee John Beaton pointed to the spot as Regan Hendry placed the ball down to take the resulting kick. The midfielder's put his penalty to the left hand side of goal but Craig Gordon guessed correctly and palmed it on to the post. The HeartsTV commentators let out a sigh of relief as the hosts grew into the game.
Towards the end of the second half, the frontline of Boyce, Naismith and Mackay-Steven all began to find space and caused problems with their direct movement. In spite of all this the backline for Rovers stood firm and held out for a lead which nobody had anticipated. The expectation was that the Kirkcaldy club had done tremendously well in the first half but that the Gorgie side would be able to get the job done in the second half. Things had seemed too good to be true for the Stark's Park faithful.
Ugwu was withdrawn at half time and replaced by Manny Duku. Having scored the opening goal, the departing forward had put in an excellent shift in the first half and had bullied Christoph Berra prior to the central half's substitution. If the first half score-line was unexpected, the second half shocked everyone: Rovers started at a blistering pace and in a six minute spell put themselves in complete control of the match two a quickfire double.
Kai Kennedy had shown glimpses of his trickery in the first half and had successfully linked up with Kieran Macdonald. Having attracted media attention following his spell at Caley Thistle, the midfielder ran rings around the Hearts defence cutting inside before drawing a second penalty for Rovers.
It was a highlight moment in a man of the match performance from the new signing and showed exactly why John McGlynn was so quick to bring him to the club. In previous years some loanees have arrived from Ibrox and there's been a perception they might not be too interested: Kennedy's performances we've seen for and against Raith should show he's unlikely to fall into that category.
Penalty duties passed on to Manny Duku who duly dispatched the spot kick to net his tenth goal of the season. As Hearts looked for an instant reply, Rovers then netted a third goal courtesy of a fantastic counter-attack via an interception by Duku. Kennedy jinked down the wing to find space before making his way into the box where his cutback across the six yard box avoided both central defenders. Right-back Regan Tumilty had the easiest of jobs to bundle the ball home.
Those keeping an eye on the game were stunned. Rovers had been astute in possession where Hearts had been slack. While the visitors hadn't created dozens of chances, they'd been clinical with those which had been arisen. At 3-0, the game had exceeded our wildest expectations. You knew it couldn't last: even at three nil I knew I might as well send a tweet about when Hearts would get their second - there seemed an inevitability that the hosts wouldn't accept humiliation.
Robbie Neilson introduced Josh Ginnelly in favour of Elliot Frear while Andy Halliday made way for Jamie Walker. Ginnelly had an instant impact whipping in a cross from the right wing in to Liam Boyce who fired a header past Jamie MacDonald. The storm was beginning to pick up for the visitors.
With the momentum of the game firmly in Heart's favour, Rovers were given a temporary reprieve when Popescu went down injured. This broke up the tempo of the game, although Brad Spencer could count himself lucky when a misplaced pass allowed for Hearts to end up in a situation where Jamie Walker really should have scored. Jamie MacDonald spared any blushes for the midfielder with a solid save.
The tempo of the game quickly returned up to full speed and with ten minutes remaining it became a backs to the wall job as Rovers tried their hardest to frustrate the hosts. Players started to take a bit longer over 'injuries' and the visitors would delay on goal kicks and throw-ins. It might not have been pretty at points but it was a lesson in game management.
As the game entered into the dying stages, Jamie MacDonald put in an absolutely inspired performance to ensure Raith's first win over the Jambos in 28 years. The keeper has been a solid acquisition since joining in the summer and revealed in the post match interview he was one of the players who had suffered from COVID. That didn't prevent some outstanding saves against the likes of Kingsley, Ginnelly and Smith. Rovers were clinging on to their two goal advantage.
The clock ticked on to the 90th minute and news came through that injuries and stoppages would result in 8 minutes of additional time. Viewers in Fife must have felt that time shuddered to a halt at this point. Liam Boyce ensure an incredibly tense ending by bundling home a second goal of the afternoon. Right at the death of the game Naismith was denied by MacDonald who put in another incredible stop.
After 9 agonising minutes the Beaton blew for full time as the played celebrated with one another. Almost immediately, Rovers fans on Twitter went about winding up their opposition: it's yet another game where we can only speculate about how wild the celebrations would have been had there been an away support jubilantly marching up Gorgie Road to pubs before a train back to the Lang Toun.
As the players logged on to social media, there was unanimous reaction of pride among the support. Tynecastle has always been a place where Rovers have struggled in recent years. On their last visit to the Championship, Hearts swept us aside on every occasion without too much work. The cup games of 13/14 and 16/17 were closer but settled in contentious manners. But today Rovers left everything on the pitch and each player should be full of pride.
They've got it all to do again on Tuesday at Stark's Park. Naturally, the Edinburgh side will be looking to ensure that they don't make the same mistakes twice. But Raith fans are just savouring the moment for now having been demonised for months over the end of last season.
It was an epic affair with lots of talking points, so here's 3 things we learned from Hearts vs Raith Rovers:
Believe the hype?: Kai Kennedy looks every bit as good as we've expected
Were it not for a pandemic, it would be easy to speculate where Raith Rovers might be. It might be that we'd still be languishing in League 1 in a title battle against Partick Thistle or Queen of the South having reduced our budget at another failed season. Promotion was by no means a certainty as any Falkirk fan will tell you.
Yet this brutal situation has thrown up some hugely unusual circumstances in football. Young players will come and go on loan at all different levels: it's a time for them to hone their craft and test their mettle before trying to push on at their parent clubs. We've seen all manner of players arrive at Stark's Park in the past: some have blossomed into outstanding talents with successful careers, others have faded into obscurity.
The pandemic threw another curveball when it was revealed that Kai Kennedy was cutting short his loan at Caley Thistle. The young midfielder had moved north on his own but had, understandably, failed to integrate fully. Caley board member Scott Gardner said there's a likelihood he'd still be with them were it not for the pandemic: socialising was impossible due to logistics and he was left alone at an age where young people should be out and about enjoying themselves. As a result, it meant that he returned to Murray Park in a peculiar position: he wouldn't get game time in the first team so it would be back out on loan again to a new club. In stepped Raith Rovers having already witnessed his two excellent displays against them for the Highland side.
Kennedy has been the subject of many editorials and opinion pieces in the Scottish football media. He's been touted for a few years as a tremendous talent and there's a view that it shouldn't be long before he follows in the footsteps of previous loanees like Barry McKay. Slight in stature, Kennedy's low centre of gravity and general trickery caused no end of problems for the Hearts defence. His contribution for the second penalty saw him completely deceive international defender Michael Smith. He was immediately at it again shortly after when he created the third goal. If it's any indicator of how he'll do going forwards, Rovers have a lot to be excited about.
2. The sum of all parts: Another game and another display of how the collect performance of a team is more important than the individuals.
Going into the match, you'd have been hard pressed to find anyone to optimistic. The Rovers support have been enjoying a fantastic season so far but everything seemed to be going against us. Postponements, COVID outbreaks and a lack of training meant Hearts were firm favourites. Yet the context seemed reminiscent of our last fixture against Queen of the South with the roles reversed.
Back on the 29th December, Queens put their schoolboy in goals and their squad put in a tremendous effort to beat Rovers in a display where they were well worth the 3 points. Rovers looked to heed that lesson today: regardless of circumstances you can put 11 players on a pitch and they can put in a tremendous effort and reap the rewards when they work together.
While Kai Kennedy picked up the man of the match award on the matchday app, there were outstanding performances across the pitch. Jamie MacDonald's saves will remind people why he's had such a prolonged career in the Scottish top flight. The backline of MacDonald, Benedictus, Musonda and Tumilty looks to be our strongest and they looked completely assured against a front trio who have all had international caps.
In midfield, the reshuffle saw Hendry, Matthews and Spencer all sit deeper while breaking up attacks. The attacking work was largely down the wings and Rovers reaped the benefits. Ugwu was a constant problem for the back line and Duku bought valued respite with his hold up play.
With Ethan Ross and Dylan Tait coming on from the bench, it was a display that John McGlynn has built a team with strength in depth. The potential return of Lewis Vaughan from injury can only raise hopes further.
3. The Postponement Position: Rovers schedule might look manic but today was display of their top half credentials.
We've already mentioned before about how the Championship can seem a crazy league. Queen of the South have shown this most recently with a surge up the league with a run of wins where previously they'd been toiling at the bottom. A win against Morton allowed for Raith to climb to 4th in the league. Dundee's draw away to Arbroath meant that the Kirkcaldy club have two games in hand over the teams above them.
Undoubtedly, John McGlynn will say the only thing that you'd prefer to have points on board than games to play. There's no certainties at the moment given the pandemic rumbling on. Squads are an outbreak away from a back log of two or three games. With the Scottish Cup match against Stirling still to be rearranged, the SPFL have moved quickly to reschedule the postponed fixtures against Dunfermline and Dundee.
If Raith can navigate their next three games and pick up points on the clubs above them, they'd be able to go into the second half of this shortened season high on confidence. They've shown they can cause problems for any side in the league if they click. In spite of today's result, Tuesday will still be a tremendously tough task with Hearts visiting Kirkcaldy.
While the fixtures have piled up, there's no reason Rovers can't look to kick on and try to have a crack at the playoffs. You'd be folly to write this team off.