It has been a hectic schedule for Thistle as they have been running behind with games in hand following some adverse weather that affected not only their own pitch but those of Cowdenbeath and Raith Rovers. They also had one eye on the Ramsdens Cup Final against Queen of the South coming up at the weekend.
We got a reasonable run through the rush hour traffic and made good time with the only thing really slowing us down being temporary traffic lights near the ground. After a quick scout around the local streets we opted for a space facing in the direction of the motorway which would be ideal for the road home.
There is only really two ways to enter the ground, by the away stand or by passing the main stand which also leads you to behind the home goal. We went into the club shop which is a small container located just outside the home end turnstiles but there was not much to see, so we went in to get something to eat and get seated prior to kick off.
I have only visited Starks Park once before, which was for a Scottish Cup tie in early 1987 if memory serves me right. In a recent Partick Thistle game at Firhill that we had attended, we focused on how Alan Archibald had taken up the reins, following Jackie McNamara’s move to Dundee United at the beginning of February. Similarly, Rovers have Grant Murray in charge as player manager, for what is his first managerial post having replaced John McGlynn last summer.
The Fifers have had a reasonable season and showed recently that they are a more than capable side following their recent televised Scottish Cup 5th round game at home against Celtic. They have David McGurn in goals with the aforementioned Murray and Simon Mensing as the centre halves with Grant Anderson, Stuart Anderson and Joe Hamill the main men in midfield. Up front Rovers had the height and presence of both Brian Graham and Greig Spence, with Eddie Malone and new signing, Joe Cardle recently released by Dunfermline on the bench.
Despite the Cup Final being on their minds, the number one priority for Thistle is the league title and the only notable change Alan Archibald made for this game was keeping Kris Doolan in ahead of Steven Craig in attack. I was looking forward to seeing Steven Lawless and Chris Erskine again, but it is worth mentioning that the success so far has been a collective team effort that has seen ‘the Jags’ top the league table through most of this season.
The weather was very mild, the sun was out so the conditions made for a decent game of football, though the pitch looked to be heavy in some areas with sand. Right from the start both teams showed they were keen to get the upper hand and after only a minute on the clock, Thistle ‘keeper, Scott Fox had to turn a Brian Graham shot, from the eighteen yard box round his left hand post for a corner. Rovers were having most of the early possession and had a decent chance when Mensing then headed over the bar from a corner.
The visitor’s first chance came when Chris Erskine found space and got a shot away however, it came off Doolan’s backside and went out for a goal kick! Just after that we had possibly one of the defining moments in the game when Spence capitalised on some slackness by Lawless in the middle of the park. He found himself breaking clear of the Thistle defence and heading for a one on one situation with Fox but he dithered, attempted to go round him and the young keeper bravely came out to smother the ball and avert the danger.
Raith Rovers had another good effort on twenty two minutes when Joe Hamill fired a shot from the left of the eighteen yard box which was deflected for a corner. Five minutes later it was Thistle who had a great opportunity to take the lead following a mix up in the home defence. McGurn thought his defence were going to clear the ball while they thought he was going to do it meaning the keeper reacted late, diving at the feet of Lawless taking both ball and player. The ball rebounded out to Doolan at the edge of the box and his shot went just wide and out for a goal kick.
Both teams were getting efforts in on goal and just after the half hour, Grant Anderson held the ball up well before turning and getting a shot in that went high over the bar. A couple of minutes later the Rovers defence were alert to clear from an Erskine cross as Doolan waited to pounce.
Just before the break Fox saved well from a powerful Jason Thomson drive and from the follow up Joe Hamill fired wide of the right hand post. Grant Anderson then put a decent cross into the box which Brian Graham just failed to connect with. The half ended with a chance for Thistle as Erskine again managed to get a shot in but it went wide of McGurn’s left hand post.
Rovers Manager, Grant Murray will have been the happier of the two bosses and the hosts probably shaded the first half in terms of possession and clear cut chances.
As was the case in the first half, Rovers were possibly the hungrier looking side at the start of the second. The Thistle defence were kept on their toes when a long ball over the top for Spence was read by goalkeeper Fox who reacted quickest to clear. A cross intended for Graham was then cleared before the pivotal moment in the match when Partick Thistle were reduced to ten men.
Having received a caution five minutes after the restart for a foul on Grant Anderson, centre half, Aaron Muirhead then saw red literally just before the hour mark when he scythed down the same player. It was an extremely foolish challenge and left referee, Calum Murray no option but to send him off.
Unfortunately this incident changed the dynamic of the game as Thistle looked to see the game out and avoiding defeat by sacrificing the flair of Steven Lawless with new defensive signing, Jordan McMillan from Dunfermline. The irony was that instead of capitalising on the numerical advantage, it was not Raith Rovers who created the next few scoring chances. With fifteen minutes left James Craigen went on a great run, linking with Erskine who played a one-two with him but McGurn saved his shot comfortably. From a run on the left wing, Stuart Bannigan managed to cut into the area before firing a right foot shot which was well held by McGurn.
Raith made a double change when new signing Cardle replaced Hamill and Eddie Malone went on for boss, Murray. As expected the last ten minutes were dominated by Rovers as they went in hunt for a winner. Brian Graham had a great chance when the ball landed in the box, but it seemed to sit up too high for him and his shot went over the bar and with a bit more composure he maybe would have scored.
Allan Walker then had two chances to make himself the hero when his shot in the box was blocked and cleared in the last five minutes and then again in injury time. A long Rovers throw in from Malone saw the ball land with Walker but he blazed his shot over the bar and this proved the last action of the match.
A point a piece in the end and I am sure both managers will be happy enough to take the positives from the game, especially Alan Archibald given his team played more than half an hour with ten men.
Despite the scoreline this was a decent game to watch and an enjoyable venue to visit. In the last two decades the club have invested in the ground by building two impressive single tiered stands behind each goal. The design of them both, inside and out, reminds me of the stands behind each goal at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, with the exception of the external staircases the latter has.
The North Stand is for the away fans and the South for the home support and it is incorporated into the old Main Stand. It is unique in its lay out in that it runs less than half the length of the pitch and almost slots into the corner to sit with the South Stand.
Opposite this is the unused Railway Stand and it is pretty self explanatory why it is called this as the train line runs behind it and it is quite a busy line! There are currently no seats in it but I am sure there were seats in it at one point! To help fill the current void there are a couple of large supporters flags on display.
When watching any games from Starks Park on television the gap next to the main stand looks as if the houses are literally peering into the ground. Although the locals will be able to see a good bit of the action, when you are outside it is actually a main road between the ground and the houses with a wall that has quite a steep drop.
The match programme on sale was from the original fixture date which was Saturday 9th February 2013 although I’ll admit it took me a bit to realise this! I never sampled the food personally but got a few things for the kids and they weren’t overly impressed. It appeared to be a lot of home made things like rolls, burgers, tea and coffee and based on the lack of change they returned with it was a little over priced.
On a more positive note, the club’s admission price of £20 for parent and child is reasonable and is in line with a number of other clubs in Division One. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when the crowd for this game was announced over the tannoy early in the second half as 1,761 which was lower than I expected.
I would clarify in saying that this isn’t a criticism of either club’s fans as there was a good travelling support from Glasgow who were vocal throughout. The highlight being David McGurn getting singled out over the colour of his goalkeeper kit at the start of the second half with a chant of “who’s the f*nny in the pink”!