Hibs leapfrogged Raith Rovers into second place in the Championship and cut Rangers’ lead to eight points – but owed their win over Falkirk to a dodgy penalty decision by referee Alan Muir.
The official left the Bairns players and fans incensed – and with justification as he pointed to the spot as Hibs midfielder John McGinn ran into Falkirk’s Blair Alston.
It looked nothing more than an innocent collision, but not in Muir’s eyes, his judgment giving Jason Cummings the opportunity to claim his ninth goal of the season as he sent Falkirk goalkeeper Danny Rogers the wrong way from 12 yards out.
It was a huge slice of luck for the Capital side, but one they’d gladly accept, enough for them to hold onto as Falkirk battled for an equaliser which just wouldn’t come.
Falkirk caused Hibs more than a few problems last season, beating the Easter Road outfit 1-0 on no fewer than three occasions, including that heart-breaking Scottish Cup semi-final, Alan Stubbs’ side managing just one victory, albeit by three goals, as they clinched their play-off place.
And the early indications were that Peter Houston’s men would prove just as problematical this time round, the Bairns having conceded only one goal at home in the league as they prepared to do battle with the Capital club who, along with themselves and Raith Rovers, are currently embroiled in a three-way fight behind leaders Rangers.
The long-awaited return to fitness of a clutch of players has given Alan Stubbs the opportunity to make changes at will, the Hibs head coach stressing he’d do so taking into account the opposition and he did so with Paul Hanlon, rested for the victory over Dumbarton, restored to the starting line-up alongside Marvin Bartley and Dylan McGeouch,
As a consequence, Liam Fontaine, Fraser Fyvie and Liam Henderson all dropped to the bench, where they were joined by Farid El Alagui, the former Falkirk striker’s first involvement of the season following his long battle against injury.
The Bairns made two changes, Paul Watson replacing David McCracken in central defence, Lee Miller, the match-winner at the weekend against Morton coming in for John Baird and David Smith taking the place of the injured Tom Taiwo.
Stubbs did, however, retain the midfield “diamond”, with Keatings in behind the front two of Cummings and Malonga, with Marvin Bartley providing the shield for the defence.
As Keatings showed on Saturday, though, that slightly deeper role doesn’t inhibit his attacking instincts as he strode onto Lewis Stevenson’s through ball only to drive over, before McGinn laid in Cummings, who could only scuff his shot across goal and wide.
A promising start, but Hibs enjoyed a stroke of luck 14 minutes in as Miller threw himself as Luke Leahy’s cross, his header beating Mark Oxley but crashing back off the crossbar.
It all became a bit fragmented with both sides guilty of surrendering possession too readily, play becoming bogged down either side of the halfway line, with neither able to impose themselves on the opposition.
Oxley was the first goalkeeper to be tested, getting down to save Alston’s low shot from David Smith’s cross, before his opposite number Danny Rogers was a little less exerted, having plenty of time to gather Keatings’ effort before Cummings got his head to his team-mate’s, cross only to see the ball drift wide of target.
A terrible mistake by Peter Grant almost gifted Hibs the opener ten minutes before the interval, his pass across the top of his own penalty area seized upon by David Gray, the Hibs skipper only denied by a great recovery tackle from the Falkirk defender.
Malonga nearly produced an exact replica of his stunning opener against Dumbarton, firing a shot across Rogers which appeared destined for the top corner of the net until the goalkeeper got his fingertips to it.
An opening goal for Hibs was merely delayed, but it came in highly controversial circumstances, McGinn appearing to simply run into Alston having knocked the ball the other side of the Falkirk midfielder, but referee Muir had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot.
Cummings stepped up, sent Rogers the wrong way, and claimed his ninth goal of the season, leaving the home fans to scream “cheat” at him as he headed for the tunnel at half-time. It was all too easy to understand their fury.
If Hibs had again been guilty of a slow start, they upped the tempo on the restart, knocking the ball around with confidence, happy to exchange passes in tight areas, although the Falkirk defence ensured it was as difficult as ever to get through them.
Malonga, however, should have doubled Hibs’ lead in the 54th minute, Cummings aware of his team-mate’s position as he dummied McGinn’s ball in to him, allowing it to run through for the unmarked Congolese striker, who attempted to lift it over Rogers but failed to get enough loft on his shot.
Bairns boss Houston threw on John Baird and the substitute almost made an instant impact, forcing a terrific covering tackle from Hanlon as he burrowed into the Hibs penalty area before Will Vaulks shot deflected off Bartley and wide as Falkirk hit back.
The Falkirk fans were bellowing for a penalty as Miller went to ground in a race with Oxley for a through ball, but this time Muir was right, the goalkeeper having hurdled the striker as he slide along the deck.
Hibs were looking less assured, but McGeouch had a half chance as he beat Rogers to Keatings’ crossfield ball, only to be forced too wide, the opportunity gone as the Bairns got back in numbers to deny him space to shoot.
Falkirk were flooding the midfield, preventing Hibs getting into any rhythm, Keatings pushed up alongside Malonga with Cummings replaced by Henderson to add further legs in that area.
Hibs needed a second goal to ease the nerves and it almost came as Malonga threw himself at Gray’s cross, missing the ball by inches only a couple of yards out. And although Falkirk had enjoyed more of the ball, they were still to seriously test Oxley, highlighting the fact that as tight as their defence has been at home, they’d found goals hard to come by, just four in their previous four games.
But they were roaring for a penalty again as Darren McGregor bravely threw himself in as Bob McHugh attempted to hook the ball home, the claim being there had been a handball.
Nevertheless, it was a nervy final ten minutes for the Edinburgh club and the 1809 of their supporters who had made the journey, but they held on to move up into second in the Championship, eight points behind leaders Rangers.