Ten-man Falkirk kept a firm grip on second place in the Championship table as they stunned Hibs with two goals in the final four minutes to claim a precious point from a bad-tempered clash at Easter Road.
The Capital outfit looked certain to close in on the Bairns with Jason Cummings taking his tally for the season to 23, cashing in on an early blunder by Falkirk captain David McCracken before confidently hammering home a spot-kick ten minutes from time after McCracken had fouled Paul Hanlon.
But McCracken atoned for those errors, throwing Falkirk, who had been reduced to ten men when Aaron Muirhead picked up as second booking, a lifeline as he headed home four minutes from time.
And it went from bad to worse for Alan Stubbs’ side when Will Vaulks’ last-minute throw-in was flicked on for substitute Bob McHugh to fire home, stunning the home fans while the travelling support behind Mark Oxley’s goal hailed a fantastic fightback from their side.
Hibs’ miserable run of just one win in seven league matches, a mere four points taken out of a possible 21, had put Stubbs’ players in the position of knowing this was simply a game they simply couldn’t afford to lose if they wanted to keep their destiny in their own hands.
Victory for the Bairns, just one defeat in their last ten outings to their name, would put Peter Houston’s side nine clear in the race for second place in the Championship table, a finish which would ensure a less arduous play-off schedule.
But, with two games in hand, Hibs also knew a win for them would slash that advantage and put them back in pole position for that runners-up spot once again.
In the build-up to last night’s encounter, Stubbs had bemoaned the bad luck, as he saw it, which had befallen his players in their previous two games but it was a huge slice of good fortune which helped soothe the nerves of the home fans as the Capital club went ahead in just ten minutes.
There appeared little danger as John McGinn nodded Oxley’s free-kick from deep inside his half and McCracken, under no pressure whatsoever, headed the ball back only to find his own No.1 Danny Rogers only a couple of yards behind him.
Rogers was stranded and, although the ball was rolling into the empty net, Cummings raced in to blast it home from a couple of yards out.
Falkirk had brought a healthy support who were obviously looking forward to watching their side inflict more pain on their rivals and they’d have been heartened by their early play, zipping the ball about with obvious confidence.
But the decibels from the South Stand behind Rogers dropped significantly at that moment.
Despite their recent problems, Stubbs’ players appeared to have a real appetite for the task in hand, McCracken again looking less than certain as he failed to deal with another through ball convincingly, Anthony Stokes just failing to capitalise on the error.
As far as Falkirk were concerned, it was a matter of hanging in there hoping the early storm would dissipate as Hibs pinned them back, Vaulks coming to his side’s rescue as, at full stretch, he just managed to get a boot to Lewis Stevenson’s cross before it could cause any real damage.
Marvin Bartley’s slide-rule pass almost put Martin Boyle in, Rogers just beating the pacy winger to the ball.
There was a definite edge to the game, Fraser Fyvie pointing out to referee Crawford Allan that Craig Sibbald’s late challenge on him was no different to Bartley’s earlier tackle on Myles Hippolyte which had brought his team-mate a booking, former Hibs midfielder Tom Taiwo picking up the game’s second yellow card for a crunching tackle on Boyle.
David Gray’s cross sailed only inches over the head of Cummings before Stevenson drove another in from the opposite flank, the pace on the ball leaving Stokes, six yards out with only a split-second to react, the striker unable to direct his header on target with the goal gaping.
Muirhead’s cynical block on Stokes as the on-loan striker charged through brought him a booking before the game erupted, Gray furiously claiming Taiwo had gone over the ball at him and McGinn then taking down John Baird from behind, an incident which saw a dozen players become embroiled before the Hibs man was also cautioned.
Half-time probably came at just the right moment, the 15 minutes inside their respective dressing-rooms giving both sets of players the chance to allow their tempers to cool a little.
Incredibly, another mistake by the veteran McCracken almost gifted Hibs a second goal within seconds of the restart, the defender missing a simple ball. Stokes could have gone himself but elected to nod it forward to Cummings, who had strayed offside.
Hibs had rarely been troubled at the back but Darren McGregor came up with a tremendous block to halt Baird before Rogers took no chances with a rising angled drive from Cummings, tipping the ball to safety.
But Falkirk began to exert some influence on the game, knocking the ball around as they had done in those opening minutes but to greater effect, Hippolyte’s clever pass allowing Vaulks to zip it across the face of goal, just inches out of the reach of substitute Lee Miller.
It was a pulsating, if feisty, affair, Hibs racing to the other end where Stokes chested the ball down for Cummings to take first time, his shot pushed round the post low to his left by Rogers.
Hibs were left screaming for a penalty on the hour mark as Cummings took Stevenson’s cross on his chest only to have McCracken knock him over, referee Allan not at all interested.
Falkirk, however, almost equalised with 24 minutes remaining, Luke Leahy’s cross creeping over the head of Miller but falling for McHugh, who took it on the volley six yards out only to see his shot crash off the legs of Oxley, the Bairns fans behind him in full voice again.
There had been little chance of all 22 players finishing this match and it came as no surprise when Muirhead saw red, the Falkirk defender barging into the back of McGinn to earn his second yellow with 16 minutes remaining.
Hibs, though, had a lucky escape. McGregor left a ball to run through to Oxley but rather than pick it up he chose to kick it, knocking it off the unsuspecting McHugh before gratefully falling on it.
Ten minutes from the end, Cummings appeared to have wrapped it up for Hibs, referee Alan pointing to the penalty spot as McCracken held Hanlon as he tried to get on the end of McGinn’s corner, the 21-year-old stepping up to hammer the ball home from 12 yards.
It looked all over, but then came that late, late finale which leaves Hibs still six points behind Falkirk. Yes, with two matches in hand but with games rapidly running out.
Hibs: Oxley, Gray (Gunnarsson 46), Hanlon, McGregor, Stevenson, Bartley (Thomson 89), Fyvie, McGinn (Henderson 83), Boyle, Stokes, Cummings. Unused subs: Virtanen, Handling, Keatings, Dagnall, Thomson.
Falkirk: Rogers, Muirhead, McCracken, Vaulks, Leahy, Alston, Taiwo (Miller 46), Kerr, Hippolyte (O’Hara 89), Sibbald, Baird (McHugh 65). Unused subs: Deniz Dogan Mehmet, Maybury, Smith, Shepherd.
Referee: C Allan