Pat FENLON didn’t expect Falkirk to spring any surprises on him given the extensive and detailed dossier he and his backroom staff had compiled on Hibs’ William Hill Scottish Cup rivals.
Instead, the First Division outfit gave the Easter Road boss the shock of his life as they raced into a three goal lead in barely half-an-hour as they simply tore their SPL opponents apart.
While the Bairns side, packed with, well bairns, exuded a verve, vigour and enthusiasm Fenlon’s players were pedestrian, ponderous and laboured as Craig Sibbald, Jay Fulton and Blair Alston sent the Falkirk fans into raptures.
After the nightmare of last season’s final at Hampden it was little wonder there were some in the 17,000 strong green and white army who couldn’t stomach it, heading for the xits and making an early start for home.
“When I saw them going up the stairs I hoped they’d only gone for a pie and bovril and were coming back to support us,” revealed striker Leigh Griffiths although it was clear some had just kept on walking.
For those brave enough to resist that temptation to turn their backs on Fenlon and his players at that stage it didn’t get any better, only the outstretched boot of goalkeeper Ben Williams preventing Lyle Taylor adding to Falkirk’s lead before the interval.
Four down and there would have been no way back for Hibs, a scenario which would have heaped pressure on Fenlon given the miserable run of results in recent weeks which had ended all hopes of a top six finish just seven days earlier.
As he headed up the tunnel Fenlon knew he had to give the team talk of his life as he sat his shell-shocked stars down for those 15 minutes of respite, the manager revealing what he directed at them was more of a “rant” than anything else, Griffiths, on the receiving end along with his team-mates, describing it as a “right rollicking.”
Voices were raised among the players themselves with, according to Griffiths, a few going close to throwing punches. What was said and happened within the confines of the dressingroom certainly wouldn’t have made pretty viewing, Fenlon claiming it was best not to offend the sensitivities of others by revealing just what went on.
Asked what was going through his mind at that exact point, he said: “A hell of a lot. I was just trying to focus and see how we could change it around and get a reaction from the players.
“The players had a lot to say themselves but we wanted to have a plan to make sure we went out calm and collected and they knew what the job was.”
Having already replaced Scott Robertson, who had missed a sitter when presented with the chance to negate Sibbald’s opener, with Danny Handling, Fenlon tweaked his formation again by introducing Eoin Doyle for Paul Cairney, switching teenager Alex Harris to a more familiar beat on the left.
And with getting the next goal key to Hibs’ hopes, it was the young midfielder who, having seen two earlier efforts hit the woodwork, got his first goal for the club, a tremendous drive from range which Falkirk goalkeeper Michael McGovern managed to fingertip but was unable to prevent hitting the net.
Harris’ goal came only 60 seconds after Hibs were denied a clear penalty when Tim Clancy was sent sprawling by Falkirk’s Stewart Murdoch but sensing something special might be on after all, Hibs forced Falkirk back, Doyle blasting over and then Griffiths heading over after finding himself unmarked as he met a cross from Harris before Murdoch brought down Handling to earn the Capital side a spot-kick.
Griffiths had scored all six from the spot this season but what a time to fail, McGovern saving his effort and then getting a hand to Doyle’s shot from the rebound. “I didn’t get enough ‘clip’ on it,” revealed Griffiths although he insisted he wasn’t going to allow that disappointment to get him down even if Fenlon admitted he thought at that point it was not going to be his side’s day.
And Griffiths was true to his word, like all top strikers ensuring the next chance he got was taken, the hitman getting on the end of Harris’ cutback to beat McGovern. Twelve minutes to go and five minutes later Hibs were level, Chesterfield-bound Doyle taking Griffiths’ lay-off before drilling a low shot into the corner of the net.
Griffiths said: “It wasn’t the manager’s fault. We’d been sloppy in the first half, we just did not turn up and we deserved to be booed off at half-time. When we saw the Hibs fans compared to the Falkirk fans we thought we would steamroller them. They deservedly went three up and it could have been four. At that point we’d have bitten your hand off if offered the chance of extra-time.”
After being left reeling by that second half onslaught, the short respite offered before the additional 30 minutes began as referee Iain Brines limped off to be replaced by his fourth official John Beaton, gave Falkirk the chance to draw breath and regroup.
Griffiths shot straight at McGovern having been left with only the goalkeeper to beat by Doyle before the pair combined for Hibs’ leading scorer to slip the ball home only for the “goal” to be, wrongly, flagged offside.
As the minutes ticked away a penalty shoot-out was beginning to exercise minds all around the national stadium and undoubtedly in the respective dug-outs but Griffiths ensured that lottery was avoided with a trademark strike with just five minutes remaining.
After seeing his corner booted away by Darren Dods, Griffiths took one touch with his right boot before delivering the killer touch with his left, a vicious drive from 25 yards which flew past McGovern, sending the Hibs fans crazy and the Falkirk players to their knees.
Fenlon admitted he felt like joining those fans who made an early exit, saying: “I can understand it and probably if I had a way I might have walked out the door myself at that stage. I don’t have any problem with it at all but those who stayed were fantastic, they backed us and I think they sensed once we scored there was a chance and that carried us through as they have probably done in all the games in the Cup this season.
“After half-time the players were tremendous. They showed some real character. When we missed the penalty you think it isn’t going to be our day but we kept going and got the next goal which was vital and maybe that put a little bit of pressure on soome of their young players.
“It was a great victory in the end and it’s great to be back in the final. It was an unbelievable game, I’ve never been involved in anything like that before and I never want to be again.”
While you can understand that sentiment, this was as good a Cup semi-final as you will ever see, a game which had everything and while Hibs fans were rejoicing they no doubt had a degree of sympathy for their rivals as did Fenlon who said: “You have to feel sorry for their lads.
“They put in everything and worked so hard. They came at us and frightened us. We conceded three and were lucky to be going in 3-0 down at half-time.”