When James McDonaugh swapped Hibs for Falkirk two years ago, he didn’t envisage being caught in a crossfire between his new club and his old one.
Over the last two seasons, an intense rivalry has developed between the two Championship clubs, who renew hostilities at Falkirk Stadium tomorrow, less than three months after their last high-octane clash.
There have been 11 meetings between the teams in the previous two campaigns, with Falkirk winning four and Hibs victorious in two. Falkirk have generally come out on top when it has mattered most, winning the 2015 Scottish Cup semi-final, pipping Hibs to second place last season and then defeating them in a barmy Premiership play-off semi-final in May. This epic series has been contested against a backdrop of niggle between the respective managers, Peter Houston and Alan Stubbs, who has since departed for Rotherham United, and latterly the players.
McDonaugh, a Hibs fan and long-time former youth coach, hadn’t anticipated such intensity between the two clubs closest to his heart. He believes the tension stems from a reluctance on Hibs’ part to credit the Bairns for a backs-to-the-wall 1-0 victory at Easter Road in August 2014. It was a similar story when Falkirk won the aforementioned cup tie by the same scoreline in April last year.
“It’s been a bit of an awkward position for me, to be honest,” McDonaugh said. “It’s been difficult to be in amongst the rivalry, but it’s been enjoyable as well, because it’s gone from Easter Road to Hampden to the Falkirk Stadium. There’s been some really exciting games between us and it’s probably been about 50/50 over the piece.
“I think the rivalry started from the first time we played Hibs at Easter Road two seasons ago. Sometimes you’ve just got to say ‘well done’ when you lose, but we felt that didn’t happen. Then in the Scottish Cup semi-final, everybody could see Hibs were the better team, but we defended well and scored a good goal. I think we just felt they could have maybe said ‘well done’ at times, but everybody’s got their own way of looking after their own job. It wasn’t a bitter rivalry or anything – it just kind of rumbled on from one or two of those games two seasons ago.”
It perhaps reached a height in April when some Falkirk players took umbrage at the way Hibs midfielder Fraser Fyvie’s pre-match quotes had been portrayed in the media. They didn’t like having their “big game” mentality questioned and revelled in pointing this out afterwards when they came back from 2-0 down with just three minutes left to draw 2-2 at Easter Road in a match which went a long way to securing second place.
“When any set of players read about another team’s players saying they’re going to win games against them, or stuff like that, I think it will always fire them up,” said McDonaugh. “But we weren’t just fired up for Hibs games last season – we beat Rangers twice and only lost four league games all season. I think it was just a case of the Hibs games attracting a wee bit more attention.”
McDonaugh is not one to get involved in verbal brickbats. Although now in the enemy camp, he retains maximum respect for the club which gave him his big chance as a coach. He insists that the main reason his team enjoy getting the better of Hibs so much is simply because they view them as one of the big dogs of Scottish football.
“Hibs’ rivalry should be with Hearts, Rangers and Celtic – not with Falkirk – and that’s what they’ll be trying to get back to this season,” he said. “It’s always an achievement for any team to beat Hibs – even if you’re at Celtic, Rangers or Hearts. For a smaller team like Falkirk to beat Hibs in a big game like a play-off or a cup semi-final is a huge achievement.”
With Neil Lennon, a seasoned title winner in Scotland, having replaced Stubbs at the helm, McDonaugh admits it will be a tall order for Falkirk to pip Hibs for a second season running. Following the departure of a couple of key men, he believes simply making the play-offs is a more realistic target this time round.
“Falkirk fans will want the team to be in the Premiership, but, with the budget we’ve got and what we were up against, we know how well we did last season just to finish second and get to the play-off final,” he said. “I don’t think Falkirk had ever finished above Hibs before that in my lifetime. Peter Houston was named Ladbrokes manager of the year last season which shows how well we did, especially when the likes of Rangers, Aberdeen and Hearts all had such good seasons.
“If we can get into the play-offs again, that would be a starting point. You’ve got to keep things in perspective – we’ve just lost Will Vaulks and Blair Alston, who are two big players to replace. For us to finish above Hibs and Dundee United this season would be a huge achievement. We’ll just work away to get as many points as we can, cause a few upsets along the way and try and make sure we finish in the top four.”