Falkirk 3, Hibs 2: Promotion dream is over
Hibs were consigned to an unprecedented third year in the second tier of Scottish football after Falkirk, yet again, came from behind against the Capital club to claim their place in the Premiership play-off final.
And it was super sub Bob McHugh, who had snatched a draw in the first leg at Easter Road four days earlier, who left the men in green and white on their knees, hammering home the telling goal in a five-goal thriller with only 15 seconds left on the clock.
As at Easter Road it was Falkirk who drew first blood, Blair Alston scoring in the 13th minute before James Keatings struck twice in the space of four minutes to give Hibs a half-time lead.
And it was one they looked like keeping until Luke Leahy latched onto a loose clearance to rattle home an equaliser with 11 minutes remaining.
Hibs top scorer Jason Cummings stepped off the bench to almost win it for the Edinburgh outfit, his 30-yarder beating Falkirk goalkeeper Danny Rogers all ends up only to crash back off the bar before late-goal specialist McHugh sent the home fans wild.
The fact it was Friday the 13th wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by any superstitious Hibs supporters who, nevertheless, would be hoping all the bad luck to befall their team came a few days earlier with that astonishing failure by referee Alan Muir to have awarded the Capital outfit a penalty as they led the first leg 2-1.
So, instead of heading along the M9 in a commanding position Alan Stubbs’ players found their promotion bid on a knife-edge, the head coach adamant that despite the setback they’d suffered nursing a sense of grievance would get them nowhere, insisting that, in essence, little had changed in that Hibs would have been gunning for a win regardless.
But Stubbs sprang a surprise before kick-off, Cummings settling for a seat on the bench as Keatings took his place up front alongside Anthony Stokes while Conrad Logan retained the gloves despite his error which allowed McHugh to snatch yet another late goal to force a draw in Edinburgh.
McHugh’s strike earned him a starting place as the Bairns made two changes, Lee Miller, who had opened the scoring the other night, listed among the substitutes while former Hibs player Tom Taiwo dropped out altogether as Paul Watson was drafted in at the back, resulting in Will Vaulks being pushed into midfield.
Hibs made an edgy start to the match, the Bairns forcing four early corners as their opponents struggled to get a grip on proceedings. And Stubbs’ players were made to pay as Falkirk turned that dominance in to a goal, McHugh slipping the ball through for Alston to roll it wide of the exposed Logan and into the far corner of the net.
Falkirk had taken command in the middle of the park with Vaulks and Mark Kerr frustrating any attempts Hibs made to get forward while Falkirk were only too willing to get themselves on the front foot when the opportunity, and there were plenty of them, arose.
The frustration within the Edinburgh side was all too evident, Anthony Stokes picking up a needless booking for stupidly kicking the ball away, the on-loan Celtic striker, who had also been yellow carded in the first leg, earning himself a suspension which would rule him out of the next play-off match at home to Kilmarnock – if Hibs were to get that far.
All Hibs had to show for a feckless opening half hour was a low John McGinn shot from range which was easily scooped up by Falkirk goalkeeper Danny Rogers. But that all changed 60 seconds later when Liam Henderson slipped the ball through for Keatings who had his legs taken from him by McCracken.
The Bairns skipper had escaped unpunished for his blatant hand ball on Tuesday night but not this time, referee Craig Thomson immediately pointing to the spot, Keatings stepping up to send Rogers the wrong way.
And the game was completely turned on its head three minutes later when Keatings, possibly the smallest player on the park, was left unattended to meet Stokes’ cross from the left to guide across Rogers and in at the far post.
Hibs, though, were dealt a blow when Dylan McGeouch, who’s season has been blighted by injury, was forced to limp off after just 38 minutes, his place going to Marvin Bartley.
The 2003 Hibs fans behind Logan’s goal suddenly found their voice as the home support fell silent as they watched Stubbs’ players begin to take control, playing further up the pitch to good effect as they had in that impressive second half at home.
However, given what had happened then, there was still a long, long way to go as far as Hibs were concerned as they emerged for the second half, Falkirk having shown considerable resilience in the previous two meetings of these sides in simply refusing to concede defeat even when the clock appeared to be against them.
And there was a big moment for the Bairns when Alston’s corner gave McCracken the chance to atone for his earlier misdemeanour, the central defender rising high only to send his header well wide.
Hibs knew though that a third goal would be more or less it and it almost came when Gray found space to head McGinn’s deep free kick back across goal only for Aaron Muirhead to take the ball away from Stokes.
Falkirk had been forced to take a more direct route, using the long throws of substitute Myles Hippolyte while Miller had also been thrown on to pose a greater aerial threat.
But as far as Darren McGregor and Paul Hanlon at the centre of Hibs defence were concerned it was a case of no-nonsense defending, not pretty but effective.
Keatings did have the ball in the net for a third time but the striker had strayed offside as he ran on to Stokes’ pass as the game remained poised on a knife-edge, Hibs not quite there and Falkirk not quite out of it as was highlighted when Hanlon had to get his body in the way of Bairns substitute Scott Shepherd’s effort.
And once again Falkirk displayed that never-say-die attitude, Leahy latching on to a loose clearance 25 yards out to hammer home a superb goal to leave the game level with just 11 minutes remaining.
Cummings, having replaced Keatings, almost snatched a dramatic winner two minutes from the end of regulation time, firing in a dipping shot from 30 yards which had Rogers beaten – but the ball crashed back off the crossbar.
And with only 15 seconds of the two added minutes remaining McHugh snatched the winner for Falkirk, leaving the Hibees players on their knees.
Falkirk (4-4-2): Rogers; Muirhead, Watson, McCracken, Leahy; Alston (Shepherd 71), Kerr (Hippolyte 58), Vaulks, Sibbald; McHugh, Baird (Miller 58)
Substitutes not used: Mehmet, McCann, O’Hara, Gallacher
Hibs (4-1-2-1-2): Logan; Gray, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson; McGeouch (Bartley 38); Fyvie, McGinn; Henderson; Keatings (Cummings 83), Stokes
Substitutes not used: Oxley, Fontaine, Gunnarsson, Boyle, Dagnall
Referee: Craig Thomson