All good things must come to an end – but even so, the day Hibs’ unbeaten run in the Championship was brought to a close was always going to be cause for disappointment.
However, the pain felt at seeing that eight-game burst finished with a performance which fell well below what’s become expected of Alan Stubbs’ players in recent weeks hurt all the more.
After a slow start, the Easter Road club appeared to have slowly recovered the confidence and morale which had been sapped from them in that traumatic and embarrassing crash of last season.
Even if the gap between them and table-topping Hearts already appeared too wide to bridge, recent displays and results had brought a measure of hope that if the title and that one automatic promotion place was out of reach then, at least, Hibs would be in the mix for a play-off spot.
To that end, this defeat doesn’t in itself shatter that target, but it will serve as a reminder that it will be made all the harder to achieve if standards set are allowed to slip, even occasionally.
On a day when a seventh consecutive away win – something no Hibs side has achieved since 1965 – would have seen Stubbs’ players haul themselves into third place alongside Queen of the South, they instead contrived to be the losers all round, conceding further ground on their Capital rivals Hearts, while giving the teams immediately below them renewed hope that they can haul themselves into the play-off mix.
Of course, there remain many games to play and Stubbs will see David McCracken’s last-gasp winner for the Bairns as a bump in the road – the Hibs head coach insisting it should act as a wake-up call for his players.
McCracken’s goal came just as it looked as if Hibs would depart the Falkirk Stadium with a point which, given previous wit results, would have been a disappointment in itself but, given these 90 minutes, a result they’d have settled for, as captain David Gray admitted.
He said: “Frustrating? Definitely. I don’t think we did enough to win the game and that’s the disappointing thing from our point of view.
“We have turned in some good results in the last few weeks, but I don’t think we performed well enough to win. I don’t know if a draw would have been too much of a disappointment considering we did not play very well.
“I don’t think we deserved to be beaten, but it’s disappointing to have been on the run we were on and to lose a game like that.
Falkirk, of course, had beaten Hibs earlier in the season, a cheeky backheeler from striker Rory Loy securing the points, although even boss Peter Houston admitted they’d been lucky to do so. However, on this occasion Houston believed the Bairns merited their win, pointing out that while goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald had been forced to pull out a string of great saves at Easter Road, this time around the stops he made were routine in nature.
“They were the sort of saves you’d expect him to make,” he said, “Twenty-five yarders, a couple that fizzed across the six-yard box.”
And on the one occasion the former Hearts star was beaten, having knocked a Danny Handling cross into the path of Paul Heffernan, there was Luke Leahy to knock the ball off his own goal-line.
Other than that, Hibs created little, full-backs Gray and Lewis Stevenson unable to get down the flanks with any great success while Heffernan – starting his first game since September 13 – and Jason Cummings toiled to make any impact, the teenager struggling to the extent he was replaced after the interval by Lewis Allan, two years his junior.
While it would be unfair to single out Cummings, his display did reflect that of many of his team-mates. Stubbs revealing his removal hadn’t been through injury or a tactical switch as he said: “He did not do enough, simple as that.”
It was a charge Stubbs could have laid at a number of his players, although he didn’t think there was anything to really separate the teams in a scrappy game: “We didn’t show enough quality when we had it.
“Our decision-making was not what it should have been. There were too many not on their game. I’m not going to make a song and dance about it, but we have had a good run of late. It’s a wake-up call that if we are not prepared to do the basics and match teams for workrate and energy then you run the risk of them snatching a result the way they did.
“I don’t think anyone deserved to win the game to be honest, but they have won it and we have no complaints.”
Hibs had gone into the game without top-scorer Dominique Malonga, suspended after his red card in the Scottish Cup win over Alloa Athletic seven days earlier, and Stubbs conceded his side had missed the Congolese internationalist.
He said: “You miss quality. I’ve never played in a team where you do not miss quality.”
Having said that, Stubbs has repeatedly insisted he has a squad to cover such eventualities but it was obvious he felt those who took both the place of Malonga and club skipper Liam Craig, who missed out through injury, hadn’t stepped up.
He said: “It’s a chance for other players to step in. I know what I have seen and I need to ask myself ‘did they do enough’. I know the answer. It’s in their court – they need to step up to the plate.
“We have had the plaudits recently, a few pats on the back. We move on to the next game. but this was disappointing.”
Stubbs was, inevitably, asked where this result left Hibs in relation to Hearts, now 19 points clear of their near neighbours. He replied: “Listen, I’m not interested with Hearts, I am focused on what I do. I know they are ahead of us – you can talk about them being favourites, and rightly so, because they have had a great start.
“We keep going. This was a blow but we dust ourselves down and go again.”