As disappointed as he and his team-mates might have been at being forced to settle for a draw against Falkirk, Hibs star Dylan McGeouch today insisted they will travel for the return leg confident they can still claim their place in the Premiership play-off final.
Yet another late strike from Bairns forward Bob McHugh, four of his five goals in recent weeks having come in the final ten minutes of matches, robbed the Edinburgh club of an outright lead ahead of tomorrow’s showdown to decide which of the teams will be battling with Kilmarnock for the right to be playing in the top flight next season.
But, midfielder McGeouch admitted, Hibs will make the short journey west nursing a sense of injustice, referee Alan Muir having somehow failed to see Falkirk skipper David McCracken handle the ball inside his own penalty area in what could yet prove to be the telling moment of this double-header.
Having gone behind to Lee Miller’s first-half goal, Hibs had fought back to get their noses in front – Liam Henderson and Darren McGregor scoring in quick succession before Muir was left with that massive call to make just six minutes later.
So, instead of potentially winning the match 3-1 and taking a further huge stride towards promotion, Hibs found themselves level thanks, in no small part, to goalkeeper Conrad Logan’s blunder, the hero of Hampden allowing McHugh’s low shot to squirm under his body and into the net.
McGeouch, however, believes he and his team-mates have little to get down about, confident that if they can replicate their second-half display they’ll come out on top.
He said: “I didn’t see the penalty claim at the time but obviously the boys were shouting for it and from what they were saying in the dressing-room it was a clear penalty. The ball hit his hand and he’s moved it away. At 2-1 a penalty could have finished the tie, but we didn’t get it.
“We can’t dwell on it and I honestly think we can take a lot from the game going into Friday knowing we did very well to get ourselves back into it. Obviously we gave away silly goals, but the character we showed to get back in the second half was excellent and I think over the 90 minutes we edged it.”
McGeouch felt Hibs were comfortable until Logan blundered but like boss Alan Stubbs he was adamant everyone was 100 per cent behind the Irishman.
“The big man knows he could have done a bit better, but these things happen in football and you just have to get on with it.
“Conrad will definitely bounce back. He’s been great since he came in, we saw that in the Scottish Cup when he got us to the final with his performance. We’ll pick him up. These things happen even at the top level and while we were disappointed because we wanted the win, we played with a lot of confidence.”
That late strike from McHugh, who had also scored in the last minute to earn Falkirk another 2-2 draw on their previous visit to Easter Road, resulted in the Bairns’ players celebrating in front of their own supporters but, McGeouch insisted, that won’t stoke the flames ahead of tomorrow’s clash. He said: “I think they were right to clap their fans, there was a good turn out from them. It was a good game, one I enjoyed playing in, we moved the ball well. At 1-1 the fans got going, you could hear them, it was a great atmosphere. The boys were playing great football in the final third, we created chances and could have had another few goals so we have to take a lot from it.”
Both John McGinn and Anthony Stokes scorned good opportunities before Henderson’s leveller, McGregor then powering home a header from the on-loan Celtic youngster’s corner – just as he had done against Raith Rovers a few days earlier – to put Hibs ahead and, claimed McGeouch, highlighting a most definite threat.
Goals from set-plays haven’t been as frequent as Stubbs might have liked, the head coach revealing he’d been on at his defenders to score more often with McGregor, David Gray, Niklas Gunnarsson, Paul Hanlon, Liam Fontaine and Lewis Stevenson having contributed just nine between them before the play-offs got underway.
But McGeouch insisted: “We’ve perhaps not scored as many as we should have from set-plays, but in the last two games we have looked very dangerous. Sometimes when you can’t cut them open from open play set-pieces might settle things. It worked against Raith Rovers and it worked again the other night. It’s something we’ve been working on and it’s working for us.”
Friday night will be Hibs’ 53rd match of the season, raising the obvious question as to whether fatigue might come in to play but McGeouch, pointing out he was “fresher rather than fresh” having just come back from a two-month injury lay-off, believes Hibs have enough in the tank not only to contend with Friday night but two play-off matches against Kilmarnock, not to mention the Scottish Cup final against Rangers.
He said: “I don’t know about fresh, but I haven’t played a lot of football in the last few months. I’m just getting back into it, I’m a bit rusty but it’s great to be back playing. I got a good 90 minutes under my belt on Tuesday night so I will rest up, be properly looked after and be ready to go again tomorrow night.”
With four of the five games between these sides having ended all square this season and the fifth going Hibs’ way courtesy of a debatable Jason Cummings penalty, there are some who would bet on tomorrow’s match not only going to extra-time but a penalty shoot-out.
But Hibs will be looking to win over the first 90 minutes. McGeouch said: “If that’s the way it ends up, so be it. We’d just have to deal with it but I think we’ll be going into the game to win. With the squad we have we believe we are good enough to go there and win. The games have been close but we’ve not been beaten by them so we’ll look to keep it going and get the result we want.”