Hibs came from behind for a second time against Falkirk to claim a point – but it was Championship leaders Rangers who were the winners as their title rivals now trail by five points.
The Easter Road club and the Bairns remain locked in second place, but in cancelling themselves out once again have only served to increase the Ibrox club’s advantage at the top of the table.
As they had at Easter Road a few weeks ago, Falkirk took the lead, Blair Alston firing them ahead four minutes into the second half, but Alan Stubbs’ players, having again been below-par in the first half, showed that never-say-die spirit once more.
Jason Cummings, who had been largely shackled by the home defence, was on hand to turn home his 17th goal of the season after Falkirk goalkeeper Danny Rogers could only push away Darren McGregor’s shot.
And in a grandstand finish, Rogers superbly saved from Cummings who, in the dying seconds, was only inches away again from winning all three points for Hibs as he just failed to connect with a fizzed cross. Any contact would’ve resulted in a goal.
A Herculean effort had taken place behind-the-scenes, with an army of fans volunteering both the previous night and on the morning of the game to clear the pitch of snow, the results of their effort seen piled high on the perimeter of the playing surface.
There was no Anthony Stokes for Hibs, the Capital club unable to rush through the necessary paperwork to clear the Celtic striker to join his old club on loan in time to face another of his previous employers.
But there was a return for top scorer Cummings after illness, while McGregor, who came off the bench to set Hibs on their way to a Scottish Cup victory over Raith Rovers last week, retained his place at right-back, new arrivals Niklas Gunnarsson and Chris Dagnall dropping to the bench where club skipper David Gray, recovered from a knee injury, was also seated.
Both sets of players set about making the most of the pristine conditions those unpaid heroes had presented them with, knocking the ball about, patiently probing away although neither side managed anything of note as the opening quarter came and went.
An Alston header wide was the sum of Falkirk’s efforts, while Cummings’ tendency to be impetuous was evident when he attempted a shot from a near impossible position rather than trying to retain possession around the opposition’s penalty area.
For two teams desperate for the victory to close in on Championship leaders Rangers, the game lacked any real tempo or urgency, a fact which would no doubt have pleased any of Mark Warburton’s player,s who happened to be watching the action live on television, a draw undoubtedly the result the Ibrox club would enjoy most.
The rare moment of threat produced by either was inevitably removed by a careless pass, such as the overstruck ball from Falkirk striker Lee Miller which eluded Alston’s superbly time run which threatened to take him in on Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley or, at the other end, Dylan McGeouch’s cutback which didn’t carry enough to find James Keatings.
As a consequence, a ground which should have been rocking at the sight of this much-anticipated clash was subdued, the home fans lifted for the first time by a rocket from Will Vaulks which flew wide, although Leahy went even closer, John Baird’s dummy giving him a clear sight of goal, only for his shot to be deflected over.
The sad fact, however, was that neither Oxley or his opposite number Danny Rogers had their hands warmed, something they might have appreciated on a bitterly cold afternoon while the fans could only hope they’d see something in the coming 45 minutes which would give them cause to get up out of their seats other than that much-needed half-time Bovril.
Having seen Hibs at less than their best in the opening half of those back-to-back encounters with Raith, the travelling support would also have their fingers crossed that the invigorating “chats” Alan Stubbs had enjoyed with his players in the confines of their dressing room would have a similar effect on this occasion.
Falkirk had shaded possession in that opening period and it was Peter Houston’s side which had the second half’s first opening, Miller wheeling to fire in a shot which took a deflection off Liam Fontaine and spun a whisker over Oxley’s bar.
But that opening goal was merely delayed, Aaron Muirhead playing the ball into the danger area for Baird to slip it to Alston who sidestepped a sliding challenge before coolly drilling a low shot beyond the Hibs goalkeeper.
Hibs had, as they have for long spells in recent weeks, looked disjointed, their play lacking little cohesion or fluency, unable to make possession stick and so, time after time, handing possession straight back to a Falkirk side which clearly sensed their rivals’ unease.
The Easter Road side, though, have shown a resilience in the face of adversity on a number of occasions this season, not least the Bairns recent visit to Edinburgh, and after a shaky spell in the wake of falling behind they appeared to gather their thoughts and compose themselves, John McGinn’s claims for a penalty after he was toppled by Leahy waved away.
Cummings, for once, broke the shackles placed on him to come inside the Falkirk full back only to see Rogers hold his low shot at the second attempt although, in truth, it was so lacking in pace it was never going to beat the goalkeeper.
But the 20-year-old’s nose for goal was there for all to see as Rogers could only palm away a low, and powerfully struck angled shot from McGregor, Cummings on hand to turn the ball into the empty net for his 17th goal of the season.
And he almost made it 18, flashing a header wide before Rogers pulled off a terrific save from McGregor, while follow-up attempts from both Liam Fontaine and McGeouch were blocked as Hibs went for yet another late winner.
But Cummings should have won it for Hibs four minutes from time when substitute Liam Henderson left him one-on-one with Rogers, only for the goalkeeper to stand “big” and brilliantly turn aside his shot.
And, incredibly, there was almost one more chance for Cummings to do so, the youngster agonisingly only inches away from making contact as the ball flashed across the Falkirk goal from a superb Henderson delivery.