Hibs and Falkirk served up an epic 2-2 draw which left no-one the wiser as to which of these sides will be taking on Kilmarnock to battle it out for Premiership football next season.
The Easter Road outfit came from behind in the first leg of this Premiership play-off semi-final. Lee Miller’s deflection had given the Bairns a first-half lead somewhat against the run of play, but Hibs roared back to lead through Liam Henderson’s shot and Darren McGregor’s header. However, super-sub Bob McHugh, who has made a habit of claiming vital late goals for Falkirk, struck again, his low shot on the turn slipping under Hibs goalkeeper Conrad Logan, who would have felt he should have done much better.
Hibs, however, were left raging at not being awarded a penalty when Falkirk skipper David McCracken clearly handled the ball with the Capital side 2-1 ahead. A third then would have put Alan Stubbs’ side in pole position.
Now, though, the two sides face a nail-biting 90 minutes at Falkirk on Friday night which, on the evidence of last night and previous matches between the teams this season, could well take an extra half-hour if not penalties to settle which goes into the play-off final.
Hibs boss Stubbs showed faith in the side which had taken care of Raith Rovers at the weekend to set up this double-header against Falkirk by naming the same starting XI for the first leg, the only change coming on the bench where Kevin Thomson replaced Marvin Bartley.
Peter Houston was true to his word, going with two up front in Lee Miller and John Baird, the Falkirk manager mindful of how switching to that approach the last time his team were at Easter Road had seen them come back from a two goal deficit to snatch what proved to be a vital point in the chase for second place in the Championship table.
By virtue of doing so, Houston’s players had enjoyed nine-day break, time to rest and recover from the rigours of the regular season while Hibs, of course, were having to navigate those two games against Raith.
Hibs opener last time had come from a mistake by McCracken as he failed to deal with a long ball through the middle and that was a weakness Hibs obviously felt they could exploit again, a couple of early attempts to find Jason Cummings via that ploy looking promising but ultimately coming to nothing.
Both teams sported black armbands to mark the death of former Falkirk player Chris Mitchell and in the 14th minute – 14 having been his shirt number with the Bairns – there was a spontaneous round of applause from home and away fans alike as they paid their own tribute.
Just prior to that, Anthony Stokes’ pass had created the game’s first real opening, Fraser Fyvie turning on it 18 yards out, only to send his shot high over the bar as Hibs dominated the early proceedings, Paul Hanlon rising to meet Henderson’s corner but powering his header over.
If tiredness was perceived to be a problem for Hibs in their 52nd match of the season, there was no evidence of it, particularly from John McGinn as he fought his way through four tackles to unleash a speculative effort which flew over the top.
The four previous matches between these sides had been tight affairs, three draws and a highly contentious penalty just shading one for Hibs, and this was shaping up to be just as close an encounter, the home side doing much of the pressing and the Bairns looking to hit on the counter.
A one-two between Henderson and Stokes almost prised open the Falkirk defence, the former Bairns striker getting to the bye-line from where he scooped the ball towards the back post where it eventually fell for Fyvie, but the midfielder, again on the turn, saw his low shot creep wide of the far post.
Given their start, Hibs were stunned to find themselves a goal down in the 34th minute. Darren McGregor’s foul on Miller 25 yards out saw Luke Leahy’s effort from the resultant free kick crash back off the defensive wall for Taiwo to direct it back at goal, Miller’s right boot deflecting it beyond Logan and high into the net.
Hibs protested furiously but in vain, Miller having been clearly played onside by Easter Road skipper David Gray.
That goal gave Falkirk the cushion they were looking for, allowing them to get everyone behind the ball when not in possession, the organisation and discipline shown throughout the first half ensuring there was no way through to goalkeeper Danny Rogers.
Despite being behind, Stubbs’ players would be acutely aware of the dangers of recklessly chasing an equaliser and leaving gaps for Falkirk to exploit and so make their task even more difficult, particularly given the Bairns had been beaten only twice – albeit one of those defeats being by the Capital side – on their own ground all season.
They should, though, have been back on level terms seven minutes after the interval, Cummings playing a superb ball through to leave Stokes with only Rogers to beat, but the on-loan Celtic hit-man lofted the ball over the bar only seconds after McGinn’s deft touch had offered him an opening which was also scorned.
Faced with such a compact opposition, Hibs had set about moving them by switching the ball from flank to flank, but every time they attempted to get the ball into a dangerous area there was inevitably a dark blue shirt.
But their pressure did tell in the 58th minute, a deep cross from the outstanding Dylan McGeouch nodded down by Stokes for Henderson to hammer a shot down into the turf before rearing up into the roof of the net.
Suddenly Easter Road was r evitalised, the home fans in full voice urging their players forward as they sensed the match had most definitely turned in their favour.
Falkirk, though, as was to be expected, still presented a threat, Will Vaulks arriving at pace to get on the end of Blair Alston’s corner, sending a curling effort over only for McGregor to rise above everyone to meet another Henderson corner to bury a header for the second game in succession.
And Hibs should have had a penalty 13 minutes from the end when McCracken clearly used an arm as he lay on the ground to prevent McGinn cashing in on Henderson’s flick.
The game certainly had an edge to it, referee Alan Muir delving into his pocket to book McGregor and Vaulks and then Taiwo and McGinn in what had become, in effect, a full-blooded cup tie.
McHugh had salvaged that point for Falkirk last time round and the substitute with the happy knack of scoring late goals was at it again, on hand to turn as Vaulks’ free kick dropped inside the Hibs penalty area and get off a low shot which Logan looked to have only for the ball to slide under him and into the net.
Hibs came roaring back in search of a third, Rogers turning aside a rocket from Stokes before McGregor got on the end of another Henderson corner but this time he couldn’t get it on target.
They’ll do it all again on Friday in the second leg.
Hibs (4-1-2-1-2): Logan; Gray, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson; McGeouch; Fyvie, McGinn; Henderson (Boyle 89); Cummings (Keatings 73), Stokes. Substitutes not used: Oxley, Fontaine, Gunnarsson, Dagnall, Thomson.
Falkirk (4-4-2): Rogers; Muirhead, Vaulks, McCracken, Leahy; Alston, Kerr, Taiwo (Hippolyte 78), Sibbald; Miller (McHugh 59), Baird (O’Hara 76). Substitutes not used: Mehmet, Shepherd, Gallacher, Watson.
Referee: A Muir.