John McGinn couldn’t bare to look. Sat high in the stand at Easter Road having picked up his first-ever red card, he could only look on in despair as Lee Miller’s late goal appeared to have earned Falkirk victory last month,
Quietly, he slunk away to the refuge of the home dressing-room, fearing his first-half challenge on Bairns midfielder Mark Kerr had proved costly. But as he sat alone, conscious of the minutes slowly ticking away, his spirits were lifted by the unmistakable roar of the home support welcoming a goal.
Martin Boyle’s equaliser deep into added-on time salvaged a point for the Capital outfit, one with the benefit of hindsight might just prove to be a crucial moment in their season with Hibs and Falkirk now locked in second place in the Championship, making Sunday’s televised clash between the two sides a not-to-be-missed encounter.
Referee Kevin Clancy’s decision to order off the 20-year-old was later rescinded under appeal, McGinn escaping a two-match ban, a ruling which was almost as great a relief as Boyle’s late, late strike had been a few days earlier.
Today McGinn recalled: “I know Mark is a great professional who would never try to influence a referee by going down easily but I never tried to hurt him. My eyes were on the ball all the time as I turned and caught him. That’s what I told the appeal board, that I was only trying to block the ball, and I was glad they agreed with me. It was the first red card I’d ever had, I’d never been sent off even at youth level. It wasn’t nice and something I don’t want to repeat. I watched some of the rest of the game from the stand but there was only so much I could take. After Falkirk scored, I just went down to the dressing-room.
“I was quietly confident the boys would get something from the game but it was late when Falkirk had scored and I knew the minutes were ticking down and that the final whistle wasn’t far away. I thought Falkirk had won, then I heard a huge roar from the Hibs fans and what a relief that was.
“I apologised to the boys but we are all in it together. If one of us makes a mistake, we all take it on the chin and help each other out.”
Hibs’ never-say-die attitude was evident again the following week when Dominique Malonga struck an even later winner against Queen of the South and McGinn admitted he and his team-mates will have to show the same fighting spirit again on Sunday in what has become an intriguing three-horse race for the Championship title with Rangers currently in pole position three points ahead.
The Scotland Under-21 captain said: “I think knowing we can score late in games actually strengthens us. We are confident we are always going to get something. We’ve scored a lot of important goals late on and, I think if you look at successful clubs, that’s a trait they have even when they are not at the top of their game. And it makes the opposition a bit wary because they know you are going to go to the final whistle and have that capability. It’s a good habit to have and one we want to keep going.”
Falkirk are unbeaten in 11 matches since Jason Cummings’ penalty consigned them to defeat in October, a controversial award by referee Alan Muir after McGinn had collided with Blair Alston, while Hibs have lost just once, at Ibrox, since August, an incredible display of consistency from both clubs which has brought them neck-and-neck.
McGinn, though, insisted he wasn’t surprised to find the Bairns right up there, saying: “They have some really good players, a good mix between experience and young players and a manager who knows the league and exactly what is required to get points.
“Maybe their consistency has caught everyone a bit and, while we have the utmost respect for them, we know that when we are at the top of our game we are more than capable of getting a victory. Falkirk’s recent record is brilliant but, having lost just once in 20 games shows we are still playing well.”
Hibs have a game in hand over Falkirk but, sandwiching the clash with Morton at Cappielow in that outstanding fixture, they have two trips to Tynecastle in the space of a week at the end of the month to look forward to, St Johnstone in the semi-final of the League Cup and then Hearts in the Scottish Cup, not to mention a visit from St Mirren before those mouthwatering clashes.
McGinn, however, insisted there’s no danger of those games distracting Stubbs’ players, adamant they only have eyes for Sunday. He said: “The league is brilliant, very competitive. There’s going to be a lot of twists and turns. We are trying to improve as a team but the other teams will be trying to do the same.
“I know it is a boring old cliché, but the gaffer makes sure it’s one game at a time. We know if we can win the rest of our games we’ll be in with a right good chance but the biggest one is on Sunday, the others are not as important as this one at the moment.”