Neil Lennon: Title is in our hands '“ no question
After weeks of fretting, Hibs fans can at last breathe that little bit easier knowing that the Championship is all but theirs.
A succession of draws against teams in the bottom half of the table had caused plenty of worries but, when it’s come down to it, Neil Lennon’s players have produced, beating in turn title rivals Dundee United and now Falkirk.
Ten points now separate the Easter Road side from the Bairns and Morton, who suffered their first home defeat in almost a year as they went down to Dunfermline, and the arrival of Jim Duffy’s men in the Capital on Wednesday gives Hibs the opportunity to widen what is already a yawning gap between them and the rest.
“It’s in our hands,” agreed Lennon. “There’s no question of that and, even if Morton win their game in hand, there’s still a significant gap. We still have a bit of work to do, but I think, psychologically, it was huge for us after dropping points last week [to Dumbarton].”
Falkirk midfielder Mark Kerr wasn’t going to disagree with that assessment, noting that he and his team-mates could have slashed Hibs’ advantage to just four points with a victory but now, he conceded: “We’ve got to focus on second now – it’s Hibs’ to throw away.”
Having said that, Falkirk came within seconds of keeping the league open for at least a little while longer, Craig Sibbald having cancelled out Efe Ambrose’s first goal for Hibs within two minutes of the Nigerian internationalist scoring.
But that was without bringing James Keatings, the striker who has endured a frustrating season, into the reckoning. Keatings had found himself back on the bench after a miserable performance when given a rare start against Dumbarton but found himself thrust into the action when Andrew Shinnie suffered a shoulder injury which will undergo a scan today.
Having delivered the inch-perfect cross for Ambrose’s header and, with the clock showing two added minutes had already been played, Keatings cut in from the left and, with his weaker right foot, sent a sumptuous curling shot beyond Falkirk’s helpless goalkeeper Robbie Thomson.
“It was a goal worthy of winning any game,” insisted Lennon. “Keats has been due one. There was one a couple of minutes earlier when the ball came to him and he lashed at it on the volley instead of taking a touch which was symptomatic of his season.
“But he’s a technician and I’ve seen him do that a lot, left foot and right foot. He is a good finisher. He has had to be patient and we’ve had to change the way we play a little bit.
“We had to be direct because the pitch [being played on for the third time in eight days] wasn’t great. I want us to be direct because I think we overplay at times. We all want to play super, nice football, but it doesn’t get you results.
“It was nice to win the game in the manner we did because we’ve not done that as often as I would like. It’s down to the fitness and character of the team, the mindset is strong. It was a good game of football, very exciting and Falkirk played their part in it.
“It was a good win, really important and, with Morton losing, it could be a pivotal day in the run-in. I’m delighted, absolutely delighted.”
And Keatings revealed his goal would make his journey home far more pleasant than the previous week, disclosing that he and his dad barely exchanged a word after his dismal display against Dumbarton.
He said: “I couldn’t argue with the manager leaving me out. I drove home with my dad, who is the worst person I could go home with after having a bad game. I was dreading it, I thought he might tie me up and put me in the boot!
“There were barely any words said on the journey but I told him it was my worst game since I signed for Hibs. He sometimes says I’m too hard on myself but I didn’t do myself justice and I could have no arguments at being out of the side.
“I had the chance to make amends and I’m delighted I did that. I was a bit down last week, but now I’m going to look for my dad and hopefully he’s got a big smile on his face.”
It was also a game with plenty of bite, Falkirk’s Luke Leahy wiping out Martin Boyle within the first minute, provoking the first of a number of bouts of pushing and shoving.
Kerr revealed the claim by Shinnie prior to the match that the Bairns could well have been playing Premiership football this season if they hadn’t “bottled” the second leg of their play-off final against Kilmarnock, irked the visitors.
Recalling how Hibs’ Fraser Fyvie had fuelled the fire last season by questioning if Falkirk had “big time players”, 35-year-old Kerr said: “It’s one of those ones. If you are an experienced player you know it’s just mind games because they weren’t there to bottle it.
“That’s the way I look at it, but it does get the boys’ backs up and then it turns into an individual thing. Fraser did it last year, said something stupid. I’ve known him for years, since he was a young boy at Aberdeen, but he’s just said something and you’ve picked up on it and thought it would be a good headline. Us and Hibs always have that kind of snap about us when we play each other. You see it when the tackles are going in right in the first minute. I think Bairdy [Falkirk striker John Baird] just saw his chance to have a go at one of the boys who said something to the papers.
“I think that was the reason. It was premeditated maybe. There were a few wee bits and bobs, but you end up laughing about it don’t you? You fight your corner and do your best but you just shake hands at the end and say ‘well done, boys’.
“They’ve come out on top of us this year, we came out on top last year although we didn’t finish the job off.”
Hibs now, though, have the chance to finish the job off and take the one automatic promotion place, this victory having been achieved without skipper David Gray, who is nursing a hamstring problem, as well as midfielder John McGinn and goalkeeper Ofir Marciano who were away on international duty with Scotland and Israel.
And, going into the final straight, Lennon finds his squad strengthening almost by the day, Dylan McGeouch having started his first match since the beginning of January while defender Paul Hanlon made a cameo appearance towards the end of the game having overcome the pelvic problem which had dogged him for over two months.
Danny Handling, who hasn’t played first0team football for almost two years, took a seat on the bench.
Keatings said: “That shows the strength in depth in our squad that we were missing important players but didn’t let our standards slip.”