T he play-offs just keep on giving. For excitement, drama, tension, controversy, great football and horrendous blunders, the game between Hibernian and Falkirk on Tuesday night has had few equals in a less than vintage season. And this being the play-offs it’s only half-time.
If Hibs somehow come through the tortuous process, achieve all they want from it and then plonk a ginormous cherry on top in the shape of the Scottish Cup, then their players will need a long holiday while their fans will require extensive therapy.
You cannot really expect the play-offs to give you a straightforward match, one you can manage comfortably before the bigger challenge ahead. Well, maybe you can if you’re Ayr United, 4-1 winners away at Peterhead, who were then able to stroll through the second leg. But Hibs have had it tough, and continue to make it even tougher for themselves. They didn’t return from Raith Rovers with the result they wanted and so had to roar into the return and were pushed all the way. Two-one up against Falkirk having been behind, they would probably have settled for that scoreline, but Conrad Logan’s horrible mistake allowed Bob McHugh to increase his claim on the title of Scotland’s “supersub”.
So these Hibs and Falkirk players continue to be stuck in the same lift, with neither team prepared to give an inch or let the other steal their oxygen, until the engineer arrives to force open the doors and the eventual winners are able to step over the losers and get ready to face Kilmarnock for the right to top-floor access in the SPFL.
Of course Hibs should have had the chance to make it 3-1, but for Alan Muir’s astonishing brain-lapse in not awarding them a penalty – a definite contender for the most controversial refereeing decision of 2015-16. Post-match, there was a school of thought that David McCracken didn’t know the whereabouts of the ball when he pushed his hand down on it, so we all had another look. No, he seemed to be staring straight at the ball, which at that point was in danger of rolling towards John McGinn. The defender stopped it doing this then – equally unwittingly, we are led to believe – positioned it perfectly for a gigantic hoof to safety.
Tomorrow night’s conclusion to Hibees-Bairns hostilities – for this season at least – was promising to be a loaded affair even if the first leg had somehow passed off peacefully and joyfully, like the first picnic of early summer. But that was never going to happen, was it?
Thus a rivalry with a history of many disputed penalties and non-penalties and red cards, of perceived slights, offence-causing celebrations and boasts over who’s got the smallest budget, is ratcheted up some more and we get ready to go again. We’re all amateur psychologists and we’re fascinated by what’s going to happen next. Can Hibs, who haven’t lost to Falkirk this campaign, finally shake them off? Can Falkirk finally beat the Leith team, having been ahead in three of the matches but not looking like they believed they would emerge victorious, even when going one-nil up against ten men with six minutes remaining?
Ah, but do Hibs believe they can prevail, having led in the two most recent encounters only to be caught near the end? As they sat in their ice baths after the 53rd game of this marathon season, the players must console themselves with these facts: they finished the match in a better position than at half-time; they played some buccaneering football in the second period to give lie to the theory they might be tired or nervous or both; Westfield probably won’t quite manage a “Welcome to hell” fanfare. It looks like being a sell-out, though, and a plucky and proud club with, yes, fewer resources will believe they can win on their plastic pitch. Every time they sling over a cross they threaten Hibs.
Falkirk were themselves vulnerable to balls into the box on Tuesday night. Perhaps these teams have played each other so often they’re starting to morph into each other. In further role-reversal and because the tie’s all square, might Hibs invite Falkirk to attack and try to catch them on the break?
Another question: who’s in goal for Hibs? Should the demoted Mark Oxley be recalled after Logan’s howler? Then if the game goes to extra-time and penalties as many predict, Alan Stubbs could summon the Irishman who was a spot-kick hero in the Scottish Cup. This would have echoes of Louis van Gaal and Holland in the last World Cup, a substitution which spooked Costa Rica who promptly lost the shoot-out. But that would suggest Hibs vs Falkirk needs help from elsewhere to make it gripping, and it doesn’t.