Craig Fowler gives his take on another terrific 90 minutes of football as Falkirk reached the play-off final at the expense of Hibs.
Luke Leahy made the difference for Falkirk
During the first leg of the semi-final, Falkirk had Leahy on a metaphorical leash. The full back likes to get forward and, more often than not, is the side’s only true source of width in a narrow 4-4-2 system with a centre back (Aaron Muirhead) operating at the other full back spot. However, at Easter Road he had to curtail his attacking prowess as it was all about keeping the defensive shape away from home. Last night was a very different story. He was involved in almost every attack in the opening 20 minutes as Falkirk opened the scoring and were in full control of the game at that point. Hibs, playing in their preferred narrow diamond, didn’t have anyone to match up with Leahy’s running and the space he found in the opposing half caused the visitors real problems. Though he fell out of the game when Hibs began to control proceedings, he came back in a big way with a stunning goal that brought Falkirk back on level terms, setting up the grandstand finish.
Hibs paid the price for two slow starts
Hibs didn’t start either leg with much authority. In the home match at Easter Road, the tempo was far too slow for the opening 50 minutes, and again at the Falkirk Stadium they struggled to get to grips with the pace of the game in the early going. In both instances, getting a goal really injected some energy into the side, though you have to wonder how much this long season has taken its toll. While Falkirk have played only eight games fewer overall, Hibs have played a whopping 10 more matches than the Bairns since the turn of the year. I don’t care what dietary plan you are on, that’s going to have an effect. Had they managed to start both games in the manner in which they played thereafter, you have to imagine it’d be Alan Stubbs’ side in the play-off final instead of Falkirk. Instead, they had to battle back both times. Even though they did so successfully, it still takes a lot out of you and leaves a small margin for error.
This Falkirk side really don’t give up
It looked at one point as if Falkirk had very little chance of taking this tie into extra time, let alone winning the match in 90 minutes. The crisp passing we saw in the opening exchanges never returned as they appeared spooked by the quick-fire double from Hibs. Peter Houston responded by withdrawing Mark Kerr and John Baird for Myles Hippolyte and Lee Miller. The message was clear: “forget the passing, get it long.” For a period this meant Hibs controlled even more of possession with the ball not sticking in the opposition half with Vaulks, and now Craig Sibbald, being overran in the centre. But when the game becomes stretched and players get tired and teams get desperate, you want the ability to go back to front quickly and Falkirk were eventually able to use it to their advantage.
They also deserve massive credit for not settling for extra-time. Jason Cummings hit the bar shortly after the equaliser and Hibs had a couple of set-pieces in which to sling balls into the Falkirk penalty area. This would have been enough to dissuade some teams from attacking in great numbers themselves, rather choosing to try luck in the additional 30 minutes or penalties. Instead, with the seconds ticking away, Falkirk threw the ball and men forward and got their reward.
Referees hindered Hibs, though they didn’t cost them the tie
The case against the referees here is like last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final between Celtic and Inverness CT, where Josh Meekings pulled off a save most goalkeepers would be proud of to keep the score at 1-0. Celtic argued this cost them the match. Had the handball been spotted it would have been a foul, Meekings would have been off and the game would have been done at 2-0. That’s all fair. Same as it’s fair for Hibs to say the same about David McCracken’s handball in the first game, which would have given Hibs a 3-1 lead, and his penalty foul in the second leg which, although not the most blatant red card ever, probably should have seen him walk for a professional foul. However, in all those instances, the game was still in the grasp of the team making the complaint. Stubbs’ side should have had enough to see out the Easter Road leg without losing another goal, especially as Falkirk barely crossed halfway after half-time, and they should have been more ruthless and killed the tie off last night. At 2-1, Hibs were well in the ascendancy and had the opportunity to step on the neck of Falkirk. Instead, they couldn’t make the breakthrough once more, and it cost them.
The future is a scary place for Hibs
The funny thing is, a victory over Rangers next Saturday and a lot of this is quickly forgotten. So many people, including everyone involved in the club, have stated they’d take promotion over the Scottish Cup final. That is, and always was, an absolute nonsense. The failure to land the Scottish Cup has been the albatross around Hibs’ neck that’s created the culture by which all these other heartaches come out of. It’s a trophy they’ve gone without for 114 years. Surely another 12 months in the second tier is a small price to pay for ending such a long and ignominious hoodoo, if you could pick one over the other?
Unfortunately, such hypothetical choices aren’t based in reality, and Hibs will go into next Saturday’s game as favourites to lose their second Hampden final of the season, all the while failing to reach the top flight at the second time of asking. Being unable to do so creates question marks around a lot of the squad. Will John McGinn be sold? Will Cummings be sold? If they have to cut back, who’ll replace Liam Henderson and Anthony Stokes? Will Stubbs stay to see the job through? Do the fans even want him to stay since the objective has been missed? What’s the financial situation like? How much was spent to earn promotion this year? Will the cup runs and Scott Allan sale offset that? So, so many questions will be answered over the next few months, and they likely won’t all be to the fans’ liking.