THERE was always the suspicion that Falkirk might flag. The question was whether Hibs would still be within striking distance by the time they did and whether they would have the heart and the gumption to go on and capitalise.
Scorers: Hibs - Harris 51, Griffiths 78 & 115, Doyle 83; Falkirk - Sibbald 6, Fulton 18, Alston 30
In the end it wasn’t that Falkirk lost their legs or their heart, it was simply that Hibs found something that had been desperately lacking in the first half.
A half-time talking-to, a switch in personnel and a re-jigged formation allowed the capital side to turn things on their head and quell the ire of the fans who were dangerously close to losing theirs.
Many had already departed the stadium as First Division Falkirk rattled home their third goal in the 29th minute, the memories of too many past torments preventing them from believing their team could find their way back into a competition they have not won since 1902. Even their manager Pat Fenlon confessed he may have headed for the exits himself at that stage had he been granted the option.
Instead he and his players spent the interval plotting a revival. Having already sent on young Danny Handling for Scott Robertson, he also altered the shape of the team, swapping Paul Cairney for Eion Doye to give Leigh Griffiths some help in a two-pronged attack.
It was the catalyst for the Hibs fight-back, well, that and the contribution of teenager Alex Harris. The lad who had watched from the stand when the side lost to Hearts in last year’s final scored the goal which set the Leithers on the road to a second successive Hampden finale and gave a second-half performance that was full of dash and desire.
But it was Falkirk who had set the agenda. A lovely footballing side, they were the ones who found space in a congested midfield, and it was they who won every second ball. But they weren’t just hungrier, they weren’t just better at pressing the ball, they were better at using the ball and their passing and movement was a source of major discomfort for their rivals.
In the sixth minute they opened the scoring after Cairney lost possession in the middle of the park. Blair Alston picked out Lyle Taylor and when he cut the ball back into the box, it was Craig Sibbald who provided support from deep to drill it low into the net.
This was an open game, and the underdogs were plagued by little or no fear. That was making Hibs and their fans anxious and that mood wasn’t helped when Robertson passed up a golden chance to finish a Griffiths delivery into the area. He was wildly off target, though.
Hibs were poor. Falkirk, however, were impressively entertaining and pressed forward at every opportunity, with Taylor troubling the Hibs central defence and his team-mates quick to get up to link. At set pieces too, Hibs were being dominated by their younger counterparts and they eventually paid for that in the 17th minute. Sibbald sent in the free-kick, Johnny Flynn beat Ryan McGivern to the ball, and played it across the goal where Jay Fulton got in ahead of Cairney to head in number two.
Darren Dods challenged from another set piece and Hibs were seriously rocking, with Ben Williams having to pull off a great save in the 42nd minute to deny Taylor. At that stage the score looked like it could be anything. As it was, it was 3-0 at half-time as Hibs were again robbed of possession and Alston started the move, combining with Taylor before getting on the end of it to leave Ben Williams picking the ball out the net yet again.
The intent was there to continue that good work in the second half but Hibs proved to be more of a factor. The Hibs manager said that by then his players knew what they had to do. They were playing for pride, he said. At that stage they had precious little to salvage but salvage it they did.
They were denied what looked a stonewall penalty in the 50th minute when Tim Clancy was felled by Stewart Murdoch but a minute later Harris skelped a long-range screamer and although Michael McGovern got his finger tips to it, he couldn’t halt its passage.
There was a possibility at that point that Hibs might just be able to do something that would have been unimaginable in the first half. But even Fenlon admitted that he thought fate was against them when Murdoch was punished for another rash challenge, this time on Handling, in the box only for Griffiths to miss a spot-kick for the first time this season, McGovern pulling off a crucial double save. But Griffiths isn’t the kind of player to let his head drop. He wasn’t at his best but he still had enough to not only get his side’s second in the 77th minute but eventually produce the extra-time winner.
There had been a delay to the start of extra time as the fourth official John Beaton was called on to replace the injured referee Iain Brines.
In between it was Doyle who got the goals which took it beyond the 90 minutes and allowed his under-fire manager to breath a sigh of relief.
Fenlon said he was going home to sleep until Monday, so drained was he by proceedings. “It was an unbelievable game. I’ve never been through anything like that before and I never want to again. It was incredible.”
That was one word for it but it was also devastating for a young Falkirk side who had come to the national stadium and given their all. It was almost enough. Almost, but not quite.
Hibs: Williams, Clancy, McPake, Hanlon, McGivern, Harris, Robertson (Handling 32), Claros, Thomson (Taiwo 64), Cairney (Doyle 46), Griffiths. Substitutes not used: Murdoch, Stevenson, Taiwo.
Falkirk: McGovern, Duffie, Kingsley, Dods, Flynn, Murdoch, Sibbald, McGrandles (Higgins 78), Taylor, Fulton (Weatherston 73), Alston (Grant 64). Substitutes not used: Bowman, Dick.
Referee: Iain Brines.