FALKIRK maintained their unbeaten start to 2015 as a spirited victory over their Championship play-off rivals, Queen of the South, last night took them into the Scottish Cup semi-finals for the second time in three seasons.
As expected for a meeting of two sides separated only by goal difference in an intriguing battle for fourth place in the second tier, there was little between them for most of a wind-afflicted encounter. The Bairns, however, shaded it thanks to a first-half header from Craig Sibbald.
The win, which they just about deserved for an organised counter-attacking display, means Peter Houston’s upwardly-mobile side haven’t lost since 27 December.
As well as impressive league form, both sides entered last night’s live televised showdown boasting some decent recent Scottish Cup pedigree. Queens were beaten by Rangers in the 2008 final, while Falkirk suffered the same fate a year later. The Bairns had looked on course for another final appearance two years ago before squandering a 3-0 lead against Hibs in a dramatic semi-final.
Paul Burns was the only surviving Doonhamers player from his side’s gallant 3-2 defeat by the Ibrox side almost seven years ago, although Jamie MacDonald, who was between the sticks for the Dumfries men on that occasion, was present last night in his guise as Falkirk goalkeeper. MacDonald, of course, won the competition with Hearts in 2012, while Bairns manager Houston also got his hands on the old trophy while in charge of Dundee United five years ago.
Further swelling the Bairns’ count of Scottish Cup finalists was midfielder Tom Taiwo, who featured for Hibs in the 2013 final, and it was he who had the first attempt of last night’s tie as he spooned a 20-yard shot harmlessly over the top in the 13th minute.
Until this point, the match had been tightly-contested. It would remain this way for much of the night, with the wind swirling around Palmerston preventing either side generating any sustained rhythm.
The hosts fashioned their first opening after quarter of an hour. Iain Russell, restored to the side after venting his frustration last week at being benched for the past five games, burst in from the left and cut the ball back in the danger area, but Falkirk skipper David McCracken nicked the ball away just as Michael Paton was poised to turn it into the net.
At the other end, David Smith’s tame low shot from 20 yards caused more problems than it should have for Zander Clark, with the Queens goalkeeper smothering it at the second attempt after allowing the initial effort to squirm dangerously from his grasp.
The Bairns threatened again in 25 minutes but top scorer Rory Loy blazed a volley high over after a Sibbald corner broke to him around the penalty spot.
Despite the lack of clear chances, there was a crackle in the air befitting of a match of such significance to both sides. The endearing, old-school nature of Palmerston Park always helps enhance such occasions and Friday-night revelry was particularly evident on the terraces behind both goals. Eleven minutes before the break, it was the healthy visiting contingent who were dancing jubilantly in the Dumfries chill when Sibbald met a driven, wind-assisted Luke Leahy cross from the left and stooped instinctively to head beyond Clark.
Queens were stung and tried to respond just before the break, but Gavin Reilly, back from injury in time to replace suspended top scorer Derek Lyle, blasted his angled shot straight at MacDonald after outmuscling Leahy as he burst into the box.
The Bairns almost doubled their advantage 13 minutes after the break but Peter Grant powered a free header wide from Smith’s dangerous corner-kick delivery. At the other end, a Queens corner could easily have brought an equaliser if Russell hadn’t kicked at fresh air while rushing in on a loose ball 12 yards out. The hosts threatened again in the 62nd minute when Reilly headed just over after meeting a devilish inswinging delivery from Paton six yards out.
Falkirk remained a live threat, though, and Blair Alston drilled a low shot just wide after being fed by Sibbald just outside the box. Queens spurned a fine opportunity in the 73rd minute when Russell rasped straight at MacDonald after a cross from substitute Danny Carmichael had broken into his path 15 yards out.
Match-ending injuries to Falkirk pair Loy and Leahy – the latter looking in a particularly bad way after being carried off with a head knock – caused disruption to the closing ten minutes of the match but these were to prove the only blemishes for the visitors on a night when they held firm to secure a return to Hampden.
Falkirk will hope this victory has the double-edged effect of knocking the wind out of Queens’ sails in the duel for fourth.
Queen of the South: Clark, Dowie, Durnan (Mitchell 76), Higgins, Holt, McShane, Burns (Carmichael 64), Kidd, Paton, Russell, Reilly (Smith 79). Subs not used: McKenna, Hooper, Pickard, Atkinson
Falkirk: MacDonald, Duffie, McCracken, Vaulks, Taiwo, Alston (Dick 81), Smith, Sibbald, Grant, Leahy (Muirhead 89), Loy (Morgan 83). Subs not used: Maybury, Cooper, Biabi, Bowman.
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