EPIC was the word used by a clearly drained Falkirk skipper Michael McGovern to succinctly sum up his side’s thrilling extra-time victory over Queen of the South.
Falkirk 3-1 Queen of the South Aet, Falkirk won 4-3 on aggregate
Scorers: Falkirk - Loy (53), Sibbald (70), Alston (118); Queen of the South - McHugh (36)
It was also an appropriate description of the effort the Bairns will need should they manage to go all the way to reach the Premiership via these gripping promotion play-offs.
Falkirk now know that a haunted Hibernian lie in wait in the final but they must first overcome Hamilton Accies, starting with the first leg at home tomorrow evening.
While the Lanarkshire outfit were conserving energy at the weekend, Falkirk were expending all theirs just to complete the first stretch of a journey they hope will lead them all the way back to the top-flight. By finishing third in the Championship, as opposed to second, they must take the hardest route possible if they are to get there.
Manager Gary Holt confessed many of his players had been running on empty by the time midfielder Blair Alston poked in the goal that ensured their season will endure until at least Sunday’s second leg at New Douglas Park. Only two minutes separated the teams from a penalty-kicks decider but Alston, who began the scoring just eight minutes into last Tuesday’s first leg at Palmerston Park, settled the frayed nerves and a compelling tie after 208 minutes of tension-filled and action-packed minutes.
“I thought in extra-time it was like two boxers just hitting each other. Everybody looked really tired on both sides,” said McGovern. “It was a mentally draining game as well, but the result was the main thing.
“We don’t have time to dwell on it. People might think extra-time will have taken it out of us, but I see it as a good win and us building momentum. We were delighted at the end of the game and we were celebrating but we know ourselves we’ve won nothing yet. We need to go again on Tuesday.
“I don’t think it’s fair (the way the play-offs have been organised) and I think that’s most people’s opinion. Any neutral would say it’s not the best format for the play-offs. I think it should be similar to League One and Two, but I was a wee bit surprised when it got voted in to start with – turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
“It all favours the Premiership team, but we just get on with it. If we have to win it the hard way we’ll have to. We’ve got to get through Hamilton if we’re to get to Hibs. I don’t imagine Hibs will be a happy camp but they’ll still be favourites whether they play Hamilton or us.”
Bob McHugh, on loan from Motherwell, had given Queen of the South a goal to defend following their 2-1 victory in the first meeting of the teams and the 22-year-old doubled their advantage nine minutes from the interval as he reacted clinically to Will Vaulks’ mis-timed clearance to fire past McGovern.
Falkirk then knew the two goals they started out requiring would only take them into extra-time, but they were undaunted and duly succeeded in giving themselves another half an hour to complete the job.
Just after the break, Rory Loy speared in a cutback from Jonny Flynn, who belied his defensive status with a swift turn and incisive weave up the bye-line, and Craig Sibbald then glanced in a header from Loy’s cross with 20 minutes remaining. Queens were not without their opportunities. Most notably, Danny Carmichael’s free-kick cannoned back off the upright just three minutes after Sibbald had tied the contest on aggregate and substitute Derek Young volleyed inches past with the last kick of regular time.
However, with the play ebbing and flowing in an edgy extra-time, it was Alston’s intervention that proved decisive. Substitute Scott Shepherd injected some verve as others were wearying and the 17-year-old’s centre following a sprightly sprint to the bye-line was turned in at the near post by Alston. The Doonhamers played a huge part in an engrossing encounter, their ability to both hit effectively on the break and keep possession when the situation allowed proving the quality which lies beyond the Premiership and that is likely to prove troubling for Hibs.
Despite their late blow, manager Jim McIntyre was satisfied. “The overall feeling is pride,” he said. “My players have been immense but sometimes Lady Luck smiles on you at times, and that was certainly the case with Falkirk. I thought the game probably deserved to go to penalties, but credit to them, they’re a good side.”