The other day Jim Duffy stood on the pitch at Cappielow and hailed the best Championship ever. Reflecting on the tedious match we’d witnessed, I wasn’t immediately sure I agreed with him.
OK, said Duffy, Hearts have gone from the second tier, but look at Rangers and Hibernian. The challenge from Falkirk. The form of Raith Rovers, none better. He could have added, but didn’t, the name of his own team, restored to the division and on course to finish the best of the rest following their humiliating exit two years previously, unfortunately witnessed by their most famous fan, Arthur Montford, shortly before his death.
And he’s right, you know. The Scottish Cup final will be a Championship-only affair. The Championship has nabbed more Manager of the Year nominations than any other division, and more Young Player of the Year nominations, too. It’s had a player capped by Scotland. Today it will provide an afternoon of high drama and – who knows? – maybe high scorelines which the Premiership hasn’t been able to match. And the play-offs haven’t even started yet.
Does the Championship also boast the tingliest, scratchiest and feistiest rivalry in Scottish football? With no Old Firm games and no Edinburgh derbies, Alan Stubbs and Peter Houston have kept us scanning the touchline when their teams come together, and poring over the detail of their post-match pronouncements.
Am I overstating this? Well, tell me what the Premiership has produced in the way of interesting niggle: Aberdeen pointing out that Hearts maybe have one or two big players in their ranks? I’m not suggesting Stubbs vs Houston has been at the level of Clough vs Revie, but in lean times, it has still been pretty engrossing.
Fans of a certain age might like to claim the tension between the clubs dates back to the early 1970s when Turnbull’s Tornadoes weren’t quite fully formed and Alex Ferguson in the Falkirk forward line was all jaggy elbows and get-your-retaliation-in-first. There was a pulsating League Cup quarter-final in ’71. Falkirk, high on the relief of manager Willie Cunningham rejecting overtures from Scotland, won the first leg 2-0 and if you were lucky enough to have ever visited Brockville you’ll know what a sardine-squash a crowd of 18,026 would have been like. In the return Hibs could only halve the deficit. Then came a league game at Brockville which still rates as one of the five most exciting matches ever witnessed by your correspondent, when the Hibees scored inside ten seconds only for the Bairns to overturn the lead. Then Alex Cropley was stretched off – a broken ankle – and Fergie was sent off. The white-booted Joe Baker won it for Hibs, nose to the turf with a last-minute diving header.
Really, though, the current teams – and their managers – have concocted this rivalry all by themselves and it probably began with “Cross-gate”. In last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final Hibs were the better team but came up against a goalkeeper in Jamie MacDonald who was both dead jammy and inspired as they hit the woodwork and spurned chances. Afterwards Stubbs bemoaned his side’s luck. Luck had nothing to do with it, said Houston – Hibs had shown their vulnerability to crosses in previous matches and Craig Sibbald had simply exploited it. Stubbs was accused of being a sore loser until he pointed out he’d congratulated Falkirk on their win but this hadn’t been reported, which was true.
This season, every game between the teams has been controversial. Last October at Westfield, a Jason Cummings penalty won it for Hibs but Houston reckoned John McGinn had gone down too easily. In December at Easter Road, McGinn was sent off in the first half, Falkirk didn’t capitalise until the 84th minute but couldn’t hold on to the lead and almost lost it at the death. In January back at Westfield there was another 1-1 draw with Houston accusing McGinn of diving for another penalty (not given) and then, after watching a re-run, phoning Hibs to apologise.
The most recent encounter three weeks ago in Leith seemed to be confirming Hibs for second place when they raced into a two-goal lead, only for Falkirk, right at the end and down to ten men, to launch a couple of high ones. The bold Peter was overcome. He turned round to the stand and, to fans who’d probably been baiting him all night, gave them it right back. The legs-apart, mouth-agape, cupped-ears look is none too flattering on a mature man in a shellsuit, but what the heck.
Right afterwards Houston mentioned Falkirk’s tiny budget compared to Hibs and Rangers. If he had a pound for every time he’s mentioned it, the budget wouldn’t be small anymore. But the wee guys are shouting loud so they’ll be heard. Falkirk are making the most of what they’ve got. Every team they play knows perfectly well they’re a late threat from crosses but no-one can seem to stop them. Their challenge has been stirring. In the build-up to today, the banter has bounced the 25 miles between the two grounds. . The pressure’s all on Falkirk. “Pressure, what pressure?” quips Houston from the golf course. His team won’t “Hibs it”, he vows.
If Falkirk win 1-0 and Hibs win 4-0 they’ll finish dead level but the latter would claim second place on the head-to-head – remember that hotly-disputed penalty. But, provided whoever finishes third beat Raith in the play-offs, then we’d be set for the season’s fifth and sixth tussles between the sides.
This is a rumbustious rivalry not involving the Old Firm or the usual suspects and therefore a good thing. The games thus far have been absorbing contests and if they’ve been getting tousier then at least Alex Ferguson’s not involved.
John Blackley, who grew up close to Falkirk and played for Hibs with distinction, told me recently how Fergie once greeted him at Brockville with a Hibs photo he wanted signed by the team. “Early on in the game he elbowed me. ‘But I got all your autographs,’ I said. He said: ‘There’s nae friends in football, John’!”