HIBERNIAN began the task of eating into the gap between themselves and leaders Rangers last night with a hard-fought, if controversial, victory over Falkirk.
This was precisely the kind of assignment to test Hibs’ mettle.
They knew they would have to grind out a result if their title aspirations were to remain realistic. While it wasn’t pretty, they did exactly this, leap-frogging Raith Rovers in the process to move into second place, eight points behind Rangers.
On a night when Champions League football was competing for people’s attention, a healthy crowd of 5,429 gathered at the Falkirk Stadium. They saw an ultra-competitive game that left the 1,809 travelling fans happy and the rest furious.
Falkirk manager Peter Houston was all but stamping his feet on the touchline as his side wasted chance after chance to equalise as the game neared its conclusion.
But the principal source of frustration occurred towards the end of the first half when Hibs scored what proved to be their winner from the penalty spot, Jason Cummings netting his ninth goal of what looks set to be another productive season for him.
The manner in which the Easter Road side made the breakthrough enraged Houston. He was waiting for referee Alan Muir, who was already in the spotlight after failing to award Celtic two obvious penalties against Motherwell on Saturday, at half-time. Notably, Houston decided against greeting him at the end of the 90 minutes.
The Falkirk manager has already been handed reason to rant at officials after a game earlier this month at Ibrox, when referee John McKendrick awarded a controversial free-kick from which Rangers took a 2-1 lead.
He clearly felt aggrieved again last night after John McGinn appeared to win a penalty by running into Blair Alston after 38 minutes. Cummings ignored the rumpus that had built around him to fire Hibs into the lead. The Falkirk players contested the decision with Muir and complained to McGinn about his actions. But it was of course to no avail.
Cummings calmly put Hibs ahead and the complexion of the game suddenly changed. In truth, the visitors had already started to knock on Falkirk’s door. Dominique Malonga nearly emulate his stunning strike at the weekend against Dumbarton but Falkirk goalkeeper Danny Rogers was the equal to his curling effort, tipping it wide. Hibs scored from this same period of pressure.
Right-back David Gray had earlier been denied by a fine sliding tackle from Falkirk defender Peter Grant, who was a colossus for the home side in the opening half. He risked being hurt on numerous occasions when placing his body between the ball and the goal.
While Hibs carved out the first scoring chance, when Cummings fired wide after Malonga’s through ball, Falkirk looked the more dominant team in the opening stages. A Lee Miller header bashed back off the bar after Luke Leahy’s cross, while Alston’s first-time effort from David Smith’s ball in was saved by Mark Oxley and then scrambled clear by the Hibs defence.
With the rain having begun to fall, conditions got more difficult on the artificial turf. But Malonga still should have done better than to chip into the arms of Rogers after a dummy from Cummings let his strike partner through on goal.
Falkirk set about taking advantage of this let-off. John Baird was presented with a chance seconds after replacing Smith. However, Lewis Stevenson saved Hibs with an exceptional challenge as the Falkirk striker prepared to shoot. Falkirk kept on pressing, with Baird hitting another chance well over the bar. There was a claim for handball from the home team during a goalmouth melee near the end. Houston was presumably unsurprised to see this appeal fall on deaf ears.