Craig Fowler looks back at a edgy contest in the Ladbrokes Championship promotion battle
Liam Henderson looks back to his best
There was a little bit of revisionism from Hibs fans after the match. James Keatings had been poor, while Henderson changed the game in their favour. This was undoubtedly true, however some tried to make it out that this was the obvious selection choice from the start and was a big error on the part of Alan Stubbs. While Keatings may be in poor form right now (more on him later) the same could also be said for Henderson prior to Sunday’s trip.
The on loan Celtic player has impressed in his spell at Easter Road, but he’s been off the boil somewhat since suffering through a viral infection in late November. These types of illnesses can linger in the system for some time and become a constant drain on energy resources, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if that’s what contributed to a slow December from Henderson’s point of view.
If so, it now appears he’s 100 per cent healthy again after a terrific performance at Falkirk. Hibs badly lacked a spark and someone capable of effectively linking the midfield with the strikers. They got both in Henderson as he played a role in the equaliser and should have assisted the winner when Jason Cummings blew a late chance.
James Keatings is earning a flat-track bully reputation
Even though he was a firm fans’ favourite among the Hearts support, the knock on Keatings last season was that for all his goalscoring exploits against the weaker sides, he couldn’t replicate it against tougher opponents. This is now becoming a concern six months into his cross-town switch. In his season-and-a-half playing in Edinburgh, he’s netted only twice against a top four side in the Championship – one goal against Queen of the South last year, once against Raith this term.
His performance against Falkirk was the poorest by any player in a green and white shirt and with Anthony Stokes due to sign, it may be a while before he’s granted a reprieve with a place in the starting XI, even against some of the weaker teams in the division.
Falkirk’s thin squad could well be their downfall
Peter Houston’s side have seriously impressed this season. Not only have they remained tremendously consistent against the rest of the second tier, they’ve also matched both Rangers and Hibs in every meeting so far.
There was a point on Sunday where it seemed Falkirk were going to see the game out in a comfortable manner as Hibs really struggled to get going. Then two substitutions turned the game almost completely on its head. Henderson made Hibs better, while the exit of Lee Miller damaged the hosts.
The former Hearts and Aberdeen striker doesn’t have a whole lot left in the tank, but he’s ability to hold up the ball and threaten in the air kept Falkirk on the front foot, and they dropped back deeper and deeper when he was taken off.
The reason for withdrawing the striker was likely a fitness issue as he pushed his ageing legs to the limit against Hibs. With no like-for-like replacement on the bench - youngster Kevin O’Hara is a very different type of striker - Houston tried to go with a 4-5-1 which didn’t pay off.
Compare this with the options available to Alan Stubbs, and with Rangers expected to strengthen further in January, this is likely to be the area where Falkirk’s promotion charge falters. If they can stay healthy, or at least have everyone fit and raring to go for the play-off semi-final, then a Hibs/Rangers place in the final is not a foregone conclusion.
This title race isn’t over yet
Many, including this writer, wrote off a serious Hibs title challenge earlier in the season when Mark Warburton’s side led their nearest rivals by 11 points. Alan Stubbs’ side then went on a terrific run and even hauled themselves level at the top of the table before last month’s defeat at Ibrox.
To count them out again would be foolish in the extreme. Hibs have dropped points in three of their last five games, but two of those came against Falkirk and the other against Rangers. They now have a stretch of fixtures where they don’t meet anyone in the top half until March, while Rangers have four out of their next five league meetings away from home.
Rangers are the favourites and deservedly so, but the addition of Anthony Stokes and Kevin Thomson will improve Hibs further, and there’s still a lot of this race to be run yet.
Houston v Stubbs is a great rivalry
You always love a good rivalry in football and with the absence of an Edinburgh derby this season, barring one meeting in the cup, it’s great to see both halves of Edinburgh pick up surrogates in the meantime as Hearts battle with Aberdeen and Hibs feud with Falkirk.
Although, in fairness, you do get the feeling Stubbs wants to concentrate on trying to get under Mark Warburton’s skin rather than responding in an incredulous manner to Houston claiming a second half challenge on John McGinn wasn’t a penalty. The Falkirk boss even went as far as to insinuate the player dived, which was top trolling from Houston - it was clearly a penalty.
Houston then went on to proclaim Rangers the best side in the division, no doubt causing steam to begin shooting out of Stubbs’ ears. It’s just a shame these two sides only have one final league meeting this season.
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