Falkirk 3-2 Hibs (agg 5-4): Hibs remain in second tier

Yet another stunning late strike by Bob McHugh made it a fright night for Hibs, who must now get used to the bleak reality of a third season of second tier football.

Falkirk's match-winner Bob McHugh celebrates at full time. Picture: SNS
Falkirk's match-winner Bob McHugh celebrates at full time. Picture: SNS

It was the visitors left with the Friday 13th blues and not Falkirk, as seemed set to be the case until a remarkable late turnaround.

McHugh changed his tune to some extent – for once he didn’t come off the bench to signal delirium in the stands.

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On from the start, he stole the headlines from two-goal James Keatings as well as his own team-mate Luke Leahy, whose sweet 25-yarder once again brought these remarkably well-matched teams level after 79 minutes.

It needed inspiration to separate them, and McHugh provided it after a long throw from Will Vaulks caused pandemonium in the Hibs box.

The visitors had looked firmly in control of the tie after Keatings’ double overturned Blair Alston’s early opener.

But, better meddle wi’ the devil than the Bairns of Falkirk, as the saying goes.

Keatings had rescued Hibs from a slough of despondency, but slipped into it again after Falkirk roused themselves for a grand finale, in which they scored twice in the last 11 minutes. Who else but McHugh applied the coup de grace to Hibs’ promotion hopes.

Falkirk's match-winner Bob McHugh celebrates at full time. Picture: SNS

The Easter Road side can still rescue something special from the season, but this was the most bitter of blows as the game was barely able to kick off again after the latest of late McHugh interventions.

Condemned to chase the game, and tie, from a dozen minutes in after Alston’s opener, Hibs were relieved to see Keatings level matters after 30 minutes with what many felt was the inevitable penalty.

Not even Alan Muir could have missed this one, though. The culprit’s identity was also written in the stars.

David McCracken’s handball was allowed to go unpunished by Muir in the first leg. The defender’s patently late challenge on Keatings was deemed a penalty by Craig Thomson.

McHugh hooks in his side's winning goal. Picture: SNS

The striker dusted himself down and converting with aplomb. His decision to run to Stubbs and jump into his arms in celebration showed how much he appreciated the manager’s call to play him instead of Jason Cummings, Hibs’ top goalscorer.

But Keatings has weighed in with an impressive 12 goals now, scoring his second of the night just three minutes later. Stokes – whose own slightly disappointing goal contribution has become a matter of debate – was the architect.

While his strike rate is questionable, the Irishman’s industry and general play are not. He has distinguished himself as a maker of goals rather than scorer of them as his loan spell from Celtic has progressed.

Stokes’ cross found the unmarked Keatings at the edge of the six-yard box and his strike partner turned his head to plant a well-directed header into the far corner. Their ardour dimmed slightly when Dylan McGeough succumbed to injury once more and was replaced by Marvin Bartley after 37 minutes.

Keatings celebrates with his team-mates after scoring his side's second goal. Picture: SNS

The Kelpies glinted in the sun at the foot of the Ochils on a chilly, clear evening. But such a pleasant landscape became a scene of despair for Hibs at the game’s death. It felt like they had lost the tie twice.

As in the first leg, they conceded the initial advantage to Falkirk, who feasted on the visitors’ hesitancy.

Despite playing at this ground on numerous occasions in the last two years, it was as if they had never trodden upon synthetic turf before.

It was little surprise when Falkirk took the lead as early as the 12th minute. The opening goal was sourced from Leahy’s probing run down the left. When his cross was mis-controlled by John Baird, the ball fell invitingly into the path of Alston, who prodded a shot past Conrad Logan. The goal occurred under the nose of the 2000 visiting supporters, simply adding to their anguish.

Falkirk, meanwhile, had one foot in the Premiership final. But then this is Falkirk v Hibs. It wasn’t long before things were evened up again. Hibs then edged ahead shortly afterwards, through Keatings again.

Houston, who sent on all three substitutes by the 70th minute, tried everything to alter the situation. He got his reward when Scott Shepherd, one of the pairs of fresh legs, did well to get a cross into the box.

Falkirk's match-winner Bob McHugh celebrates at full time. Picture: SNS

David Gray headed out and Myles Hipployte, another sub, motioned to go for the rebound but left it to Leahy instead. Wise decision. The left-back’s strike from 25 yards was a goal all the way.

Cummings replaced Keatings immediately after Falkirk drew level, and the substitute so nearly decided the tie in the 89th minute with a spectacular 40-yard shot that left Rogers’ bar shaking.

Even then the game was not destined for extra time, McHugh pouncing to send Falkirk into a Premiership final against Kilmarnock with a shot that flicked into the net off the far post. So cruel for Hibs, yet so joyous for Falkirk.

Referee: C Thomson

Attendance: 7,851

FALKIRK: Rogers, Muirhead, McCracken, Watson, Leahy, Alston (Shepherd 71), Kerr (Hippolyte 58), Vaulks, Sibbald, Baird (Miller 58), McHugh. Subs not used: McCann, Mehmet, O’Hara, Gallacher.

HIBERNIAN: Logan, Gray, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson, McGeouch (Bartley 38), Fyvie, McGinn, Henderson, Stokes, Keatings (Cummings 82). Subs not used: Oxley, Fontaine, Boyle, Gunnarsson, Dagnall.

McHugh hooks in his side's winning goal. Picture: SNS
Keatings celebrates with his team-mates after scoring his side's second goal. Picture: SNS