THE last time this pair met at the semi-final stage of this competition the Hibs fans breathed a sigh of relief as they battled back from a first-half battering to prevail in the end.
Hibernian - 0
Falkirk - 1
Referee: J Beaton. Attendance: 21,227
But that time Hibs had a certain Leigh Griffiths in their ranks to take matters in hand and made the most of the opportunities that came their way.
Yesterday, they conjured up enough chances to win the match a few times over but minus someone with his ruthlessness in front of goal, and up against a Falkirk rearguard unwilling to allow them past, they were the ones clouted with the sucker punch.
Back in 2013 the final whistle was greeted with the sway of green and white in the stands and a chorus of Sunshine on Leith, yesterday it was just gloom and boos, the Hibs manager Alan Stubbs seemingly tethered to the spot in sheer disbelief.
He had insisted this week that it was simply a matter of time before Hibs defied the odds and the superstitions to win the nation’s most prestigious knockout tournament, he even suggested that it could be this season but, having clattered the crossbar and been denied by the goalie, the post and some dogged defending, as well as their own wastefulness, the long drought now extends to an incredible 114 years.
There have been times when talk of a curse seemed a nonsense and in recent times it was a lack of bottle and the absence of quality that undermined Hibs on the Scottish Cup stage, but after yesterday the Easter Road club may have a valid case for calling in an exorcist. Or they could just add another striker to their summer shopping list.
Stubbs was at pains to point out that they had started with the Championship top scorer, Jason Cummings, and he did look hungry for the kind of outcome that would have given him a shot at a medal on May 30. Picking up the ball just inside the Falkirk half in the opening seconds, he showed a bit of trickery to get free and burst forward before cutting the ball back to Farid El Alagui. The energy was high but the final ball, the final shot was lacking and set the pattern for the afternoon.
Before kick-off Falkirk will have been the team taking solace from the earlier head-to-heads this season but, despite only taking one point from the three meetings, it was their opponents who would have been the more reassured when they examined the teamsheets. Falkirk’s top scorer Rory Loy failed to recover sufficiently to make the squad and Peter Houston was also without John Baird and Mark Kerr, who were cup-tied, and, thanks to a bout of the mumps, Botti Bia-Bi was only fit enough for a place on the bench.
In Craig Sibbald and Blair Alston they still had willing offensive outlets but those forays forward were few and far between for Falkirk, who were more concerned with stemming the Hibernian flow.
Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald was lively when his defender David McCracken put out a leg to deny El Alagui access to Dylan McGeouch’s cross in the fifth minute. It was heading goalwards when MacDonald managed to block and when the grounded El Alagui connected with the rebound the keeper again had to intervene.
Hibs applied the pressure throughout most of the first half, with Scott Allan pulling the strings and McGeouch, El Alagui and Cummings getting close but not close enough, while Falkirk were limited to a long-range effort from Will Vaulks.
Fraser Fyvie must have thought his 43rd-minute strike had finally broken the deadlock but MacDonald got a hand to it, pushing it on to the post and then gratefully gathering when it came straight back to him.
After the break Hibs turned the screw but still couldn’t make the possession and territorial advantage count. There were mis-hit efforts, which got caught under their own feet, there were others which were fired over the bar and there was a growing desperation as the realisation seeped into the psyche that it just may not be their day.
Even when someone of Allan’s composure and creativity found his way past a swell of defenders and homed in on target, his effort crashed off the crossbar.
If that was frustrating, though, the sucker punch from Falkirk was a sore one to absorb. Playing on what they believed to be Hibs’ weakness, Blair Alston fired a cross into the area and Sibbald out-jumped McGeouch to send a glancing header down to Mark Oxley’s left and into the net.
That was in the 75th minute and Falkirk still had to see out the remainder of the game as El Alagui saw an effort blocked at the near post. There is an argument that Falkirk maybe didn’t deserve to win but, regardless of whether they relied on fortitude rather than flair, they made every effort count and that earned them their final place.
Hibernian: Oxley, Forster, Hanlon, Fontaine, Stevenson, McGeouch, Robertson (Dja Djedje, 79), Allan, Fyvie, Cummings, El Alagui. Subs not used: Cerny, Craig, Stanton, Handling, Malonga, Dunsmore.
Falkirk: MacDonald, Duffie, McCracken, Grant, Leahy, Smith (Bia-Bi 46), Vaulks, Taiwo, Sibbald, Alston, Morgan (Muirhead 76). Subs not used:Bowman, Dick, Cooper, Blair, O’Hara.