McHugh, a 59th-minute replacement for Lee Miller last night, stunned Hibs again with a late equaliser, just as he did last month. The home side’s shock was infused with anger after they were denied a penalty in the 71st minute. David McCracken’s handball was one of the most blatant of the season and yet referee Alan Muir chose not to penalise it.
This time there were no wild scenes of joy at the end from the Falkirk players, nothing that could risk being interpreted as premature celebrating. Both sides’ Premiership dream hinges on a winner-takes-all evening at the Falkirk stadium in two days’ time after a fourth draw in five meetings this season. The victors will face Kilmarnock in the play-of final.
The legend of Conrad Logan soured somewhat last night. The big goalkeeper has enjoyed the plaudits since being the hero of the hour against Dundee United on his Hibs debut last month. Largely untroubled since, he made the mistake some suspected he might have coming after such a blessed few weeks, McHugh’s shot on the turn squirming beneath him. It completely changed the complexion of the tie. Hibs looked to have re-asserted their status as favourites to progress after overturning Miller’s 33rd- minute opener.
Hibs had the Celtic connection to thank for their equaliser just before the hour mark. The excellent Dylan McGeouch’s long, high cross was headed back across goal by Anthony Stokes. Liam Henderson pounced to score with a shot that bounced off the ground high into the net.
Peter Houston then sent on McHugh, the player who has gained a reputation for retrieving situations. It was great credit to Houston that he stuck to his guns as McHugh was preparing to come on even before Henderson’s equaliser.
Before McHugh could make his customary intervention, Falkirk were undone again, this time at a corner. Darren McGregor headed in Henderson’s set-piece, just as the defender had done in the quarter-final second leg win over Raith Rovers on Saturday.
It was the least Hibs deserved. But Alan Stubbs will have wanted more, particularly given how the game ended. Falkirk escaped after what looked like a blatant handball by McCracken in the second half went unpunished by Muir, who awarded a disputed penalty to Hibs against Falkirk earlier this season.
Stubbs and Houston kept their distance for most the match but spare a thought for fourth official Nick Walsh, positioned between them.
Stubbs became a more animated presence in the second-half as he sensed an opportunity for Hibs to really turn the screw on the visitors, who couldn’t build on their opener, which was far from a classic strike. The wily Miller won a free-kick after McGregor’s challenge. When Luke Leahy fired his effort into the wall, Tom Taiwo, the former Hibs midfielder, watched the ball closely as it fell onto his toes.
His clean strike was helped on its way past the stranded Logan by Miller’s flick. Hibs looked stunned. Not for the first time this season they had dominated possession, missed a clutch of opportunities and then fallen to a sucker-punch.
With Hibs having home advantage, the onus was on them to take the game to the visitors. While Falkirk did not quite invite them to do so, they seemed content to soak up the pressure.
But they lived dangerously at times. Fraser Fyvie lifted a ball just over the top of the crossbar, Paul Hanon saw an effort inside the six-yard box blocked and then the defender header over.
It seemed only a matter of time until the first goal, and so it proved. But the home fans were aghast when it was claimed by Falkirk, the team forced onto the back-foot for much of the preceding 33 minutes.
But no one could deny Falkirk were working hard enough to merit some fortune in front of goal. Robbed of possession in the Hibs’ half, their players darted back like a swarm of hornets. Of course, compared to Hibs, they had some energy to burn. Hibs, meanwhile, suffered those mistakes that seemed to be the consequence of tired limbs as much as anything. Passes were going astray, and the fans, who Stubbs called on to give the players a lift in such circumstances, struggled to conceal their frustration.
This was certainly the case when Stokes was played in by Cummings, only to lift the ball high over both keeper and bar. A powerful shot rather than a dinked chip might have sufficed but the decision-making was poor.
But Hibs stuck to their task, Stokes in particular.
Henderson pounced on the Irishman’s intelligent header back across goal to level the score. Then McGregor proved his worth once more at corners, rising to head powerfully into the net. But no one can rest easy until McHugh has had his say. Whether his goal proves yet another valuable strike in the final analysis, Friday night will tell.
Referee: A Muir
HIBERNIAN: Logan, Gray, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson, McGeouch, Fyvie, McGinn, Henderson (Boyle 89), Stokes, Cummings (Keatings 73). Subs not used: Oxley, Fontaine, Gunnarsson, Dagnall, Thomson.
FALKIRK: Rogers, Muirhead, McCracken, Vaulks, Leahy, Alston, Kerr, Taiwo (Hippolyte 78), Sibbald, Baird (O’Hara 71), Miller (McHugh 59). Subs not used: Shepherd, Mehmet, Gallacher, Watson.