Hibs combine brawn and beauty against Bairns

THE good people of Falkirk were queueing up to sing Hibernian’s praises after the Leith team finally found a way to beat the Bairns and secure second place in the Championship. Scott Robertson acknowledged the compliments but said the play-offs were not a beauty contest and would not be won with good looks alone.

Jason Cummings, left, breaks away. Picture: Gordon Fraser
Jason Cummings, left, breaks away. Picture: Gordon Fraser

“It’s not always the case that you get what you deserve in football,” remarked the midfielder after Falkirk manager Peter Houston had, like a dinner-suited judge at the swimsuit stage, voted Hibs the side most likely to wear the crown, travel the world and help those less fortunate. “We’ve got potentially four massive games coming up now and it won’t be about performance, it’ll be about the results. We’re going to need to have a bit of steel about us because whoever we play is going to be just as eager to come through.”

On the available evidence, a 3-0 win, the verdict of a pressbox veteran was that Hibs had the attack to win the play-offs but the defence to lose them. We knew what he meant but on this showing it wasn’t altogether true.

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Let’s take the defence. They’d gone into the match under considerable pressure. There was the pressure to win but also the pressure not to concede from crosses, Houston stingingly pointing out after Falkirk’s Scottish Cup semi-final victory that his side had scored all their goals against Hibs this season by that route.

An early score for Hibs at Hampden was threatened but never came. Martin Boyle’s fourth-minute strike here settled everyone down, including Liam Fontaine and Paul Hanlon. But Falkirk fought their way back into the latest encounter and a succession of crosses from the left did indeed cause palpitations among the big Hibs support which packed the away end and obliged some season-ticketers in the main stand to budge up a bit. By the end, though, there was a clean sheet.

Then there’s the attack. Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings make a funny pair. The former almost crept into the park, took 28 minutes to get a first meaningful touch of the ball and celebrated his goal with a disconsolate slouch. Maybe he’s still sulking from having been left out of the starting line-up for the semi. His cameos are, shall we say, well spaced out, but when the mood takes him he has incredibly quick feet.

He netted his third goal in three games, a feat matched by Cummings, whose habit of letting his socks drop can give the impression he’s puggled, but this was a lively performance from him, worrying the Bairns defence every time he ran at them. But his goals are sometimes jammy. A season containing quite a few sclaffs continued after a fresh-air shot from a Scott Allan cross which fooled Jamie MacDonald, the keeper diving for a strike that never came. The ball hit Cummings’ standing leg, after which he was able to walk it into the net. If he meant that it was brilliant.

Allan also created the first goal, working a swift one-two with Boyle. This is almost becoming tedious but the dashing playmaker was excellent once again. “That was a great piece of counter-attacking football and a fantastic finish by Martin,” said Robertson. “They were all good goals and Scotty was at the heart of them all, as he has been all season. Of course we needed the boys at the top end of the park to finish them off and they were on form.”

Hibs hadn’t beaten Falkirk in four attempts before Saturday. When word spread that Rangers had gone ahead at Tynecastle, Houston’s men were looking good for an equaliser, but a minute later came Hibs’ second, with that slice of luck their fans will say was deserved, given the ill fortune suffered at Hampden.

“We’d heard all the talk about Falkirk being our bogey side – all that nonsense – but we knew what we had to do,” added Robertson. “We had our fate in our own hands and we got over the line. I wasn’t nervous beforehand. We were confident without being arrogant. We were positive and looking forward to the game because it’s an exciting time for us right now. Maybe people will say Falkirk didn’t have much to play for but we did what we had to do and three-nil was a fair reflection.”

Finishing second means Hibs won’t join the play-offs scramble for another 16 days. “It’s a long break but we’ll have some downtime and still have a good period for preparation,” said Robertson. Rangers or Queen of the South – did he have a preference? “None whatsoever. Both will pose us problems and we’ll have to counteract whatever they bring.” Robertson was in the Hibs side which tumbled out of the Premiership via the play-offs in the most dramatic fashion. “Hamilton had everything to gain last season while we had everything to lose. Some guys might use what happened as motivation this time but I just want to succeed with Hibs. That would be good enough for me.”

So do Hibs possess the steel he was talking about? “I think we’ve shown in games that we’ve got the grit to do it. There were question marks over us before this game, whether we could perform on such a day. But we did.”

The football equivalent of world peace, the beauty queen’s fond wish, may yet be theirs.