Though we’ve been denied a captivating Ladbrokes Championship title race thanks to Rangers’ almost unimpeded march towards the top flight, the battle for second place looks certain to keep our collective attention right down to the season’s final week.
On Saturday, Falkirk blew their chance to go nine points clear of Hibs in third when they lost to relegation battlers Livingston in a largely dull encounter that became unforgettable thanks to the final few minutes.
While finishing second over third may seem like an almost incidental achievement, after all, both sides still get the chance to compete in the play-offs, the circumstances surrounding Hibs means this particular fight takes on added significance.
Alan Stubbs’ men will play 54 games if they make it to the Scottish Cup final and finish second. An extra two matches for finishing third or fourth is not a burden they want to take on. The Easter Road squad have already admitted mental fatigue from being forced to work every day, while Falkirk have made no attempt to keep their ambitions secret. They see finishing second as a huge boost to their promotion chances. They want to make Hibs play those extra two games.
Therefore, Falkirk will feel particularly displeased that the scorer of what proved to be Saturday’s winning goal was a man who calls Easter Road home. Sam Stanton is almost three months into his loan at Livingston. The player insists his focus remains on helping the West Lothian club remain in the second tier, but he did ponder the implications his goal could have in the long term. This match could potentially have a huge impact on whether Hibs overtake Falkirk for second spot. If that happens, and Hibs make it back to the top tier, Stanton would have had an inadvertent role in deciding his own future and whether he’s a Premiership or Championship player next term. “I hadn’t really thought about it,” Stanton said before pausing, “but I guess it could. I’m concentrating on Livingston but it’s nice to think I have helped Hibs out too. Stubbs phoned me a couple of weeks ago to check how I was getting on. Maybe he will get back in touch now, you never know.
“It’s difficult not playing and I was a long time at Hibs not playing. My confidence had taken a knock. Doubts happen when you don’t play but I’m back to how I was feeling. I was frustrated to start on the bench today but I ended up hopefully giving the manager a decision to make next week.”
Stanton’s goal started a chain of events that, collectively, made up one of the most manic endings to a football game anyone in attendance will have ever witnessed. His low shot from the edge of the penalty area found the far corner, doubling Livingston’s advantage after Jordan White had given them a 76th minute lead. With stoppage time fast approaching the match looked over, and that remained the case even after Will Vaulks had headed one back for the hosts. However, on the very next attack Jackson Longridge pulled Falkirk substitute Lee Miller to the ground inside the penalty area, leaving match official Nick Walsh with no choice other than to issue a spot-kick and second yellow card for Longridge. To complete an astonishing four minutes, Marc McCallum then rescued his side by saving John Baird’s penalty.
“When the penalty was given I felt sick,” revealed Stanton. “I could have broken down in tears on the pitch. But it was a great save. I’ve never been involved in a more mental few minutes of football.”