James Keatings sent Hibs 10 points clear at the top of the Scottish Championship with a stunner in the 92nd minute against title rivals Falkirk. Two goals in two minutes shook the match into life when an Efe Ambrose header was cancelled out by Craig Sibbald almost instantaneously with a header from a Falkirk corner. The Hibees were not to be denied with Keatings’ curler snatching the three points in the dying embers of the fixture.
Hibs had come into their top-of-the-table clash with Falkirk seven points clear of the second-placed Bairns, despite not having won at Easter Road in the league since the 3-0 win against Dundee United in January. Two wins in the cup, which included the dominant derby win over Hearts, have gone some way to extinguish any pressure on Neil Lennon, helped by Dundee United, Falkirk and Morton all failing to take advantage of Hibs’ dropped points.
Without David Gray through injury and John McGinn due to his Scotland call-up, Hibs were forced to play a hybrid three and four-man defence, with Ambrose often deputising at right back for the more adventurous Martin Boyle when attacking.
Andrew Shinnie was shunted to the left of midfield ahead of Lewis Stevenson, a move that has been successful in recent weeks such as in the cup derby but, early on, he was too often isolated despite the acres of space in front of the Falkirk back four.
It was a feisty game of few chances in the first half. Fraser Aird hit a bobbler into the arms of Hibs’ Ross Laidlaw and Ambrose shanked a good opportunity from a corner so far wide that it started a Falkirk counter-attack.
Jason Cummings was booked for diving in the 37th minute, before curling a free-kick from 25-yards just wide of the near post after Luca Gasparotto tripped Shinnie and received his own yellow. Boyle was also booked after taking umbrage with the centre-back’s challenge to spark a typical Hibs v Falkirk mass huddle around the referee.
Boyle started off the second half with some much-missed quality, beating three players on the edge of the Falkirk area before driving inside. Pushed wide, his shot was tame and blocked by the recovering Bairns defence.
In the 53rd minute it was Falkirk’s turn to threaten as Bob McHugh played John Baird in with acres of space but the striker pulled the shot wide of the near post.
A shattered Grant Holt’s day of ineffective and lethargic toil was over in the 73rd minute as he was replaced by Brian Graham.
Graham’s strength made an instant impact, winning a free-kick which would lead to the opener, bullying a Falkirk defender into the foul. Keatings swung in the free-kick which was met by the towering Ambrose who headed past Robbie Thomson. Three backflips followed as a celebration, but the joy in Easter Road wasn’t to last.
The Bairns swiftly hit back in the 77th minute as Aird’s corner was glanced in by Sibbald, sneaking past Laidlaw into the Hibee net at the near post to the fury of the Hibs defence.
Hibs snatched the three points though as Keatings cut inside from the left wing and curled a stunner into the top right hand corner of Thomson’s goal.
It was a manner of victory seen too little at Easter Road this season as Lennon acknowledged afterwards: “We haven’t done that enough this season. It’s a testament to the fitness and the character of the team.
“To win today was really important what with Morton losing today as well, it could be a pivotal day in the [race for the]title, so I’m delighted,” said the Hibs boss.
Morton’s loss at home to Dunfermline means Hibs’ midweek fixture with the Cappielow side is an opportunity to take advantage of their game in hand and pull 13 points clear of Falkirk. It would surely all but secure the Championship title. Goal scorer Keatings is fully aware of the importance of the fixture and the need to avoid complacency.
“It’s massive,” Keatings said. “But you know what it’s like in this league, you can drop points anywhere and it’s just up to us to go again on Wednesday night [against Morton].”
Image courtesy of Conor Matchett/FreshAir Sport