Falkirk’s wait for a return to Scottish football’s Premiership goes on.
Despite an incredible effort from Bairns captain Mark Kerr, he couldn’t see off his former side and United recorded their first win of the season at The Falkirk Stadium, and it was a key one.
Falkirk took the lead with a great drive from James Craigen but were foiled by two second-half counters from first Simon Murray, and then a late, late Paul Dixon header. To rub salt into the wounds it was deflected by Tom Taiwo’s shoulder, spinning over Robbie Thomson and into the net.
United now go on the the SPFL play-off final against either Hamilton or Inverness next Thursday and Sunday.
Watched on by a clutch of former Bairns – and former Arab David Goodwillie – and live on BT Sports, the dream died for another year, but even half-way through the final quarter of this two-legged tie, it seemed to be the Bairns heading for the final. Ray McKinnon’s side rallied and their late pressure told.
Falkirk replaced Peter Grant, out with a hamstring strain picked up at Tannadice with Paul Watson, recovering form a hand injury which kept him out of the latter stages of the league campaign. John Baird was also preferred to Lee Miller up front alongside Nathan Austin.
The Bairns started in a confident mood, and rightly so at home and on the back of an encourgaing perfomance on Tuesday.
Austin continued where he left off terrorizing Mark Durnan and Willian Edjenguele, and the Bairns midfield stroked the ball around with confidence.
The Falkirk link-up play was on point, the understanding that has been lacking for periods of the season came together at just the right time, and they conspired for the game’s opener from Craigen on 11 minutes.
Mark Kerr lofted a ball over the top for John Baird to flick down to the ex-Raith Rovers midfielder and he arrowed a low drive past Cammy Bell and off the inside of the post. For a second it looked like the ball wouldn’t make it over the line, but it was cushioned by the opposite side of the gaol net and the noisyt United fans behond Cammy Bell’s goal soon quietened down.
Willo Flood picked up a knock for the visitors but played on woith Charlie Telfer prepared to replace him when called upon by Ray McKinnon, but his impact was curtailed. It was also overshadowed by a wonderful display from Mark Kerr against his former side. At one point on 24 minutes the Bairns veteran skipped by Flood on the touch-line rolloing back the years and lifting the Falkirk Stadium to its’ collective feet.
If Kerr was enjoying himself, Tuesday night’s hero Joe McKee was struggling to make any impact on the first half as Peter Houston switched him out to a right-sided position in a midfield diamond that worked so well midweek. He walked off cautiously at half-time, masking his discomfort.
In terms of chances United had also been restricted. Tony Andreu snapped a half-volley over the bar when he had more time than he realised. Simon Murray fluffed his lines when in the clear and the ball hit his standing foot when having a shot. Robbie Thomson spent the opening half relatively untroubled.
United though, were capable of pulling a goal out of little. Tuesday night proved that.
They threatened early in the second half, dominating the opening 15 minutes until Peter Houston made substitutions which revitalised Falkirk for a little while.
Simon Murray saw a great header from a Sean Dillon cross grasped by Robbie Thomson in a great save, and Andreu tapped a Murray cut-back into the side-netting from five yards. It was hearts in the mouth stuff fro the sold-out Stadium, and proved the Bairns needed another goal for security.
It almost came when Leahy played a one-two with Sibbald and the latter swung a cross into the box from the left wing. Bob McHugh, on for John Baird, let it run and James Craigen shot across himself but pulled it just wide of the post.
The tension was mounting with every passing minute but the Bairns were still in control with their goal of a cushion. United’s backline continued to stumble, but then so did Falkirk’s and it was costly.
A harmless knock-down header fell to Aaron Muirhead. He could have booted clear as he had done all evening, but was shutdown by Murray and the bounce of the ball favoured the visiting striker. It put him clear through on goal and he stroked his side level.
Worse was to follow. A cross from Alex Nicholls on the right in the final three minutes found Paul Dixon and he rose above Tom Taiwo to float the ball over Thomson and it sneaked inside the post.
It prompted wild celebrations in the away end but Falkirk pushed forward late on with four additional minutes to force extra-time. It didn’t come.
Falkirk will now spend an eighth season in the second tier, joined by either Alloa or Brechin, and one from Inverness, Hamilton or Dundee United