THE road back to the top flight has cleared a little for Falkirk.
No entry signs were in danger of being placed round the Falkirk Stadium following an initial play-off with Queen of the South which took a detour through extra-time and required a late goal from Blair Alston before the home side could finally pull away. Falkirk will now catch up with Hamilton Academical in the next round, with the first leg coming at home on Tuesday night.
A win in that play-off will set up a decisive meeting with Hibernian to determine which club will fill the last remaining berth in next season's Premiership. There were times yesterday when that prospect seemed far off for Falkirk, but goals from Rory Loy, Craig Sibbald and Alston were enough to drive them on.
Queens knew they had the first leg to stand on. As a result Falkirk sought to deliver an early jolt to the senses and Rory Loy, who missed the match in Dumfries through injury, wriggled past Ian McShane and then Kevin Holt to bring angst into the visitors' penalty area, while an artful flick from Mark Beck also had to be smuggled clear.
It was incumbent on Queens to be shrewd yesterday, to pick their way carefully towards a potential meeting with Hamilton this week. At times they settled simply for a clumsy block, notwithstanding equally clumsy demands for the ball to be hoofed to Row Z, a tactic that nevertheless found favour among the home supporters; successive Falkirk corners were delayed by Queens fans throwing the ball to the back rows of their stand.
This seemed like childish mischief. The Dumfries side had not been considered mature enough to compete seriously for promotion either and the league table has come to serve as an itemised list of their vulnerability. Queens won fewer matches than both Falkirk and Hamilton, scored fewer goals and collected 11 points fewer than their hosts yesterday during the regular season.
That number was diminished in value inside the Falkirk Stadium, though, with a more compelling statistic stamped on the match by the boot of Bob McHugh. The striker, on loan from Motherwell, has scored four goals in three matches, three of them in the two legs against Falkirk. He scored his latest after 36 minutes, swivelling in front of goal to hook a shot into the net.
It was an effort which turned the screw on the home side since at the time it extended Queens' advantage in the tie to two goals. "We got them in at half-time and told them just to win the second half," said Falkirk manager Gary Holt, who was forced to replace Mark Millar late on due to injury.
Prophetic words since Falkirk have proven their ability to disentangle themselves from difficulty this season, not least at home. The stadium has been as formidable as a keep during a league campaign in which the home side have lost just twice.
Goals from Loy, Sibbald and then Alston allowed that record to endure into the play-offs. Loy drove a low shot into the net after 53 minutes, before Sibbald scored the home side's second goal 20 minutes later to level the tie on aggregate.
The Falkirk midfielder went close with another shot and Danny Carmichael clipped a free-kick against a post for Queens, with an effort from substitute Derek Young flashing wide. In extra-time McShane pulled a shot past a post and Queens goalkeeper Zander Clark snatched the ball from the feet of Loy. Both sides stood toe-to-toe but neither would land a knockout blow until Alston turned a shot into the net with just two minutes left. An understandably delighted Holt declared: "They are buzzing in the dressing room now. We need to bring them down gently and make them aware that we have a game on Tuesday. We need to go again."
Contrasting emotions were offered by Queens manager Jim McIntyre, who said: "I felt if any team was going to nick it then it was going to be us." Instead Falkirk ran them off the road.