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Falkirk 1 Hamilton Academical 1: Both sides come out fighting but no knockout blow just yet

The first legs of play-off encounters can so often be meek affairs, bereft of clear-cut chances and pre-ordained to end in stalemate as both sides desperately attempt to avoid being out of the tie at the half-way point.

Mark Beck leaps high but puts it wide, though the striker would make no mistake later on. Picture: SNS
Mark Beck leaps high but puts it wide, though the striker would make no mistake later on. Picture: SNS

This match was nothing like that. Falkirk and Hamilton played out a truly engrossing 1-1 which saw goals, a plethora of missed opportunities and splendid performances from the respective custodians Michael McGovern and Kevin Cuthbert.

The goals came via a fine curling Darian MacKinnon effort and a close-range Mark Beck drive, leaving the tie tentatively poised ahead of Sunday's second leg in South Lanarkshire.

Indeed, the only thing that seems certain after this enthralling affair is that you would fancy both sides to provide a serious threat to Hibernian's SPFL Premiership status.

"It could have been 7-7," Gary Holt, the Falkirk manager, said succinctly and with a chuckle.

Calamitous defending almost handed the visitors the lead within five minutes. With Jason Scotland harmlessly ambling towards goal, Falkirk defenders Will Vaulks and Johnny Flynn crashed into each other, allowing the Trinidad striker a clear run at goal, but his low shot was well smothered by McGovern.

Just minutes later, Scotland saw the whites of McGovern's eyes after a defence splitting Ali Crawford pass. This time the Hamilton striker skipped around the goalkeeper but his attempt to roll the ball into an empty net was thwarted by the retreating Flynn.

Whether they were still feeling the effects of the weekend's exertions or not, Falkirk were being utterly battered by a energetic, incisive Hamilton in the opening stages.

Only another save from McGovern - this time denying Crawford from eight yards following a Tony Andreu cut-back - retained what was ill-deserved parity after just 10 minutes.

Andreu was next to threaten, pulling a shot wide of the target after a neat interchange with Jason Scotland. Under siege for so much of the half, Falkirk rallied admirably towards the break, with a sharp Beck drive from inside the box forcing a low save from Kevin Cuthbert.

And while their own goal continued to lead a charmed life - Millar denied Hamilton a certain opener by clearing a Martin Canning header off the line - Falkirk had the best chance to go in ahead at the interval.

Beck utilised his substantial frame to flick a Rory Loy cross towards goal. The clever effort looked for all the world to be looping into the net, only for Cuthbert to somehow produce a marvellous one-handed save, parrying the ball on to the crossbar.

Falkirk continued to press after the break and were again left cursing the brilliance of Cuthbert. This time it was Loy who saw a fantastic low drive from the edge of the box parried wide by the goalkeeper.

It was becoming inexplicable that this match had not heralded a goal. MacKinnon remedied that on the hour-mark. The combative midfielder picked up a Crawford pass at the angle of the box and, with Will Vaulks standing off him, took the invitation to curl home a superb curling opener.

You could forgive Falkirk for wilting given their recent exertions. Yet nothing could have been further from what actually happened and, with 10 minutes to play, Loy dashed down the left flank and produced a stunning low delivery across the face of goal for Beck to tap home.

This engrossing fixture still had time for McGovern to pull off another two splendid saves to deny a Louis Longridge shot and a Mickael Antoine-Curier header.

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