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Queen of the South 2 Falkirk 1: On-loan striker finds his mark to leave Queens reigning on the opening night of the play-offs

IT is exactly half a century since Queen of the South last graced the Scottish top flight but the Dumfries side's hopes of returning there this summer burn brighter than ever after a stunning late goal from Bob McHugh permitted them a precious, if precarious, advantage in this SPFL Premiership play-off quarter-final.

Bob McHugh, right, has given Queens the edge over Falkirk after scoring twice at Palmerston. Picture: SNS
Bob McHugh, right, has given Queens the edge over Falkirk after scoring twice at Palmerston. Picture: SNS

The left-foot drive which the on-loan Motherwell striker steered into Michael McGovern's top corner after a sweeping four-man move was his second of the night, as the Dumfries side regathered themselves following the shock of conceding Blair Alston's seventh-minute opener. In the war of attrition which is the play-offs, they now travel to Falkirk on Saturday for the second leg of this enjoyable tie, with the winners to face Hamilton Academical for the right to play whoever finishes second-bottom in the Premiership.

"I was just pleased just to get in at half time one-down to be honest with you," said Jim McIntyre, the Queens manager. "But we knew we could get better and we did that. I thought the subs made a big impact. Bob McHugh has missed a few chances since he has come here but the one thing that has been constant with Bob has been his work rate.

"We played well the last time we went [to the Falkirk Stadium] and you have to embrace these kinds of games. We're ahead but it will be who handles it best on the day."

If this was a quarter-final, it was more in the Master Chef sense of a third-last eliminator rather than a conventional last-eight meeting, while a full 11 points had separated third-placed Falkirk from their hosts in the final Championship table. With either of these teams required to prevail through six matches in an attritional 18 days to actually reach the top flight, Falkirk were bolstered by a seven-match unbeaten run, not to mention having won three of the four meetings with Queens, the most recent of which came at Palmerston in April.

With Kilmarnock still the most likely Premiership side to enter the play-offs, there was a minor irony in the fact that respective managers Gary Holt and Jim McIntyre had been team-mates and cup heroes at Rugby Park back in the 1997 Scottish Cup final against Falkirk.

Both sides play their football on artificial surfaces, but it was the visitors - even without injured striker Rory Loy - who made the more assured start on a pleasant if windswept Dumfries night. Blair Alston has a habit of reserving spectacular goals for big occasions and he was at it again last night, picking up possession after good work from Conor McGrandles and Will Vaulks to skelp a right-foot shot into Zander Clark's bottom corner.

Alston almost repeated the feat from even further out, then David McCracken spurned a gilt-edged headed chance for a second as Falkirk threatened to kill the tie, even if away goals do not count in these ties.

But gradually Queens' experienced players started to exert an influence. Mark Kerr played in Paul Burns, only for the midfielder's finish to be wayward, then nice build-up play from Iain Russell and Kerr presented Bob McHugh with a chance which Michael McGovern saved smartly.

Referee John McKendrick was causing consternation to the home support, but a perfectly worked routine from one free-kick gave Queens a way back in. Chris Mitchell, a former Falkirk player, found Mark Durnan in space at the far post and his header back across goal was gleefully dispatched by McHugh.

Russell blazed wide as Queens sought a second but soon proceedings appeared to have settled into a stalemate. Mark Millar curled a free-kick narrowly wide at one end, while substitute Daniel Carmichael so nearly scampered on to the end of one errant headed backpass.

But the best was yet to come. Durnan mopped up at the back, some inspired play from Kerr then set Carmichael away and he kept his head to roll in McHugh for the finish. "I am delighted we are still in the game," said Holt.

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