From a cup final to a Banter Year: the fall of Falkirk

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Four years ago Falkirk were preparing for a Scottish Cup Final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

 
Three years ago they came mightily close to promotion to the Premiership, losing the playoff final to Kilmarnock despite a first leg lead.
 
Two years ago they came second in the Championship and got another pop at the playoffs.
 
Today, they are preparing for life in League One.
 
There have been no financial problems, no administrations, no unusual or unforeseen mitigating circumstances. Falkirk's relegation to the third tier is a culmination of two years of mistake after mistake at every level.

Rangers' struggle up from League Two, laced with either farce or fiasco at almost every turn, became colloquially known as 'The Banter Years'. Falkirk have just had one of their own. And as a result a club with bigger home crowds than St. Johnstone and a higher turnover than Hamilton Accies are now facing away days at Peterhead and Stranraer next season.


For fans of smaller clubs, it's been a great source of tedium and frustration to hear journalists bemoan the absence of 'big' teams from the Premiership - as if average attendance should somehow be taken into account when deciding promotion and relegation. With Hearts, Rangers and Hibernian having extricated themselves from the Championship, Dundee United are the biggest fish left in this pond. Falkirk, who last played in the top flight in 2010, are not in the same financial league as these clubs. However, given that the likes of Hamilton Accies and Livingston are currently amongst the elite and that in the last nine seasons Inverness, Ross County, Partick Thistle and other 'diddy clubs' have had long spells in the Premiership, there isn't a bigger side that has been stuck in the lower divisions for as long.

Falkirk's relegation to the then-First Division in 2010 led to a big emphasis on bringing through youth. First Steven Pressley and then Gary Holt were unable to get them promoted - they finished third in the table four consecutive times - but they did develop an impressive group of academy graduates: Blair Alston, Botti Biabi, Ryan Blair, Jay Fulton, Tony Gallacher, Stephen Kingsley, Conor McGrandles, Stewart Murdoch, Craig Sibbald and Murray Wallace all went on to leave for bigger and better things and often for a decent transfer fee (Blair, Fulton, Gallacher, Kingsley and Wallace for six figure sums, McGrandles for a reported £1m). Luke Leahy, Peter Grant and Will Vaulks were youngsters plucked out of nowhere and developed into very decent players.

Holt left in the summer of 2014 to join Norwich City's coaching team. The appointment of the much older Houston seemed on the face of it to be a change of direction but he continued the work of his predecessors. Getting to another cup final was a considerable achievement. So too was beating Hibs in the playoffs the next season (before the defeat to Killie) and finishing ahead of Dundee United in the league the year after. 
 
It all started going downhill after that, though pinpointing why is not easy. It's not as if there was huge upheaval in the playing squad in the 2017 summer transfer window. Perhaps, as sometimes happens, things just got a bit stale. Houston and his players seemed to have picked up where they left off with four wins out of four in their League Cup group, including an away win over newly relegated Inverness Caley Thistle.
 
Yet they managed just three points from their opening seven league games and on 26 September Houston was dismissed. The board, afraid of being cut adrift from the promotion race so early in the campaign acted swiftly. It turned out that was the least of their worries.
 

Houston was replaced by Paul Hartley, who had won the Championship with Dundee back in 2014. In the meantime the Bairns had picked up their first league win of the season under caretaker management. They would not win again until 30 December. Bottom spot was never a realistic possibility - Brechin City's record-setting incompetence made sure of that - but a relegation playoff spot was a real worry. Thankfully things clicked in the new year. Falkirk picked up a very respectable 33 points in the second half of the season, compared to 14 points from their first 18 games. That was still only good enough for eighth (it would have been enough for fifth this season!) but it offered encouragement to the board that Hartley was on the right track.
 
That'll be why they let him sign sixteen players last summer.


The overhaul was carried out with the assistance of Richard Mitchell, formerly head of recruitment at Ross County, who was brought in to scout players primarily from England's lower leagues and find some cheap rough diamonds to polish. Ideally the youth academy would have produced some too...but in December 2017 the club closed it with virtually no prior warning. Despite the impressive output of previous years, it was claimed that it cost too much and that, unless players were sold for significant money each season, it was too much of a risk. The club also stated that the money could be used to concentrate on the first team.

Hence Hartley's summer shopping spree. Of those sixteen players signed, only four remained after January 2019 and just two - Paul Paton and Deimantas Petravicius - were first team regulars. If there was a strategy to the signings it remains unclear. On the face of it, it seems no more clever than throwing mud at a wall and hoping some of it stuck.

Hartley's tenure was over by the end of August. By that point Falkirk had lost at home to Montrose in the League Cup, toiled to a narrow win against Rangers Colts in the Challenge Cup and lost their first three games of the league season in increasingly hapless fashion. The last of those was a 3-0 drubbing at home to Queen of the South. Stephen Dobbie scored a hat-trick for the visitors, and might have had double that. The shot count after 90 minutes was an extraordinary 27-3 in favour of the Doonhamers. It was the sort of performance and result that gets managers sacked on its own...and so it was for Hartley.

To their credit, the powers that be identified their candidate to replace him soon enough. The trouble was that Ray McKinnon had taken the Morton job a few months earlier. That didn't put the club, or McKinnon himself, off though - to the fury of his current employers he walked out to take over at the Falkirk Stadium. Falkirk would be fined £40,000 by the SPFL as a result, as well as having to pay compensation to Morton. The history books will not show that it was worth it.


In mid-September a rather bullish Q&A with the chairman was published on the club website. "We have been in the Championships too long. Playoffs and finishing second are not good enough", it was stated. As for the current campaign, "the playoffs remain our aspiration".

At the time, Falkirk were bottom and were still to score a point. A few days earlier, in McKinnon's second game in charge, they had blown a 2-0 half time lead at Ayr United and lost 3-2, the winning goal coming when in a goalmouth scramble a clearance hit prostrate keeper Leo Fasan on the back and ricocheted into the net. Unfortunately, there was plenty of farce still to come.

By the end of September they did get off the mark with a win at Alloa, but whilst there were occasional signs of life - a combative draw with Ross County and a smash-and-grab win at Dunfermline - by the end of November they were still bottom. The Scottish Cup offered a distraction, but not a welcome one, as they were humiliated by local neighbours Stenhousemuir 4-2 in a stark example of how the players were neither good enough nor motivated enough. Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, striker Dennon Lewis reported that he was racially abused during the match by his own fans.

It won't have helped matters that McKinnon was never shy about the need to bring in new faces; the knowledge that most of the squad were unwanted would not have done morale much good. And so in January, with the club still bottom of the league, in came another twelve players. Most of the summer duds were punted, with some having been paid to go away even before then. One shudders to think how much it has cost the club to 'mutually consent' so many.

But the influx of new talent seemed to have done the trick. An eight match unbeaten run between January and March yielded sixteen precious points. Not only were they out of the bottom two, but they were only eight points off fourth with nine games left. Maybe September's predictions weren't so ridiculous after all?

Nah. They would win only twice more.


The unbeaten run came to an end at Ross County, but was followed up with three draws. The second of those, up in Inverness, was a 0-0 bore-draw where McKinnon, who had hardly been adventurous tactically since his arrival, sent his team out to frustrate rather than attack. Their only shot on target came in injury time. The plan was clearly to grind out results.

Next was a Tuesday night trip to Dumfries. With the match goalless after 90 minutes, Falkirk won a stoppage time penalty. Davis Keillor-Dunn converted it and raced towards the away support, sparking a pitch invasion which took a few minutes to clear. Keillor-Dunn was shown a second yellow card and dismissed. There was sufficient time added on that Queen of the South got a soft penalty of their own and nicked a draw, robbing the Bairns of two precious points. Queen of the South would finish the season ninth, above Falkirk on goal difference.

Then they went and lost at home to Alloa, despite dominating the second half with the score at 1-1. Alloa were winning games. So were Partick Thistle. By the time Falkirk starting doing so it was too late. Victory over Championship winners Ross County on final day wasn't enough. And so they'll drop into the third tier for the first time in 39 years.


It is easy to see how this happened. The board made poor managerial appointments in times of crisis. Those managers in turn recruited appallingly, looking for quick fixes to their crises. It seems like the panic button was pressed in the autumn of 2017 and the finger was never lifted.

And yet it would not be hard to see the Dunfermlines, the Partick Thistles, the Invernesses of Scottish football suffering similar fates. Being in a ten team league where ambitions are high and patience is low and money is tight means there is rarely if ever time for a blueprint for the future to be drawn up, let alone seen through. It's quite possible Falkirk will not be the last full-time club to meet this fate.

As for their fans, there is some solace to be found a little further along the M9. Livingston were relegated to League One in 2016. Two years later they completed back-to-back promotions, and this year they are a comfortable ninth in the Premiership. Maybe the only way is up?

 
Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

 

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