Two years ago Falkirk passed up on the chance to work their way back to the top tier of the Scottish game. They were young, they were inexperienced and they were carrying too many injuries. Having finished that season in third place in the Championship, they ran out of steam and after getting through the first play-off, against Queen of the South, they succumbed to Hamilton, who went on to gain promotion at the expense of Hibs.
This time around, they are buoyed by the belief that they have the legs and the nous to complete the journey. “I played both the play-off games two years ago – right back and centre half in different games because we were really struggling for numbers,” says Will Vaulks, who is the Ladbrokes Championship Player of the Month. “The two games before Hamilton we had Queens home and away and that takes a big toll, especially when you have a small squad. And we felt it. We were struggling going into that Hamilton game. We had lads playing with injuries and playing out of position.
“I was right back, I think [Stephen] Kingsley was centre half so we had a 5ft 10in centre half. We did well, we competed but we’d have struggled if we’d got past Hamilton. So we’ve the luxury this year of getting everyone ready.
“Looking back, I don’t think we could’ve done anything more. We were pretty inexperienced. We had injuries and a lack of players, so there was nothing more we could’ve done. We were playing 17, 18-year-olds in the team as well. Now we’re a lot more experienced, we’ve players who’ve been in important games. We all have now – we have taken ourselves to the Scottish Cup Final. So I don’t think we’re fazed by the occasions and we can just enjoy playing.”
Finishing second in the league this season means they have been able to rest while the Easter Road side and Raith Rovers tussled and an undetermined mental and physical toll is being exacted on those scrapping to avoid finishing second bottom of the Premiership. It gives Falkirk an advantage and while others have under-estimated them all term, they have always been pretty realistic and honest with the assessments. The fact they are in confident mood should concern those above and below them.
The fact that the spotlight has been on others, with Rangers and Hibs dominating the coverage throughout the campaign and Raith Rovers forcing their way to the fore with a run of results that took them into the play-offs in peak form, may have seemed like a slap in the face, with a few doubts cast and juicy comments exchanged, and that has simply fanned the Falkirk flames of ambition.
Motivated by what has been said as well as by their own internal set of targets and the faith they have in each other, Falkirk have been consistent, as well as doggedly determined, taking games into stoppage time to maximise points or stave off defeat, they have lost fewer games than anyone else in the division, including Mark Warburton’s champions.
“This was never spoken about at the start of the season. It was just to finish fourth because, to be honest, last season we masked a poor league campaign with a great Cup run.
“When you look back, the last eight to 10 games of the season we should’ve done a lot better. We should be finishing in the play-offs comfortably so the aim was to get fourth. We had St Mirren coming down and thought they’d be strong. Hibs and Rangers with big budgets and good players so fourth was definitely the aim and that didn’t change until not that long ago. I suppose it changed when Hibs had the three in hand and we said: ‘let’s just put the pressure on them. And we kind of did that in the end’.
“It’s all part of the game. I’m enjoying reading what everyone’s saying, it’s all fun and games. We massively want to make this happen and go up, especially after the disappointment of last season, when we were so close to something so great in the Scottish Cup [they lost the final to Inverness Caledonian Thistle]. To be the team that brings Falkirk back up to where we believe they belong would be massive.
“People can keep underestimating us because it suits us. We fancy ourselves against them. We’ll go battling head to head and see whoever comes out on top.”
They will enter the play-off fray on Tuesday and if they are to go all the way they will have to cope with four games in 12 days. On the back of last season’s Scottish Cup final appearance, it signals another exciting run-in to a long and demanding campaign. The cup final may have ended in misery but the quality of their display that day gave them a solid platform to build from, according to 22-year-old Vaulks.
“The way the [cup final] went, it actually gave us belief. Although you try not to think about it, because the more you think about it, the more you realise how close you were, it gave us inspiration. Inverness had finished third [in the Premiership] last year but we really pushed them and should have won the game in the end without mistakes leading to the winning goal. But it gave us the belief that if we play against a team like that, we can compete. And if we can get past the semi-finals, which we know we can, then I’m sure the boys will handle the occasion.”