KEVIN McAllister is a Falkirk legend, so popular in four spells with the club that he was voted their player of the millennium, but he is also a fan.
When he turns up for this Saturday’s William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibernian at Hampden Park, it will be on a supporters’ bus decked out in the dark blue of his local team.
The former winger enjoyed his three-and-a-half years with Hibs during the mid-1990s, when he and Michael O’Neill gave lie to the notion that Alex Miller, their manager, was a proponent only of dour, defensive football. He liked the Hibs supporters, and he liked the team, who might have won the League Cup shortly after his arrival had it not been for Ally McCoist’s late overhead kick.
But Falkirk is where he belongs. Now 50, he lives in the town, regards the club as his spiritual home, and will be rooting for them in Glasgow this weekend. What’s more, he fancies the Bairns’ chances against Hibs. “I’m more confident now than when the draw was made,” he says. “Hibs have put themselves under a lot of pressure by missing out on the top six. They are on a bad run of results, they are conceding a lot of goals, whereas Falkirk have won four out of their last five and are playing really well. As long as they are brave and express themselves at Hampden, they have a real chance.
“Everything was going so well for Hibs at the start of the season. They were top and second for periods, but that has fallen away and now the Scottish Cup is all they have left. If they get to the final, they can look back on a decent season, but if Falkirk beat them, it has to go down as a major disappointment.”
Despite negotiating a difficult path to the last four, Pat Fenlon, the Hibernian manager, would come under mounting pressure in the event of defeat. “Hearts, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock is a tough run and they have done well to get there, but the expectation level now shoots up,” says McAllister. “Out of the three clubs left, Hibs would have wanted to play Falkirk. Dropping out of the top six just adds to that pressure and the Falkirk players should take advantage of that.”
Taking advantage hasn’t always been Falkirk’s forte, as McAllister knows to his cost. Defeat by Kilmarnock in the 1997 Scottish Cup final felt bad enough, but losing to Hearts at the penultimate stage of the same competition less than a year later was even worse. When he entered the dressing-room at the end of that 1998 semi-final at Ibrox, he had champagne in his hand and tears in his eyes.
“Crunchie” was sensational that day. Alex Totten, the Falkirk manager, later described it as the best individual performance he had ever seen. Gary Naysmith, the Hearts full-back, had been given such a torrid time that Jim Jefferies, his furious manager, pinned him against the dressing-room wall at half-time.
But, when the dust settled, McAllister had only the man-of-the-match award to show for his efforts. His brilliant lob over Gilles Rousset, which levelled the scores with four minutes left, was quickly, and cruelly, followed by injury-time goals by Neil McCann and Stephane Adam.
“At the end of the day, it is the result that counts, and we got knocked out,” he says. “When we got to the final the year before, we were a First Division team and had the feeling of ‘this could be the only chance we get to play in a final’. So to get to the semi-final the following year with an incredible cup run, and lose the semi-final the way we did, was heartbreaking. That was worse for me than losing the final.”
A solitary goal by Paul Wright proved to be their undoing in 1997, when the victorious Kilmarnock team included Gary Holt, now in charge of Falkirk. Recently appointed as a successor to Steven Pressley, the new manager will take his bow at Hampden on Saturday.
“He ticks some of the boxes the club is looking for,” says McAllister. “He is someone to look after the young players and work with Alex Smith. The directors have obviously seen something special in Gary and I wish him all the best for Saturday. What an occasion for him. He has a team of good players who will pass and move. They have a real chance.”
McAllister, who had a spell in charge of Albion Rovers, now scouts for Leeds United, but he will not have come across many players who can do what he did. One of his best Scottish Cup memories was against Huntly in 1999, when he dribbled almost the length of the pitch to score for Falkirk in a third-round tie. “That was comical more than anything. When I was making my run up the park, Scott Crabbe was behind me, laughing all the way.” If a Falkirk player does the same on Saturday, don’t expect Hibs to see the funny side.