Gary Holt suffered a hat-trick of hurt as a player in the play-offs down south and believes Falkirk can now draw on their own disappointment to set up a shot at glory against Hibs.
Holt, who was yesterday named Championship manager of the month for April, missed out on promotion to the Premier League with Norwich City in 2002 via a luckless penalty shoot-out in a dramatic final against Birmingham City and was subsequently knocked out at the semi-final stage in promotion play-offs with Nottingham Forest and Wycombe Wanderers.
The former Kilmarnock and Scotland midfielder insists those blows have not tainted his view that the knockout climax to the season is to be warmly welcomed in Scottish football. Having steered the Bairns past Queen of the South to this evening’s semi -final first leg against Hamilton, the 41-year-old is adamant his players’ setbacks can drive them to the success he was denied.
In his first game in charge after taking over from Steven Pressley last season, Falkirk allowed a 3-0 half-time lead to slip against Hibs at Hampden before succumbing to a stunning Leigh Griffiths strike in extra time to be denied a Scottish Cup final berth. Just as he was able to learn from his own on-field letdowns, Holt believes his young team can use that bitter experience to progress past Hamilton and give themselves a chance for revenge.
He said: “The play-offs with Norwich in 2002 were especially cruel because it was the first year they had scrapped the golden goal rule – and we scored in the first minute of extra time. Luck didn’t shine on us in that respect but we were the better team over 120 minutes and in the penalties it wasn’t to be. It was a spectacle and it was a great game to be involved in.
“The other two play-offs were semi-finals, so not great experiences in terms of not getting through. But they were great experiences and that’s what you want. You want something to keep the buzz alive at the end of the season and it’s great that we have done that with Saturday’s performance to get through.
“You need the experience of it, you need to sample it. We’re fortunate because some of us will have played in cup semi-finals and cup finals. We’ve got big-match experience and we’ve got the hurt that goes with it. We’ve got hurt of the Scottish Cup semi-final and the players can hang on to that, they know how it feels.
“You need a wee bit of failure now and again to sample success the next time, because it means you know what it takes.
“I think it’s stood us in good stead this season because the young boys have come through the difficult times we’ve had.
“As a squad they’ve been excellent and hopefully we can finish it off.”
Falkirk will be forced to do things the hard way if they are to win a place in the Premiership. Having finished third, they were forced into extra time at the weekend before winning through against Queen of the South following two tight matches.
Holt described his squad as the “walking wounded” yesterday and expects to be forced into a number of changes against Hamilton, who have been able to rest for the past ten days. Hibs will also have had ten days of recovery before they face either of the Championship teams, and Holt insists the format, which means his team will have to play six times in a bid to reach the top flight, does not give his side a “fair chance”.
He added: “In some ways I can believe it’s taken so long to re- introduce the play-offs at the top of the Scottish game, because the Premiership teams don’t want to lose their place in the league.
“But we had to do something, we had to change something. Is it ideal? Probably not, for us. But it’s a bonus for us and it’s the enjoyment factor. Maybe the format will change as we go through the years because it doesn’t give ourselves, or Queen of the South had they got through, a fair chance, realistically, with squad size, injuries, suspensions. But we’re just glad to have a chance of playing for a massive prize.”
Hamilton boss Alex Neil reckons that handling pressure, as opposed to tiredness or rest, will be the key factor. He said: “You can look at the schedule two ways. Some people will say they will be tired after two games against Queen of the South in a week and I hope they are.
“You could say we are either fresh or rusty, but I do not think it’ll be a factor when the adrenalin kicks in. It is about who can handle the pressure and who can take their opportunities.
“We have performed against Falkirk this season and punished them. Our record this season of three wins and a draw against them is good but the games have been tough and they have good players. We will need to be at our best to get anything.”
Martin Canning and Darian MacKinnon return from bans and Stephen Hendrie has been passed fit, leaving Neil as the only absentee.