Craig Sibbald eyes Falkirk’s Premiership return

A terracing fan when Falkirk were relegated in 2010, Craig Sibbald is now part of their promotion bid.  Photograph: Michael Gillen

A terracing fan when Falkirk were relegated in 2010, Craig Sibbald is now part of their promotion bid. Photograph: Michael Gillen

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Craig Sibbald witnessed Falkirk’s relegation from the top-flight as a loyal supporter seven years ago and, as a star player, has been right at the heart of the heartache that has since dogged the club.

However, thoroughly “sick” of hard luck stories, he is determined to ensure the play-offs bring a change in fortunes this time round.

Now 21, Sibbald was already on the Bairns’ books in 2010, but still too callow to make the first-team debut that would follow the following year, aged 16. Instead, he watched on helplessly as his favourites were left distraught by a final-day draw with Kilmarnock that consigned them to the old First Division.

The name of the second tier has since been changed but Falkirk’s propensity to inflict misery on their fans has not altered much during their attempts to reverse that relegation. Three years ago, after seeing off Queen of the South, they were narrowly defeated in the play-off semi-finals by Hamilton Accies, who went on to reach the Premiership with their dramatic victory over Hibernian.

Last year, Peter Houston’s side inched even closer to play-off success after squeezing past Hibs at the penultimate stage, but could not build on a 1-0 first-leg victory over Kilmarnock in the final and Rugby Park witnessed another bitter Falkirk disappointment as they fell at the final hurdle yet again in a 4-1 aggregate reverse.

When they did not reach the play-offs, two seasons ago, it was the Scottish Cup final that dished out the sorrow as the Bairns pushed Inverness Caley Thistle to the limits before losing to a late winner in the Hampden sun. So near and yet so far on too many occasions as far as Sibbald is concerned.

“I’m sick of the hard-luck stories, like the Scottish Cup final and the play-offs,” he said as he looked forward to this week’s play-off semi-final matches against Dundee United. “Especially as a Falkirk fan, it’s hard to take. But we’ve got another chance of it this season, so hopefully we can go one better.

“We can definitely use the hurt of last season to spur us on. We’ve gained experience. Hopefully that helps us in the long run. It was tough to take, so the plan is to go one better this year and put it right.”

Sibbald is out of contract this summer and, despite previously talking openly of a desire to follow the likes of Jay Fulton, Stephen Kingsley and Blair Alston to “bigger things”, his future remains undecided. Having developed his talents from a young age, Falkirk will expect a six-figure sum in compensation should the midfielder seek pastures new.

There remains the possibility he could stay on for at least another season, however, and promotion and the prospect of Premiership football with his hometown club could be the deciding factor.

“I don’t know what’s happening, to be honest,” he added, with discussions on hold for now. “Everyone’s aspiration is to move on and play at a higher level and I’m no different, but firstly I would like to get Falkirk up in the Premiership and see how it goes from there.”

It is a return to the top flight that manager Houston believes would already have been secured if his team had shown the form that earned them the runners-up spot behind Rangers and ahead of Hibs in last season’s Championship. Second place was their fate again this term, but Sibbald agrees with his manager that it was a campaign of missed opportunities.

“We know ourselves we’ve not been performing to the levels of last season,” he added. “So, it is annoying because we know Hibs were there for the taking. Wee last-minute goals against us, or missing chances late on, if wasn’t for things like that we could have been a lot closer.

“It just wasn’t to be in the end, but the play-offs give us another chance to go up and hopefully we can do it.”

In a long, hard season in an ultra-competitive division, Falkirk limped over the line in second place but it was a finish that at least afforded them a few days off in preparation for the two-legged semi-final against United on Tuesday and Friday. After running out of steam against Kilmarnock 12 months ago, Sibbald is hopeful the lay-off proves beneficial.

“We were confident last year, but on the day it was roasting and the legs just gave way. We were knackered, basically,” he explained. “We had a good rest this week. The gaffer told us to get the feet up and get ready for Tuesday. Hopefully that helps us in the long run.”

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